The message sparked a protracted discussion, and eventually led to the publication of a book called Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads: A Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing.
Today the Subversive Proposal is viewed as one of the seminal texts of the open access movement.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Subversive Proposal, I emailed Harnad nine questions yesterday. These questions are published below, with Harnad’s answers attached.
RP: Today is the 20th anniversary of the Subversive Proposal, a 496-word online message you posted to a mailing list on June 27th 1994 in which you called on researchers to make copies of all the papers they published in scholarly journals freely available on the Internet. The message sparked a heated online debate that later formed the basis of a book. What stimulated you to make that posting, and why do you think it attracted as much attention and disagreement as it did?
SH: Two things impelled me to do it:
(1) I had been editing a journal of open peer commentary — Behavioral and Brain Sciences — for 16 years at the time, and had always had the feeling that the print-on-paper medium was not the optimal medium for scholarly communication.
(2) I also had a strong belief in the creative power of interactive written dialogue, which became even stronger with the advent of the online medium. (I had dubbed this “scholarly skywriting.”)
For scholarly skywriting to work, it has to be accessible online. But although I knew about the price of subscriptions and the serials crisis at the time, that was not my primary motivation: open online access and interaction was (and still is). (I explained this more fully in your 2007 interview.)
As to attention: I’d have much been much happier if it had attracted action rather than just attention! The disagreement (which is always welcome, and can even be creative) was about the things we will go on to discuss further below: Green vs. Gold OA and, to a lesser extent, Gratis vs. Libre OA.
RP: Looking back, what contribution would you say the Subversive Proposal has made to the development of the OA movement, which in fact really only became a movement 7 years later (in 2001), when the term open access was adopted at the meeting where the Budapest Open Access Initiative was planned and articulated?
SH: I’m not sure. What I tried to urge all scholars to do in 1994 (self-archive their journal articles) some had already been doing for years (notably computer scientists in anonymous FTP archives since the 1980’s and physicists in arXiv since 1991), but I’m not aware that the self-archiving rate increased appreciably after my proposal. The proposal may have created a bit of a flurry, but it was a notional flurry: it was not heeded when it came to actual action (self-archiving).
At the 2001 BOAI meeting, self-archiving got a name — it became “BOAI OA Strategy I” (later dubbed “Green OA”).
“BOAI OA Strategy II” was OA journal publishing (“Gold OA”) and that option (though it too was mentioned in the Subversive Proposal as the likely end-game, after universal Green OA had prevailed) seems to have captured people’s imaginations more than Green OA did. In fact, across the years since 1990 authors were providing little OA at all, though of the minority who were providing OA, 2-3 times as many provided Green than Gold (and this is still true).
So, again, I don’t see much practical effect of the Subversive Proposal, either in 1994 or in the subsequent half-decade. Nor did Green OA begin to come into its own when I commissioned (and Rob Tansley created) the first free software for creating Green OA institutional repositories in 2000. BOAI helped; but the first real sign of progress came with the outcome of the 2004 UK Parliamentary Committee (which you phoned me in Barcelona to report, Richard!). The committee recommended following the proposal — by me and others — that UK research funders and universities should mandate (require) Green OA. (The Committee only recommended some experimental support for Gold OA.) After that, mandates began to grow (though still very slowly).