Tutorial 19a: Open Access definitions and clarifications, part 1: what actually is Open Access?

November 15, 2012

I’m going to keep this free of advocacy. Hopefully everything I say here will be uncontroversial, because all I am doing is surveying definitions and clarifying distinctions. I’ll save my opinions for later articles (not that there is any secret about them).

Open access (or OA)

It may seem a bit surprising to have to define “open access” when we’ve all been talking about about constantly for a year. But one of the biggest issues that derails constructive discussion of the move to OA is that the term is used in different ways by different groups.

The term “open access” was coined in December 2001 by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which gave the following very explicit definition:

By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

Note, then that, open access as originally defined means much more than the ability to freely read a paper on the Internet, but also allows much wider range of activities — including all forms of redistribution, repurposing and content-mining.

Of course it’s also a useful thing when an article is made available with fewer rights — typically only the right to view an article on the Internet, or sometimes to download a personal copy or make a printout. The right to do these things is valuable, and needs a name. Unfortunately, the name it’s often been given is “open access”, obscuring the important distinction between true open access and the more restrictive form of access-to-read.

This confusion is a very bad thing. Why? Well, first of all, because we’re scientists and we care about what terms mean. If I say “dinosaur” you know that I mean “descendant of the most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon“, and that I am not going to suddenly start talking as though Dimetrodon or Sarcosuchus were a dinosaur. In just the same way, if I say “open access”, you need to know what I’m talking about.

Second, there are big practical implications. The one that’s in the public eye at the moment is text-mining — having computers, rather than humans, read papers and extract the raw facts from them. When articles are open access in the original sense of the term, there is no ambiguity about whether you’re allowed to text-mine them or not. When they are “open access” only in the more limited sense, you may or may not have the right you want. Often you can’t even tell, and the best you can hope for is that you’ll emerge on the other side of long, complex negotiations with permission. True open access has other important implications, such as availability to be incorporated into Wikipedia.

BOAI, BBB, “full open access”, @ccess

To be more explicit about what particular rights readers are given regarding an open-access article, several terms have been used.

  • The one I like best is BOAI-compliant, which refers explicitly back to the Budapest initiative (and has the advantage of using an acronym that can’t be confused with anything else).
  • You might also see BBB, which stands for Budapest/Berlin/Bethesda, the names of three very similar open-access declarations.
  • You occasionally even see the redundant BOAI/BBB. Please don’t.
  • Phrases such as “full open access” and “true open access” are sometimes used, but they don’t help because they are just as prone to abuse as unadorned “open access”.
  • Finally, the @ccess group started to use the term @ccess to refer to BOAI compliance. Although I am part of the @ccess group, I don’t think that adding yet another term has helped (and I am pleased to see that they seem to have dropped that usage).

So the unfortunate consequence of the unfortunate broadening of the meaning of “open access” has been the coining of four or five different terms all intended to indicate what was originally meant by the original term. Very unhelpful.

Gratis vs. libre

The most deliberate attempt to clarify exactly what degree of freedom is meant by “open access” was in a 2008 memo by Peter Suber, with input from Stevan Harnad. It defined the terms “gratis OS” and “libre OS”, to mean “free as in beer” and “free as in speech” respectively. That is, “gratis OA” means only the removal of price barriers, and says nothing about permissions.

So Elsevier’s “sponsored articles” could be described as “gratis OA”.

Unfortunately (and I seem to be using that word a lot!) the usually reliable Peter Suber completely fumbled the ball in the definition of “libre OA”:

I’ve decided to use the term “gratis OA” for the removal of price barriers alone and “libre OA” for the removal of price and at least some permission barriers. [...] There is more than one kind of permission barrier to remove. Therefore, there is more than one kind or degree of libre OA.

This means that the term “libre OA” is completely useless. It tells you literally nothing about what you can do. Can you republish a libre OA article? Can you text-mine it? Can you use figures from it in your own work? You can’t tell. You may be able to do any or all of these; but the fact that the article is libre OA doesn’t tell you that.

A publisher could make an article free-to-read and add the stipulation that you’re allowed to reuse portions of it in your own work provided that your work is printed on sheets of pure diamond using ink made from snow-leopard foreskins. And that wholly useless concession towards reuse would suffice to make the article “libre OA” under the Suber/Harnar definition.

Conclusion: recommendations on terminology

  • Use “open access” (or OA) when talking in general terms, but be aware that in practice its meaning is vaguer than when originally defined
  • When more precision is needed, use “BOAI-compliant” to mean open access as originally defined. Avoid “BBB”, “full open access” and other such alternatives.
  • It’s fine to use “gratis OA” to convey that something is free to read but offers no further permissions. But:
  • Do not use “libre OA” because it’s meaningless.

In short, the only terms you need to use are “open access”, “BOAI-compliant” and maybe “gratis OA”.

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14 Responses to “Tutorial 19a: Open Access definitions and clarifications, part 1: what actually is Open Access?”


  1. What part of gratis OA is open?

    In my mind it should be ‘gratis A’ or ‘gratis access’ or ‘free access’ to distinguish that it is free (gratis) but not open.

    Good idea anyhow, I’m sure this will be instructive for many. Perhaps you could also do a similar post to explain ‘Green’ ‘Gold’ (and not that I support it’s usage) ‘Platinum’ OA?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    That is an excellent point, Ross: “Gratis Access” would be a more accurate descriptive term than “Gratis OA”. Still, we’re stuck with the latter, and I am not too unhappy about that: at least it have exactly one meaning, so it’s nice and clear. My main burden is that the wholly useless term “Libre OA” be discarded.

    Yes, a Green-and-Gold post is slated to be part 2 of this tutorial.


  3. [...] Last time, we looked at what the term “open access” actually means. We noted that its been widely abused, so that when you need to be specific about the full meaning you need to say “BOAI-compliant”; we recognised that much of what is described as OA is really only “gratis OA”, or as Ross Mounce called it, “gratis access”; and we noted that the term “libre open access” is literally meaningless and should be avoided. [...]

  4. Peter Suber Says:

    Hi Mike. For my most recent response to the objection you raise here, see Postscript 2 to my article, “The rise of libre open access” [ http://goo.gl/LCrTO ], in the June 2012 issue of my newsletter. If the response weren’t nine paragraphs long, I’d re-post it here.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for this, Peter. The key of your argument I think comes towards the end when you write:

    I don’t think “libre” is a bad choice for “more free than gratis”. If you asked 100 randomly picked members of the FLOSS community for a term that meant “more free than gratis”, without priming the pump, I’d bet that most would offer “libre”.

    That is true as far as it goes. But it’s also true that if you asked the same 100 people for the meaning of the term “libre”, none of them would say “more free than gratis in some or any sense”. They would all give you a definition concerned with re-use — one very much in the spirit of the BOAI definition of open access, in fact.

    So we now have the situation where “libre” in open access means (A) almost anything; that is to say nothing; and (B) something different from what it means in all other areas of free endeavour. That’s why I simply don’t use the term myself, and advise others not to.

    Happily, as you point out, we have an alternative — clumsy, but explicit:

    What’s the best way to refer to a specific type of [more-free-than-gratis] OA? With a license. We’ll never have unambiguous, widely-understood technical terms for every useful variation on the theme. But we’re very likely to have clear, named licenses for every useful variation on the theme.

    And that is why I recommend the explicit term “BOAI-compliant” (which, OK, is not exactly a licence, but it’s similar in spirit).


  6. [...] for sticking with this series. In part 1, we looked at what open access means, and what terms to use in describing it. In part 2, we [...]


  7. [...] The point is, this falls short of the original meaning of “open access”, and makes Elsevier’s “open access” journals unacceptable venues for work funded [...]


  8. [...] Mike Taylor has an excellent set of tutorials explaining terms and concepts in Open Access starting here. [...]


  9. [...] Mike Taylor’s excellent posts over at SVPOW for [...]


  10. [...] about. But if we allow Sue Joshua’s confusion to spread, the term will soon become debased just as “open access” has. I was surprised to see in today’s Twitter stream that a couple of people who I expected to [...]


  11. [...] no intrinsic reason why Green OA should mean non-open licences and Gold OA should mean truly open (BOAI-compliant) open access. And yet history has brought us to a point where is often how things are. For example, [...]


  12. […] what they, and the people whose money they’re spending, actually want: immediate low-cost BOAI-compliant OA. No delays, no ifs, buts, maybes. As always, researchers who don’t like the […]


  13. […] excellent that there is an option to make the Gold articles true, BOAI-compliant open access by using the CC By […]


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