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.
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 a far 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 rights 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”.