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.

At the moment, the big argument within the open-access movement is about Gold vs. Green open access. This time, we’ll look at what these terms mean, what they don’t mean, and some of the pros and cons of each.

What Gold and Green mean

Gold open access means that that publisher, which creates the final published form of the paper (i.e. usually a PDF) makes that final published form freely available.

Mostly that means they will host it on their own site, as for example BMC and PLOS (two Gold-OA publishers) do. In some cases, the papers may be hosted off-site: for example, eLife doesn’t host its own papers at the time of writing, but leaves them for PubMed Central to host. The key point is that the publisher is responsible for making the work freely available.

Well-behaved Gold-OA publishers will also do things like ensuring the papers are indexed in reference databases like PubMed, and that they are archived in schemes like LOCKSS and Portico.

Green open access means that the publisher locks the final published form of the paper behind a paywall, but the author takes steps to ensure that it’s freely available elsewhere.

The form of the paper that is made available varies: ideally it’s the final published form; sometimes it may be the final accepted manuscript, as it was when the author last touched it, before the publisher typeset it.

Often, Green OA uses institutional repositories (IRs). Another common option is a subject repository, of which the best known is arXiv — the vast preprint archive for maths, physics and astronomy, and occasionally palaeontology. Another (rather weak) form of Green OA is individual researcher collections on web-pages, such as Matt’s and mine. There may be other options, such as uploading the manuscript into a torrent space, and letting the world mirror it. The key point is that the author has to make this happen, rather than leaving it to the publisher.

Gold and Green are strategies

The first and most important thing to understand is that Gold OA and Green OA are not two different goals. They are two complementary strategies for reaching the same goal — which is open access.

A given downloaded paper is not a Gold OA paper, or a Green OA paper. It’s just an open access paper. It’s true, of course, that it reached its user by means of the Gold or Green routes. But by the time it’s arrived at its destination, the route it took is no more interesting than whether I took the M40 or M4 on my journey to London. Being in London is what matters.

This is why the loathing that some Green advocates seem to feel for Gold is so misplaced. We want to get to London. I may find the M40 route more convenient, but I really don’t want to get into a situation where I’m insulting those who chose to drive down the M4.

“Gold” does not mean “higher quality” or “more open”

In retrospect, it may be a bit of a shame that the Gold strategy was given the name Gold, which connotes quality, rather than a more value-neutral colour such as blue. You sometimes read people writing about Gold OA as though it’s the gold standard — the best OA you can get! But of course that’s not true.

The best OA you can get is OA that complies to the original definition of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI): that is, open access that permits all kinds of reuse as well as merely reading. You can achieve BOAI-compliant OA by the Gold or Green routes. And you can also take the Gold or Green routes to a paper that is merely “gratis access” — i.e. free to read, but with all other rights reserved. Whether the Gold or Green route was taken tells you nothing about what rights you have.

Advantages and disadvantages of Gold and Green

So why does it make any difference whether Gold or Green is used? Well, there are a few things:

  • Green requires more work from the author
  • Gold may require the author (or, more usually, her institution) to pay a publication fee.
  • Green may undermine publishers’ businesses. [Whether that is an advantage or disadvantage may be open to argument.]
  • In the common case where Green provides only the author’s final manuscript, there are two versions of the paper out there, which can cause confusion.
  • In that case, you don’t generally know the final published version’s page-numbers when working from the author’s manuscript, which means you can’t cite pages.
  • Fragmentation of papers across many Green repositories causes problems:
    • It can be hard to find a paper — there is no good cross-IR aggregator, and who wants to find the lead author’s institution’s IR on the way to discovering the paper?
    • Different IRs impose different bizarre and unnecessary reuse conditions, often preventing BOAI compliance.
    • Coverage of IRs is surprisingly patchy, and some very well-respected universities doesn’t seem to have one at all.

So the equation is a fairly complex one, and it’s perhaps not too surprising that some OA advocates prefer Gold on balance, while others feel that Green is better. (I may have my own opinions on this issue, but I’ll leave them out of this post.)

Green and Gold in open-access mandates

The best-known and most influential open-access mandate is that of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA, which requires that authors “Submit papers to PubMed Central (PMC) and approve public release”. This is is of course a form of Green OA, with a particular repository wired in.

The great majority of subsequent open-access mandates, whether from funding bodies or universities, have followed the NIH’s lead in requiring Green OA. Why? I don’t really know — mandating organisations don’t tend to discuss their reasoning. But one obviously appealing aspect of the Green route is that no-one has to think about money. In particular, funders don’t have to find more of it to pay for publication.

Against this backdrop it’s been encouraging to see that many of the more recent mandates are neutral on which route should be taken, caring only that open access is achieved. An obvious example is the new RCUK policy, which describes both Gold and Green (though without using either term).

[It’s true that RCUK has expressed a preference for Gold (and is providing money to make it possible), but they are clear that the choice is one for authors to make. The specific reasons given for preferring Gold in the linked post seem spurious, as I noted in my comment there, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate reasons.]

The Finch report strongly favours Gold

Finally a word on the Finch report, recently written to guide UK open-access policy. This report was produced by a committee containing researchers, librarians, administrators, and — crucially — publishers. Now publishers hate Green OA, because it doesn’t generate revenue for them. And it seems that the publisher lobby nobbled the otherwise excellent report by excising all mention of Green OA. My feeling is that expressing a preference for Gold would have been reasonable, but that pretending Green doesn’t exist was misleading and irresponsible.

The very unfortunate consequence of this has been that certain open access advocates who strongly favour the Green route have become very noisy with articles and comments that give the impression they’re opposed to open access — because the Gold emphasis of the Finch report (and the mild Gold preference of the RCUK policy) is different from the way they would like to do things. Folks, please stop this. It doesn’t help anyone, with the possible exception of Elsevier.

The real point here is that the world needs open access. How it gets open access is a very secondary issue in comparison.

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 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”.

Alexandre Fabre recently bought a French-language comic-book, Les Dinosaures by Plumeri and Bloz, and found this in the third volume:

The text reads:

Et parfois, les paléontologues font des announces très marrantes, comme le Brontomerus

… un sauropode aux jambes musclées … qui se défendrait en donnant des coups de pied!

“Aie! Un dino qui fait de kung-fu? Ils ne savent plus quoi inventer!”

Which I roughly translate as:

And sometimes, paleontologists make very funny announcements, such, as Brontomerus …

A sauropod with muscular legs … which defends itself by kicking!

“Ouch! A dino that does kung-fu? Whatever will they think of next!”

Many thanks to Alexandre for bringing it to my attention and scanning the relevant panels.

I think I figured out what the core, immutable quality of science is. It’s not formal publication, it’s not peer-review, it’s not “the scientific method” (whatever that means). It’s not replicability, it’s not properly citing sources, it’s not Popperian falsification. Underlying all those things is something more fundamental.


We all know that it’s good to be able to admit when you’ve been wrong about something. We all like to see that quality in others. We all like to think that we possess it ourselves — although, needless to say, in our case it never comes up. And it’s that last part that’s the rub. It goes so, so strongly against the grain for us to admit the possibility of error in our own work.

If science was just a matter of increasing the sum of human knowledge, it would suffice for us all to note our thoughts in blogs and have done. But because we’re not humble by nature — because we need to have humility formally imposed on us — we need the scaffolding of all those other things I mentioned:

  • Formal publication is important so that there’s a permanent record of what we claimed to have found. We can’t weasel out of an earlier mistake by claiming never to have made it.
  • Peer-review helps to prevent us from making mistakes in those formal publications. (That applies to informal pre-submission reviews as well as gatekeeper reviews.)
  • Whatever the scientific method means in detail, it’s a way to keep hypothesis, experiment, result and conclusion separate, so other scientists can clearly see what has been done, what is fact and what is opinion.
  • Replicability is providing enough information to enable others to determine on their own whether we’ve made mistakes.
  • Properly citing sources allows others to check that our assumptions are well supported.
  • Popperian falsification helps prevent us from having too much faith in our own ideas, by leaving them for the community to test.

All these standard parts of how science is done are about helping us to spot our own mistakes, giving opportunity for others to spot them, and providing a means for them to be corrected. (Of course, they have other benefits, too: for example, citing sources is important as a way of giving credit.)

We may not be humble people; but doing science forces us to act humbly.

One of our anatomy students this year, Tess MacFife, was inspired by the other Dr. Wedel’s skull lecture and produced this excellent anatomy-inspired jack-o-lantern:

Random passers-by probably thought this was some kind of bat/demon/Lovecraftian horror, but those in the know would recognize it as the human sphenoid bone in anterior view. Tess writes, “Full disclosure, I did print out a template and used toothpicks for the outline.” Here’s her template image, borrowed from here.

Any other anatomy- or paleontology-inspired Halloween geekery this year? Feel free to alert us in the comments. And well done, Tess!