How should we define "open access"?
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #64
August 4, 2003
by Peter Suber
(1) The most important element by far is that open-access literature is available online free of charge.  This is the element that catalyzed the open-access movement, and the element that defined "free online scholarship".  To this day, it's the only element mentioned when journalists don't have space for a full story.

(2) But price isn't the only barrier to access.  Price barriers obstruct the free flow of information, and make it less useful, but so do a dizzying array of licensing restrictions that I have called "permission barriers".  Most scientific research is still published behind both price and permission barriers.  Open-access archives and journals bypass them both.

There are two classic ways to eliminate permission barriers:  to put the work in the public domain and to obtain the copyright holder's consent for all the relevant scholarly uses --such as unrestricted reading, downloading, copying, sharing, storing, printing, searching, linking, and crawling.

Permission barriers are more difficult to discuss than price barriers.  First, there are many kinds of them, some arising from statute (copyright law), some from contracts (licenses), and some from hardware and software (DRM).  They are not like prices, which differ only in magnitude.  Second, their details are harder to discover and understand.  Third, different users in different times, places, institutions, and situations can face very different permission barriers for the same work.  Fourth, authors who deposit their articles in open-access archives bypass permission barriers even if they also publish the same articles in conventional journals protected by copyright, licenses, and DRM.  Finally, some rights may be retained by authors without interfering with open access, such as the right to block distribution of a mangled or misattributed copy of the work.  So permission barriers do not arise from retaining rights as such but only from retaining some rights rather than others.  For all these reasons, the literature on open access is rarely as clear and careful on permission barriers as it is on price barriers.  All definitions of open access say something about bypassing or removing permission barriers, although they use very different language.  Journalists who cover open-access issues would do us all a favor if they could describe permission barriers, and the damage they cause, with roughly the same clarity, detail, and fervor they use when describing price barriers.

My February 2003 article introducing the term "permission barriers" and giving many specific examples

(3) The major open-access initiatives differ on whether open access includes measures to assure long-term preservation.  For example, the definitions used by BMC and the Bethesda statement include this element, but the BOAI and PLoS definitions do not.

Taking steps to preserve open-access literature directly answers an objection often raised against open access.  This makes it both desirable and important for open-access initiatives to take steps to preserve their literature and to say so prominently.  The need for prominent mention often brings the mention right into the definition of "open access".  But none of this means that preservation is part of open access, merely that it is desirable.  Is preservation an essential part of openness or a separate essential?

On the one hand, the importance of preservation doesn't make it part of openness any more than the importance of clarity and truth make them part of openness. The major initiatives agree on the importance of providing peer review and high standards of quality, but they also agree that this doesn't make quality part of openness.

On the other hand, preservation might be part of the definition even for those who want to keep the emphasis on what it takes to achieve openness or to remove access barriers.  Preserving literature for the long term is part of enhancing its accessibility.  Technological obsolescence and file corruption are access barriers that preservation programs are designed to remove.

My preference is to make preservation a separate desideratum.   Openness is the name of one good thing and there are many good things.  We don't lose our motivation to pursue them all by admitting that they are distinct.  But by bundling them all under the concept of openness, we risk blurring or over-burdening our simple concept and we risk delaying progress by multiplying the conditions that our initiatives must meet.  Let's pursue openness and preservation in parallel but not as if they were inseparable.

(4) Similarly, the major definitions differ on whether depositing a work in an open-access archive or repository is part of the definition.  Again, the BMC and Bethesda definitions require deposit and the BOAI definition does not.  The earliest PLoS definition required deposit but its current definition does not.

I think the same initiatives that require preservation also require deposit because, in essence, they conceive deposit as one way to enhance preservation.  Archivists are more likely to take pains to assure the preservation of archives than authors or institutions are likely to preserve personal home pages.  Moreover, archives are independent of journals and likely to survive as journals change hands, change policies, and change fortunes.  Indeed, BMC insists on deposit in PubMed Central in part to reassure its authors and readers that its articles will outlive BMC if need be.

But open access through an archive is unnecessary for works that have open access through a journal.  In that sense, the deposit requirement is not essential for open access as such, even if it enhances the value of deposited works.

Let's make sure that all research articles and their preprints are deposited in open-access archives or repositories, regardless of their fate in journals.  But let's understand that we should do this because it's an effective means to the end, not because it defines the end.

(5) The newer definitions recognize one further element:  an explicit and conspicuous label that an open-access work is open access.  Readers should be told when a work is free of price and permission barriers.  They might be reading a copy forwarded from a friend and not know whether the publisher would like to charge for access.  They might want to forward a copy to a friend and not know whether this kind of redistribution is permitted.  When an article has no label, then conscientious users will seek permission for any copying that exceeds fair use.  But this kind of delay and detour, with non-use as the consequence of a non-answer, are just the kinds of obstacles that open access seeks to eliminate.  A good label will save users time and grief, prevent conscientious users from erring on the side of non-use, and eliminate a frustration that might nudge conscientious users into becoming less conscientious.

The Creative Commons is an excellent leader on this point.  Not only does it provide text and graphic labels for online literature, but it supports links from those labels to clear explanations of the rights waived and the rights retained by the author.  Moreover, it provides both a lay explanation and a bullet-proof lawyer's explanation.  Finally, it provides a machine-readable version of the license.  In principle, this will allow a search engine to give you a list of works that not only match your query, but that you know you can use in certain ways without further permission from the rightsholder.  I don't believe that any search engines yet take advantage of this feature, but I'd like to be corrected.

I confess that it took me a long time to realize the importance of good labels.  All my scholarly writings (except one book) are openly accessible on my web site.  But none of them says so.  Each has a copyright statement at the bottom, which links to a page explaining that I waive most of my rights and consent to what is now called open access.  But this liberating authorization is one click away from the text itself, one ergonomic hurdle too far.  I haven't had time to go back and add explicit labels or CC licenses to each work, although this is a task on my priority list for when I do have time.  If I were doing it all over again, I'd use CC licenses from the start, or supplement my copyright statement in the text with language like this:  "This is an open-access publication.  Some rights reserved."  Then I'd link to a second page with more detail.

The BMC definition requires an explicit label, at least for copies or excerpts distributed outside BMC channels.  The Bethesda definition requires an explicit label, at least on versions deposited in an archive.  The original PLoS definition did not require labels, but its current practice is simply to require a CC Attribution license, which includes the very useful human- and machine-readable label.

The presence of a work in an archive or journal known to provide open access is an implicit solution nearly equivalent to a label.  The BOAI FAQ relies on this solution.  Metatags or metadata offer another kind of implicit solution.  These are very desirable, but not sufficient, since conscientious users will still err on the side of non-use in the absence of explicit permission.

Creative Commons

My copyright page

BOAI FAQ on the implicit label arising from inclusion in an OA archive or journal

* There are other, lesser elements on which the definitions diverge.  For example, the BMC definition is the only one that specifies a standardized format, preferably XML, for open-access works.  The Bethesda definition is the only one to include an explicit right to make and distribute derivative works.  At the same time it's the only one to limit authors to "the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use".

All the definitions are meant to apply to peer-reviewed research articles and their preprints.  The BOAI public statement argues that these works form the core of the special body of literature that authors give to the world without expectation of payment.  The ARL's definition of "open access" picks up on this and becomes the only definition to specify the body of literature to which the definition applies.

ARL definition (last revised July 24, 2003; original date unclear)

* How important is uniformity about the definition?  There is already uniformity on the core concept:  removing price and permission barriers.  I don't sense any schismatic tendencies in the open-access movement like those that divided the open-source software movement.  We don't disagree, for example, that preservation and deposit are important, merely on whether they define open access or enhance the value of works that might already be openly accessible.  If the definitions ever differ in schismatic or confusing ways, then we may have to borrow the methods of our open-source colleagues to minimize the friction and confusion arising from those differences.  But so far, I just see an evolving concept, healthy flux, some boundary-testing on the possible elements, and some differences of accent in discussing the agreed-upon elements.

However, there are several reasons not to multiply the elements required by a definition.  First, it's easier to make the case for a simple concept than a complicated one.  And our concept really is simple, or it wouldn't have its present momentum or history of independent discovery.  Second, with every addition to the concept, we risk schism, especially if one faction wants to deny that another faction is providing "real open access" or is entitled to use the term.  Finally, the phrase is still fairly new (it was not common until the BOAI launched in February 2002) and it's vulnerable to dilution, stretching, misunderstanding, and redefinition.

* The four major definitions in alphabetical order:

Bethesda definition, June 20, 2003

BioMed Central (BMC) definition (from its Open Acces Charter), originally July 1, 2002

Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) definition, February 14, 2002

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) definition itself comes in different flavors.  I can date the PLoS itself but not these different definitions:
--The definition on its page on open access is identical to the BOAI definition.  Yet on the same page PLoS links to the Bethesda statement.
--The definition in  its FAQ refers readers to the PLoS license...
--and the PLoS license is now identical to the Creative Commons Attribution License.

* Postscript.  The value of open access lies primarily in widening access.  But despite that, it doesn't create universal access.  Even after we've removed price and permission barriers, there will be several barriers left to overcome before we reach truly universal access.  Here are four:

(1) Handicap access barriers:  most web sites are not yet as accessible to handicapped users as they could be.

(2) Language barriers:  most online literature is in English, or just one language, and machine translation is very weak.

(3) Filtering and censorship barriers:  more and more schools, employers, and governments want to limit what you can see.

(4) Connectivity barriers:  the digital divide keeps billions of people, including millions of serious scholars, offline.

We should definitely work to remove these four additional barriers.  But we shouldn't hold off using the term "open access" until we've succeeded.  Removing price and permission barriers is a significant plateau worth recognizing with a special name.


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