Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, June 11, 2007

More on removing permission barriers

Peter Murray-Rust, “open access” is not good enough, A Scientist and the Web, June 10, 2007.  Excerpt:

I have ranted at regular intervals about the use of “Open Access” or often “open access” as a term implying more than it delivers. My current concern is that although there are are tens of thousands of theses described as “open access” I have only discovered 3 (and possibly another 15 today) which actually comply with the BOAI definition of Open Access.

The key point is is that unless a thesis (or any publication) explicitly carries a license (or possibly a site meta-license) actually stating that it is BOAI compliant, then I cannot re-use it. I shall use “OpenAccess” to denote BOAI-compliant in this post and “open access” to mean some undefined access which may only allow humans to read but not re-use the information...

By contrast...the term “Open Source” is completely self-explanatory within a large community....

So I believe that “open access” should be recast as “toll-free” - i.e. you do not have to pay for it but there are no other guarantees. We should restrict the use of “Open Access” to documents which explicitly carry licenses compliant with BOAI. (A weaker (and much more fragile approach) is that a site license applies to all content. The problem here is that documents then get decoupled from the site and their OpenAccess position is unknown.)

If the community wishes to continue to use “open access” to describe documents which do not comply with BOAI then I suggest the use of suffixes/qualifiers to clarify. For example:

  • “open access (CC-BY)” - explicitly carries CC-BY license
  • “open access (BOAI)” - author/site wishes to assert BOAI-nature of document(s) without specific license
  • “open access (FUZZY)” - fuzzy licence (or more commonly absence of licence) for document or site without any guarantee of anything other than human visibility at current time. Note that “Green” open access falls into this category. It might even be that we replace the word FUZZY by GREEN, though the first is more descriptive.


  • I agree with much but not all of what Peter MR says.  I'm responding at length because I've often had many of the same thoughts.
  • I'm the principal author of the BOAI definition of OA, and I still support it in full.  Whenever the occasion arises, I emphasize that OA removes both price and permission barriers, not just price barriers.  I also emphasize that the other major public definitions of OA (from Bethesda and Berlin) have similar requirements.
  • I don't agree that the term "open access" on its own, or apart from its public definitions, highlights the removal of price barriers and neglects the removal of permission barriers.  There are many ways to make content more widely accessible, or many digital freedoms, and the term "open access" on its own doesn't favor or disfavor any of them.  Even at the BOAI meeting we realized that the term was not self-explanatory and would need to be accompanied by a clear definition and education campaign. 
  • The same, BTW, is true for terms like "open content", "open source", and "free software".  If "open source" is better understood than "open access", it's because its precise definition has spread further, not because the term by itself is self-explanatory or because "open access" lacks a precise definition.
  • I do agree that many projects which remove price barriers alone, and not permission barriers, now call themselves OA.  I often call them OA myself.  This is only to say that the common use of the term has moved beyond than the strict definitions.  But this is not always regrettable.  For most users, removing price barriers alone solves the largest part of the problem with non-OA content, and projects that do so are significant successes worth celebrating.  By going beyond the BBB definition, the common use of the term has marked out a spectrum of free online content, ranging from that which removes no permission barriers (beyond those already removed by fair use) to that which removes all the permission barriers that might interfere with scholarship.   This is useful, for we often want to refer to that whole category, not just to the upper end.  When the context requires precision we can, and should, distinguish OA content from content which is merely free of charge.  But we don't always need this extra precision.
  • In other words:  Yes, most of us are now using the term "OA" in at least two ways, one strict and one loose, and yes, this can be confusing.  But first, this is the case with most technical terms (compare "evolution" and "momentum").  Second, when it's confusing, there are ways to speak more precisely.  Third, it would be at least as confusing to speak with this extra level of precision --distinguishing different ways of removing permission barriers from content that was already free of charge-- in every context.  (I'm not saying that Peter MR thought we should do the latter.)
  • One good way to be precise without introducing terms that might baffle our audience is to use a license.  Each of the CC licenses, for example, is clear in it own right and each removes a different set of permission barriers.  The same is true for the other OA-friendly licenses.  Like Peter MR, I encourage providers to remove permission barriers and to formalize this freedom with a license.  Even if we multiplied our technical terms, it will usually be more effective to point to a license than to a technical term when someone wonders exactly what we mean by OA for a given piece of work.

Update. See Peter MR's response to my response. We agree on every substantive issue here.