Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Removing permission barriers for translation, mining, and more

Gavin Baker, WHO’s journal has backwards approach to open access, Gavin Baker, September 4, 2007.  Excerpt:

The World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations, is ostensibly an organization dedicated to the public interest. The fourth point of the WHO agenda is “harnessing research, information and evidence”. In support of these goals, the agency publishes a scientific journal, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization....

The Bulletin is no scientific backwater; it’s a relatively influential journal:

  • Eigenfactor: Ranks 14th out of 119 journals in the field (2005)
  • Article Influence: Ranks 11th by out of 119 journals in the field (2005)
  • Impact factor: Ranks 6th out of 89 journals in the field (2006 – Journal Citation Reports)

As the publication of an organization dedicated to advancing human health, the Bulletin should strive for the widest-possible distribution of its articles, and facilitate any responsible scientific re-use of its contents....The Bulletin gets one major point right:

In keeping with its mission statement, the peer-reviewed monthly maintains an open-access policy so that the full contents of the journal and its archives are available online free of charge.
(from “About the Bulletin”)

Another point in the Bulletin’s favor: the full text of articles is available in both HTML and PDF formats. This increases the “findability” of Bulletin content by search engines such as Google. It may also improve accessibility to handicapped users and to users of low-powered PCs (you might be able to view a Web site on a mobile phone, but you probably can’t view a PDF)....

The Bulletin is published in English, with article abstracts and MeSH descriptors of main articles translated into Arabic, French and Spanish. This is not a complete solution to overcome language barriers, but it is a good start. (No journal has the resources to translate its content into every human language, or even the six official languages of the UN.)

This is where things start to go downhill.

If the Bulletin wants to facilitate solutions to overcome language barriers, it should grant users the right to freely make translations of articles. The Public Library of Science journals and others do this by adopting Creative Commons licenses that permit derivative works. In fact, PLoS maintains a list of translations of its articles, enabled by the CC Attribution license....

Translation (to overcome language barriers) is not the only beneficial use enabled by open licensing. As I note in my post at Terra Incognita (forthcoming), removing permission barriers also opens possibilities such as summary, annotation and commentary. Such uses overcome what might be called “specialization barriers”: enabling non-specialists to better understand the content. This is particularly beneficial in the field of public health, since it permits the public to better understand risks and how to protect themselves. However, such uses are beneficial even for specialists, because they lower barriers and open new opportunities, which supports the advancement of science.

Another use which supports the advancement of science is computer-facilitated research, e.g. data mining....

As icing on the cake, the Bulletin adheres to the Ingelfinger rule....

It’s time for the Bulletin to amend its policies: to reflect the realities of research in the 21st century, and to maximize the WHO’s investment in human health.


  • This is a good argument for full OA that removes permission barriers in addition to price barriers.  But the benefits go even further than the freedom to translate and mine.  Removing permission barriers also gives users the freedom to quote long excerpts (in blogs, online discussions, or formal publications), to print full-text copies, to email copies to students or colleagues, to distribute copies on CDs in bandwidth-poor parts of the world, to make an audio recording of the text, to distribute a semantically-tagged or other enhanced version of the text, to archive copies for long-term preservation without further payment or permission, and to migrate copies to new formats and media to keep the text readable as technology changes.
  • I like the term “specialization barriers” and certainly agree we should try to remove them.  But I don’t believe that even all-rights-reserved copyright blocks summary, annotation, and commentary, at least not unless the commentary includes a full-text copy.