...[A]s open access grows in prominence, so too has confusion about what open access means, particularly with regard to unrestricted use of content—which true open access allows. This confusion is being promulgated by journal publishers at the expense of authors and funding agencies wanting to support open access....
It seems we are finally witnessing a sea change in scientific communication. But with this welcome trend comes a more insidious one to obscure the true meaning of open access by confusing it with free access. As the original Bethesda definition makes clear...open access allows for unrestricted derivative use; free access does not. So the beauty of open-access publishing is not just that you can download and read an article for personal use. You can also redistribute it, make derivative copies of it...use it for educational purposes..., or, most importantly, for purposes that we can't yet envisage....
New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer demonstrated the distinction succinctly. He discusses a recent case where Wiley threatened legal action after a neuroscience graduate posted some figures from one of their journal articles on her blog (despite the fact that this is already permitted under terms of “fair dealing” or “fair use”). His response was:
“Compare Shelley's experience to what I'm about to do. I'm going to —shudder— reprint a diagram from a journal. Just lift it straight out. ….And what do I now hear from PLOS? Do I hear the grinding of lawyerly knives? No. I hear the blissful silence of Open Access, a slowly-spreading trend in the journal world. PLOS makes it very clear on their web site that “everything we publish is freely available online throughout the world, for you to read, download, copy, distribute, and use (with attribution) any way you wish.” No muss, no fuss....”
Other journals purporting to be “open access” or publishers with an “open-access option” are not all that they seem. Take, for example, the journal Molecular Systems Biology. This is listed as an open-access journal by the DOAJ and published by the Nature Publishing Group....The publisher charges a publication fee (like PLoS) and publishes their content under a Creative Commons license (also like PLoS). But that's where the similarities end. The Creative Commons license used is actually very different, despite the fact that at the bottom of the HTML version of any of their articles, there is a statement that the article is licensed under the “Attribution” license. However, when you click through to the full version, you are presented with the most restrictive Creative Commons license available, the “Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works” license. The article can still be downloaded and redistributed (for personal use), but permission from the publisher is required for any additional derivative use....What exactly have the authors—or, more likely, their funding agencies—agreed to pay for here? It is certainly not open access as defined by the Bethesda Statement....
[PS: Here omitting a sidebar on five journals and their licenses.]
Some journals do not claim to be fully open access but provide an “open-access option” that permits articles to be deposited in PMC and thus conforms to the minimum guidelines set by, e.g., the Wellcome Trust. But confusion abounds here as well....
Does the distinction between free and open access really matter if anyone can read the article for free? Isn't open access just about making the literature available? Well, yes and no. Free access is certainly important, but it's only the starting point. At least of equal importance is the potential for innovation. We don't know yet what innovation means with regards to the full text of an article—who could have predicted the impact GenBank would have or the uses that sequences are now being put to? As one colleague put it, free access is like giving a child a Lego car and telling her that she can look at it, perhaps touch it, but certainly not take it apart and make an airplane from it. The full potential of the work cannot be realized.
What's worrying is that there are already examples of publishers restricting use of their “free-access” articles, even in international repositories. For example, some of the publishers that currently allow their articles to be deposited in the US PMC will not allow those same articles to be mirrored and made available from the UK site (a list of these journals can be found [here]). It's hard to understand the reasoning for this limitation—after all, the articles are freely available from the US site....
It is now time for all publishers to tighten the definition and application of open access and be clearer about the uses and restrictions applied to their articles. Open access is a term that should only be used when the license permits both free access and unrestricted derivative use (and gives appropriate attribution). Authors and funders need to be much more aware of the small print before inadvertently signing away their rights and those of their readers and, even worse, paying good money for the privilege.
Perhaps the real key to establishing a broad consensus around the meaning of open access will be the development of resources that demonstrate the potential of unrestricted reuse of the literature—the “Lego factor.” If certain work is not included in these resources because of restrictive license agreements, authors will probably pay much closer attention to the claim that a publisher is “open access.” Enlightened self-interest can be a powerful force.
Peter Suber at 10/16/2007 10:59:00 AM.
The open access movement:
Putting peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly literature
on the internet. Making it available free of charge and
free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.
Removing the barriers to serious research.