Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Strong and weak OA

The term "open access" is now widely used in at least two senses.  For some, "OA" literature is digital, online, and free of charge.  It removes price barriers but not permission barriers.  For others, "OA" literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of unnecessary copyright and licensing restrictions.  It removes both price barriers and permission barriers.  It allows reuse rights which exceed fair use. 

There are two good reasons why our central term became ambiguous.  Most of our success stories deliver OA in the first sense, while the major public statements from Budapest, Bethesda, and Berlin (together, the BBB definition of OA) describe OA in the second sense. 

As you know, Stevan Harnad and I have differed about which sense of the term to prefer --he favoring the first and I the second.  What you may not know is that he and I agree on nearly all questions of substance and strategy, and that these differences were mostly about the label.  While it may seem that we were at an impasse about the label, we have in fact agreed on a solution which may please everyone.  At least it pleases us. 

We have agreed to use the term "weak OA" for the removal of price barriers alone and "strong OA" for the removal of both price and permission barriers.  To me, the new terms are a distinct improvement upon the previous state of ambiguity because they label one of those species weak and the other strong.  To Stevan, the new terms are an improvement because they make clear that weak OA is still a kind of OA.

On this new terminology, the BBB definition describes one kind of strong OA.  A typical funder or university mandate provides weak OA.  Many OA journals provide strong OA, but many others provide weak OA.

Stevan and I agree that weak OA is a necessary but not sufficient condition of strong OA.  We agree that weak OA is often attainable in circumstances when strong OA is not attainable.  We agree that weak OA should not be delayed until we can achieve strong OA. We agree that strong OA is a desirable goal above and beyond weak OA.  We agree that the desirability of strong OA is a reason to keep working after attaining weak OA, but not a reason to disparage the difficulties or the significance of weak OA.  We agree that the BBB definition of OA does not need to be revised.

We agree that there is more than one kind of permission barrier to remove, and therefore that there is more than one kind or degree of strong OA. 

We agree that the green/gold distinction refers to venues (repositories and journals), not rights.  Green OA can be strong or weak, but is usually weak.  Gold OA can be strong or weak, but is also usually weak. 

I've often wanted short, clear terms for what I'm now going to call weak and strong OA.  But I also wanted a third term.  In my blog and newsletter I often need a term which means "weak or strong OA, we don't know which yet".  For example, a press release may announce a new free online journal, digital library, or database, without making clear what kind of reuse rights it allows.  Or a new journal will launch which makes its articles freely available but says nothing at all about its access policy.  I will simply call them "OA".  I'll specify that they are strong or weak OA only after I learn enough to do so.

Stevan and I agree in regretting the current, confusing ambiguity of the term, and we agree that the weak/strong terminology turns this ambiguity to advantage by attaching labels to the two most common uses in circulation.  I find the new terms an especially promising solution because they dispel confusion without requiring us to buck the tide of usage, which would be futile, or revise the BBB definition, which would be undesirable.

Postscript.  Stevan and I were going to write up separate accounts of this agreement and blog them simultaneously.  But when he saw my draft, he decided to blog it verbatim without writing his own.  That's agreement!

Update.  Stevan's version is now online.

Update.  Some questions and comments prompt me to add this point of clarification.  As I said in the original post, "there is more than one kind of permission barrier to remove, and therefore...there is more than one kind or degree of strong OA."  BBB OA is definitely strong OA, but not all strong OA is BBB OA. 

As soon as we move beyond the removal of price barriers to the removal of permission barriers, we enter the range of strong OA.  Hence, an article with a CC-NC license is strong OA because it allows some copying and redistribution beyond fair use (even if it doesn't allow all copying and redistribution).  My own preference is still for the CC-BY license, but we shouldn't speak as if CC-NC were not strong OA or as if there were just one kind of strong OA.

Update. Stevan and I now agree on one further point: we picked infelicitous terms ("weak" and "strong" OA) for describing this fundamental and widely-recognized distinction. We're not using them while we look for better ones.

Update (8/2/08). I've now made a personal and provisional decision to use "gratis/libre" in place of "weak/strong". For more detail, see my article in the August 2008 SOAN.