Thursday, September 04, 2014

Achieving True Open Access Ain’t Easy

In December of 2001, a number of people who wanted to increase the efficacy and usefulness of scholarly communication, particularly research results published in the peer-reviewed journal literature, came together in Budapest. Quickly, a consensus emerged as to what that would mean:
Peer-reviewed journal articles should be freely available on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

We called it “Open Access”, and in February of 2002 the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) statement was published. It is fair to say that we (I was one of them) probably underestimated the difficulty of reaching the goal we set ourselves. It was – and still is – very difficult.

Shortly after, in December of 2002, the CC-BY (Creative Commons Attribution) licence was publicly released, which captured the letter and spirit of the BOAI notion of Open Access very well. For a while, Open Access and CC-BY were, to all intents and purposes, synonymous.

Apart from stating a goal, we also came up with two strategies to achieve it (later called ‘green’ and ‘gold’, respectively):
  • Self-archiving, by the author(s), in open electronic archives or repositories, manuscript versions of articles (to be) published in traditional subscription journals – later called the ‘green’ road;
  • Publishing ‘born-open-access’ articles in journals set up to provide open access to the formally published version at the point of publication – later called the ‘gold’ road.

The strategies were straightforward, it seemed. That proved to be an illusion. Strategy one, self-archiving (‘green’), was based on the idea that authors’ manuscripts, even after they had been peer-reviewed and accepted by subscription journals, were covered by the authors’ copyright and therefore they could do with them what they wanted, including posting the manuscripts in open repositories. Of course, that was correct, up until the moment that authors were transferring the copyright to any of their articles to the publishers. Yet, many publishers (reluctantly) allowed this practice, as they had allowed it for a long time already in areas such as physics, where a long-standing habit of preprint publication existed ( that didn’t appear to harm their subscriptions, and the conviction that the open repository landscape would be chaotic, deposit as well as access cumbersome, and repositories would contain all manner of content with all manner of access restrictions mixed in with open access material, providing an incentive for institutional and corporate users of the journals to stick with their subscriptions. That situation has changed very little. Although it has gradually become easier to find a freely accessible version of many an article, subscription levels have, on the whole, held up. And freely accessible ‘green’ articles are often not covered by a CC-BY licence and thus not freely reusable in the way the BOAI intended. When copyright has been transferred to the publisher, the author cannot subsequently attach a CC-BY licence to the version deposited in an open repository. Were that possible, and habitually done, ‘green’ might be true Open Access. As it is, ‘green’ articles are free to read (gratis access), but rarely free to reuse.

But also strategy two didn’t turn out to be straightforward. The thought was that the only difficulty to overcome was the necessary cost. Some journals are being kept afloat by subsidies, and many funding agencies allow ‘article processing charges’ (APCs) to be paid out of grants, within reason. So seemingly the cost hurdle could largely be taken, except for unfunded, impecunious authors, to whom many journals offer APC waivers. Open Access, i.e. articles published with a CC-BY licence, would result. That straightforwardness proved an illusion, too. The term Open Access is not an officially standardized one, and various publishers have started to call articles Open Access even though restrictions apply that go beyond CC-BY, such as non-commercial clauses (NC). Yet they nonetheless require author-side payment of APCs. Some even require ‘basic’ APCs for restricted access, and APC top-ups for true Open Access CC-BY licences. NC clauses potentially give the publisher the opportunity to exclusively exploit the article further (e.g. reprints) and realize more income than just the APC. I say ‘potentially’, because the sale of reprints is a commercial activity, forbidden by NC, unless copyright has been transferred to the publisher (in which case commercial exploitation is the publisher’s right) or there is an exclusive licence in place whereby the author-copyright-holder gives the publisher the right to do so. An NC clause means, in countries like Germany for instance, that the article in question cannot be used for educational purposes unless explicit permission is obtained, which makes the hurdle, in those circumstances, practically identical to the “all rights reserved” of plain copyright. The upshot is that ‘gold’ is also not always Open Access in the way the BOAI intended.

Since Open Access has become an ambiguous term, you cannot trust the label to mean what you think it does, and certainly not that it allows you to reuse the article. Only CC-BY does that (and CC-zero, which does away with attribution as well – suitable and appropriate for data).

Where do we go from here?

FFAR, I would hope. For data, the concept of FAIR is being proposed (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable). For journal literature, ‘interoperable’ may not be a useful notion, so I’d like to modify the idea to Findable, Freely Accessible and Reusable.

How? Well, ‘gold’ publication with CC-BY is a good way to achieve it, but there remains the hurdle of APCs. The International Council for Science, ICSU, has recently issued a report, in which they advocate the following goals for Open Access:
  • free of financial barriers for any researcher to contribute to;
  • free of financial barriers for any user to access immediately on publication; 
  • made available without restriction on reuse for any purpose, subject to proper attribution;
  • quality-assured and published in a timely manner; and
  • archived and made available in perpetuity.

1 and 2 mean that the cost of 4 and 5 need to be carried by other parties than the user or author. For authors funded by agencies who support Open Access and are willing to bear the APC costs, there is no barrier, but of course, not every author is.

There is no easy way out of this. But it’s not impossible, in principle. However, ingrained deep conservatism of the scholarly community, and particularly scholarly officialdom, is in the way. (You’d think that ‘pushing the envelope’ is endemic to science, but in reality it is applied to knowledge, not to communicating that knowledge). Imagine the following scenario:
  • The authors arrange for peers they trust to review their articles, and openly endorse their article as worthy of publication;
  • Authors publish their article, properly formatted (I’m sure services would spring up for those who’d rather not do that themselves) and accompanied by the open endorsements on one of the many free (blog) platforms available, under a CC-BY licence.

Of course, permanency and archiving in perpetuity is not guaranteed, but that used to be the responsibility of libraries in the print era, and they might wish to take that responsibility again for electronic literature. Central repositories like arXiv, bioRχiv, PubMedCentral, etc. could do that, too.

I’m sure someone could come up with modifications to this scenario that would make it more practicable, technically robust, and such. But the main hurdle to take is academic officialdom, in particular the Impact Factor counters, who would have to accept this kind of publication for career and funding purposes.

Achieving true Open Access ain’t easy. So much is clear.

Jan Velterop


  1. Great post. I do wish you would blog on a more regular basis but am guilty of the same 'crime' myself.

  2. Very nice post, Jan. 100% agree. I like to believe that at PeerJ we're doing exactly as you propose - high quality, robust peer-review, CC-BY true Open Access, respect within the community, indexed in all the right places, archived for permanency, and most importantly inexpensive. Throw in the free to publish preprint venue and then you have everything in your proposal. Combining all of those is NOT easy and doesn't happen overnight.

  3. Thank you so much for providing a factual & unmelodramatic post