I publish, therefore I am

Illustration of a scholar from The arte or crafte to lyve well and to dye well, printed 1505, now on display in the South Quire Aisle, St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/archives/blog/?tag=south-quire-aisle

Illustration of a scholar from The arte or crafte to lyve well and to dye well, printed 1505, now on display in the South Quire Aisle, St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/archives/blog/?tag=south-quire-aisle

Open access here, open access there, open access everywhere. Google Scholar will return over 3 million hits if ‘open access’ is used as a search input, with the majority of papers referring to the topic covered in this blog.

So what is open access?

I ‘ll try my best to give as straightforward an answer as possible to what can be a rather complicated looking topic from the outside

First, a semantic note. Although ‘open access’ is often used a a noun, it is in fact actually an adjective. Specifically, it is a qualifier to describe a certain type of academic publication. Rather than asking ‘what is open access?‘, the opening question should be transformed into ‘what are open access publications?‘. Used in this sense, there is a straightforward answer:

Open access publications are publications made by academics that you, as either a generic or a specially interested academic reader, can access freely on the Internet any time you want and no matter where you are located.

Of course, this is  a rather informal way to describe open access (OA from here onwards) and other more prolix and careful definitions exist. An important summary definition of ‘open access’  is found in the The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, considered one of the seminal documents of the ‘open access movement‘ (more on this later). You can read the declaration and the technicalities through the hyperlink above, but the basic points it puts forth are:

  1. That following the ethos of what good academic practices ought to be like and in response to advances in technology (specifically, the Internet),  scholars everywhere can and should make their publications universally available to everyone without cost barriers.
  2. That whatever academics publish should be (re)usable by everyone so long as they give proper credit to the authors and that the authors should have a say as to how their work can be reused (although ideally they should set no restrictions).
  3. That academic, public and government organisations should help guarantee that the publications made ‘open’ be hosted in stable and reputable outlets.

There are two other foundational documents of historic interest that define open access in the same spirit, with some subtle differences: the Budapest Open Access Initiative  (where the term OA was first used) and the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing. In a more recent and very friendly book that you should read if you are interested in OA, philosopher Peter Suber gives perhaps the most succinct definition:

Open access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

In a later section of that book Suber also goes to great lengths to point out what OA is not in order to “dispel a cloud of objections and misunderstandings”. According to Suber, OA is not:

  1. An attempt to bypass peer-review.
  2. An attempt to reform, violate, or abolish copyright.
  3. An attempt to deprive royalty-earning authors from income.
  4. An attempt to deny the reality of costs.
  5. An attempt to reduce authors’ rights over their work.
  6. An attempt to reduce academic freedom.
  7. An attempt to relax rules against plagiarism.
  8. An attempt to punish or undermine conventional publishers.
  9. An attempt to boycott any kind of literature or publisher.
  10. Primarily an attempt to bring access to lay readers.
  11. OA isn’t universal access (that is, it focuses specifically on removing cost barriers to readers but ignores other sort of barriers that may come into play when trying to access publications).

Why does Suber go through the effort to so keenly set out what OA ‘is not’? Because in a way, ‘open access’ is some of the above things. In what way? In that discussions about OA, which have been brewing up since the Internet became a ubiquitous tool in both everyday life and in academia, have consistently hovered around these topics. In fact, if one looks at the prehistory of OA when the Internet was still a niche technology for most laypeople, the open distribution of scholarly work through Public FTP was already being posited as a path to subvert traditional paper publishing outlets.

In this same line of ‘subversive’ thinking, some academics are now seriously reconsidering whether pre-publication blind peer-review is the best means to certify the quality of academic publications; or among the more radical ones, whether it is useful at all, or even a hinderance to academic work.

On another front, discussions about copyright amongst academics spurred by OA usually start from the point of view that some form of copyright is both necessary and useful (usually set out in terms of Creative Common licenses), but the decision of exactly what sort of reuse restrictions are allowable for the general case (as would be needed to be set out in a a national research policy) is still very controversial.

Finally, it is widely recognized that the history of the move to OA was fueled by what is known as ‘the serials crisis‘, a term which refers to the exorbitant way in which ‘traditional’ scholarly journal subscription costs have risen since the mid-80s. In this time period, studies show that average journal subscription costs rose at what many academics have considered outrageous rates, with publishers having profit margins above those of most industries.

Historically, then, there is a clear intertwining of open access publishing as a form of improving scientific communication (‘true’ OA in Suber’s terms) and the open access movement understood as a call to reassess and perhaps deeply change the way academics is built both from the ground up and arranged top down. But connected as they are, Suber’s distinction remains important when complicated issues on scientific policymaking begin to enter the picture. In this respect, while increasing OA publishing has been seen as a possible way out of the serials crisis that would pressure publishers to lower publishing costs and increase access, other academics have pointed to funding body mandates or even straightforward government industry-regulations as options to curb what they see as unethical and anti-scholarly profit-margins.


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