Saturday, March 12, 2005

What is Open Access?

Richard Poynder

The aim of the Open Access (OA) movement, says Peter Suber's Open Access News, is to ensure that all "peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly literature" becomes available on the internet "free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions." The aim, he adds, is to remove "the barriers to serious research."

What does this mean in practice, and how can OA best be achieved? That has been the subject of frequent bitter dispute for at least the last ten years. Latterly the two main OA camps have consisted of those who promote the so-called Green Road (where researchers continue to publish in traditional subscription-based journals and then self-archive their papers on their personal web site or institutional repository) and those pushing the Gold Road (where researchers publish in new-style OA journals that charge a fee to publish papers, and then release them freely on the internet at the time of publication).

Until recently discussions about OA have tended to be dominated by the gold supporters. However, in the wake of the UK Science and Technology Committee Report into scientific publishing, and the release of the final version of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy on public access to NIH-funded research, the debate has shifted significantly, and the green approach now looks likely -- for the foreseeable future at least -- to set the agenda.

At the same time, most publishers now appear ready to embrace the inevitable. Certainly the announcement this week that the American Chemical Society will introduce two experimental policies, including one in which "as a value-added service to ACS authors and a method of further opening access to its content, the full-text version of all research articles published in ACS journals will be made available at no charge via an author-directed Web link 12 months after final publication", seems like a positive signal that both commercial and non-profit STM journal publishers now accept that publicly-funded research must be made freely available on the web.

The ACS announcement is significant since the ACS was one of a handful of remaining publishers that consistently refused to "go green" and allow author self-archiving (technically ACS was classified as a gray publisher).

On the surface it appears that the ACS has had a conversion. As ACS Publications Senior Vice President Brian Crawford commented "It is fundamental to the ACS mission to support and promote the research enterprise and to foster communication among its scientists. Providing unrestricted access via author-directed links 12 months after publication – in addition to the 50 free e-prints currently allowed during the first year of publication – reinforces that mission."

Undoubtedly the new ACS policy is a direct response to the NIH policy. As Crawford commented: "We understand that NIH-funded authors will wish to comply voluntarily with the NIH's policy request. By introducing this service, the ACS will take on the administrative burden of compliance and at the same time will ensure the integrity of the scientific literature by depositing the appropriate author version of the manuscript after peer-review."

The ACS announcement is also a clear marker that it wants to maintain control of the process. But is it a signal that a consensus on OA has finally begun to emerge, and can we now expect to see a smooth transition to OA? Or is the ACS move merely a cynical ploy to engineer a situation in which a 12-month embargo becomes not (as intended by the NIH) an outer boundary, but the norm?

Certainly the ACS has made the most of the watered down NIH policy. Thus where the initial NIH proposal had been to mandate NIH-funded researchers to make their papers available six months after publication, the final wording only "strongly encourages" grantees to authorise public release of their papers "as soon as possible" after publication, and at least within 12 months of publication.

Stevan Harnad, a leading proponent of the green cause, and author of The Subversive Proposal, is unimpressed with the ACS position, believing it to be an attempt to make a virtue out of necessity. Consider, he says:

"(1) 12 month Back Access is so inconsequential for revenue that many publishers already are or are planning to offer it anyway – nothing to do with OA. AAAS for example offered Back Access already 3 years ago. Shulenburger had already proposed it ("NEAR") way back in 1998!

"(2) But besides not being OA and not being particularly different from the status quo, offering 12-month Back Access in the name of satisfying the need and demand for OA in general, and OA self-archiving in particular is not an improvement but an entrenchment of what needs to be changed.

"In ordinary English," he adds, "access 12 months late is not very useful in itself and in any case already becoming the norm, but from a gray publisher it is actually a pretext for not going green, and as such, is no improvement at all. We should applaud partial steps only if they lead toward and increase the probability of 100% OA, not if they lead away from it!"

Even before the ACS announcement, the fear amongst OA advocates was that the NIH policy might make little difference to the progress of OA. It is widely believed, for instance, that a 12-month embargo is not only unnecessary but too restrictive to be classed as Open Access. As Peter Suber pointed out in the February issue of his SPARC Open Access Newsletter the "chief problem" with the final NIH policy is that "free online access could be delayed up to 12 months after publication. This is a significant delay, more serious in biomedicine than in most other fields. It will slow down research and slow down advances that promote public health."

But Harnad fears that the NIH policy is not only allowing gray publishers like the ACS to make a 12-month embargo the norm, but is encouraging green journals (which currently allow immediate self-archiving) to introduce embargoes where they did not previously exist.

This threat was evident in a January announcement from Nature Publishing Group (NPG), which stated that NPG planned to encourage its authors "to submit the author's version of the accepted, peer-reviewed manuscript to their relevant funding body's archive, for release six months after publication." In addition, NPG added "authors will also be encouraged to archive their version of the manuscript in their institution's repositories (as well as on their personal web sites), also six months after the original publication."

While OA advocates initially greeted the announcement with enthusiasm many quickly saw a sting in the tail. Since NPG had previously allowed self-archiving to be undertaken immediately on publication, news that it was now introducing a six-month embargo suggested that NPG was, in the words of Harnad, "Back-Sliding."

NPG's David Hoole denies this, insisting that the NPG's new policy is "a genuine attempt to extend archiving rights in the context of developments at the NIH and other funding bodies, and in the context of the Select Committee enquiry -- which recommended the development of institutional repositories. We wanted," he adds, "to be proactive, pragmatic, and involved."

Whatever the motives, says Harnad, it represents a step backwards. Moreover, he adds, the fundamental problem with embargoed access is that it is not OA, which implies "immediate, permanent, online access to the full-texts of peer-reviewed research journal articles, free for all users, webwide".

Publishers, however, appear to disagree. In an article in a recent issue of Serials Review, for instance, Chief Executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers Sally Morris described OA as "free, unrestricted access (to primary research articles) for everyone." This description makes no mention of the need for "immediate" access.

One difficulty OA advocates face in trying to resist the growing embargo creep is that the Budapest Open Access Initiative (which many see as the genesis of the OA movement) did not itself specify immediate access — a point that Harnad concedes. This oversight, he adds, is a legacy of the movement’s long-standing over-emphasis of the gold road. “In its gold-centrism (where the immediacy comes with the territory) the OA movement has not been sufficiently explicit that green OA too must be immediate and permanent, not just peek-a-boo..."

So we are left with the question: what exactly is Open Access? And if OA does indeed imply immediate access, how should OA advocates respond to embargo creep?