While the term Open Access (OA) has its origins in the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), the concept and practice of OA has been around for at least fifteen years. Yet today there is no single universally agreed definition of OA. Not only is this unsatisfactory, but it is allowing opponents and foot-draggers to dilute OA's purpose. What the OA movement needs, suggests Richard Poynder, is a canonical definition of OA and an official organisation charged with overseeing and certifying OA initiatives.
Recently I received a press release from The Biochemical Society informing me that the entire back archive of the Society’s flagship journal the Biochemical Journal (BJ) had been digitised and is now freely available online.
As a result all 392 copies of the journal published since its launch in 1906 (340,000 pages) are now freely available on the Web. This cornucopia, the press release added, includes seminal papers that have “shaped the face of modern cellular and molecular biology”.
There is no doubt that this valuable addition to the corpus of freely available biochemical research is a welcome development, and everyone who helped to make it happen should be applauded — not least the Wellcome Trust and JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), who provided funding for the project.
However, the news prompted me to wonder how (if at all) the project would further the aims and objectives of the Open Access Movement. After all, the primary focus of OA is to make newly published research freely available on the Web, not historical backfiles.
I was also not clear whether BJ is itself an open access journal. So I emailed the PR Company that had sent me the press release to find out. A short while later I received the answer: “I've had a chat with Audrey McCulloch at the Biochemical Society and she confirms that the Biochemical Journal is indeed an open access journal.”
This surprised me because when I looked at the BJ web site I found a page containing a long list of subscription options. These indicated that it costs from £1,630.00 to £2,118.00 a year to subscribe to BJ.
Of course, there is no reason why a publisher should not charge a subscription for its print journal while making its papers freely available on the Web. Nor is there any reason to assume that people would not subscribe to a print journal in such circumstances. Looking at the BJ website, however, this did not seem to be the case.
As I was scratching my head over this I received an e-mail from Audrey McCulloch herself. “Perhaps I should clarify in what sense BJ is an 'open access' journal,” she wrote. “As soon as a manuscript is accepted for publication, the raw manuscript (as submitted to us by the author) is published online as an 'Immediate Publication'. You can find further details of this at http://www.biochemj.org/bj/imps/toc.htm. These [preprints] are freely available."
She continued: "Authors manuscripts then go through the copyediting, proofreading, typesetting and other processes and are published in print and online in journal issues. These 'value-added' publications are subscription-only for six months after they are published, and then made freely available."
So this means, I asked, that preprints are open access, but published articles are only available to paying subscribers? "Yes, that's correct,” confirmed McCulloch. “The typeset (value-added) articles are Toll Access [TA] for the first six months after publication only. The immediate publications remain freely available at all times (i.e. access to these is not turned off during the six months toll-only access to the typeset articles).”
In other words, the BJ backfile includes everything the journal has published up to six months ago.
Somewhat slippery definition
But this struck me as a somewhat slippery definition of an OA journal. After all, OA journals make the final PDF of articles they publish available online immediately, not six months after publication.
However, looking at the BJ web site I could see that its authors were also encouraged to self-archive their papers.
As BJ's FAQ puts it, if you publish a paper in the journal you can “after obtaining our permission (which would not be withheld unreasonably) and provided that the journal is acknowledged as the original source .. [mount] .. the PDF file of the electronic version of your article on your personal web site, provided you include the following statement: 'Mounted on the Internet with permission from Portland Press (year of publication)'"
(Portland Press is the wholly owned publishing subsidiary of The Biochemical Society and publisher of BJ).
In other words, BJ is a green journal, and a liberal one at that. Indeed, some OA advocates would argue that BJ's self-archiving policy is sufficient in itself.
But while this makes BJ a green journal, it is inaccurate to describe it as an OA (i.e. gold) journal. (See here for further details on the distinction between green and gold OA).
After all, if we accept that BJ is an OA journal because it allows self-archiving, because it releases the final PDF on the Web on an embargoed basis, or because it makes preprints freely available on the Web, then we surely have to conclude that many — if not all — the 93% of journals that currently endorse author self-archiving are also OA journals, including those published by the largest scholarly publisher, Reed Elsevier.
What is an OA journal?
What do we conclude from this? I think we can confidently infer that the Biochemical Society's characterisation of BJ as an OA journal was not intended to mislead me, but simply further evidence (if it were needed) that many people continue to be confused about OA.
Indeed, OA advocates themselves are still puzzling over definitions and labels. Last week, for instance, Springer's Jan Velterop wondered aloud on his blog what constitutes an OA journal. Are they, he asked, "journals that publish OA articles, or journals that publish only OA articles?"
The same question, he said, applies when seeking to define an open access publisher. After all, he said, if one restricts the term to those who only publish OA papers "one risks overlooking — no, one overlooks — all the open access articles that are published in journals that are not exclusively open access."
"Good point," responded OA advocate Peter Suber on his blog. "The BMC [BioMed Central] journals, for example, are unmistakably OA, but most provide OA only to their original research articles, not to their review articles."
Exploring the issue further, Suber added, "One property of OA journals is that they provide OA to their OA articles themselves and don't merely permit authors to do it through OA archiving. But that doesn't settle the question whether a certain portion of a journal's articles must be OA for the journal itself to be considered OA."
He continued: "It would be tempting to conclude that 'full OA journals' and 'hybrid OA journals' differ only in degree, not in kind. But that's not quite accurate either, since there's an important difference, in kind, between journals who let authors choose between OA and TA and journals that have already decided to make all their articles (of a certain kind) OA."
How, I wondered, would self-archiving advocate Stevan Harnad answer Velterop's questions. "I think a fairer and more logical statement is that there are OA publishers, TA publishers, and hybrid OA/TA publishers," he replied. "However, I would insist that a publisher that makes all his articles OA online is a 100% OA publisher even if he still sells TA paper subscriptions, since OA isn't and never was, about free access to paper editions."
He added: "the target content for OA, by the way, is only peer-reviewed research articles, not all articles, nor even all articles that appear in peer-reviewed journals: journals like Science and Nature , after all, publish commissioned news items and reviews too, by staff writers."
We might usefully add here that an OA journal also makes its papers freely available immediately, not (à la BJ) six months after publication — but more on that later.
Clearly there is an ongoing debate here. But Velterop, of course, has his own agenda. He was appointed Director of Open Access at Springer last year, and so is clearly keen both to promote Springer's Open Choice initiative, and to stress Springer's OA-friendliness.
Indeed, those with a more suspicious nature may be inclined to conclude that Velterop would dearly love to redefine OA to better suit the needs of his new employer.
What is certain is that as a former publisher at BioMed Central — and long-time OA advocate — Velterop understands the issues only too well. As such he was surely not posing his questions purely in a spirit of philosophical enquiry.
All things to all men
What is also clear is that however benign the Biochemical Society's misrepresentation of BJ as an OA journal, and however exploratory Velterop's comments may have been, there are some scholarly publishers — and those who represent publishers' interests — who are more than happy to exploit the current ambiguities surrounding OA.
In fact, the signs have been there for some time. I personally drew attention to the issue two and a half years ago, and suggested that we were about to go through a period in which OA would come to mean "all things to all men".
Shortly thereafter, an anonymous poster on the American Scientist Open Access Forum wondered why Nature Immunology was using the term open access on its website without apparent justification. (A reference that was subsequently removed).
And as time passes so publisher attempts to appropriate OA have increased, both in frequency and egregiousness.
Last March, for instance, ACS (the American Chemical Society) announced a new policy in which it said it planned to “post, for public accessibility 12 months after publication, the peer-reviewed version of authors' manuscripts on the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central."
The announcement was a pre-emptive response to the impending US National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy “on enhancing public access to archived publications resulting from NIH-funded research"; a policy intended to encourage NIH-funded researchers to self-archive their papers in PubMed Central.
ACS presented its own policy statement as an altruistic initiative designed to relieve authors of the "administrative burden of compliance", and as a "method of further opening access to its content."
Redefining Open Access
In reality, however, in offering to archive authors' papers for them, ACS was seeking to limit the number of authors who might self-archive their papers earlier than 12 months (since the NIH had requested they do so "as soon as possible").
In short, while implying that it was embracing and supporting Open Access, ACS was deliberately acting against the spirit of the NIH policy, and implying that embargoed access was the same as Open Access — a tactic I discussed at the time.
The fact is, however, that ACS remains one of the most obdurate opponents of OA. Unlike 93% of scholarly journals, for instance, ACS journals still insist that their authors sign a Copyright Transfer Agreement (CTA) that requires them to give up the right to self-archive their papers. Specifically, it states that "Authors/employers may [only] post the title of the paper, abstract (no other text), tables, and figures of their own papers on their own Web sites, and include these items in their own scholarly, research papers."
Crucially, there is no mention in the CTA of PubMed Central or the NIH policy. As such, most researchers signing it will presumably assume that they are also agreeing not to archive their papers in PubMed Central.
Nor is ACS the only scholarly publisher intent on making embargoed access synonymous with Open Access. Shortly before the ACS statement, for instance, the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) announced that it would 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."
NPG added that "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 greeted the NPG announcement with enthusiasm some later saw NPG's weasel words for what they were. Since NPG had previously encouraged authors to self-archive immediately on publication, NPG was in reality introducing a six-month embargo where no embargo previously existed — a move Harnad immediately dubbed "Back-Sliding."
Delayed open access publisher
In short, as publishers are coming under increasing pressure to make concessions to OA they are seeking to redefine it, both by diluting the definition of what an OA journal is, and by introducing self-archiving embargoes.
To be fair, there are two ways of interpreting this: one is that publishers are simply trying to ensure a gradual and orderly transition from Toll Access to Open Access; another is that they have embarked on a campaign intended to emasculate OA.
Following the behaviour of the Royal Society last December, however, some have concluded that the latter explanation is more likely. Specifically, the Society made the meaningless claim that it was a “delayed open access publisher" — on the grounds that it makes its papers freely available 12 months after publication.
This claim was viewed in a particularly uncharitable light since the Society made it after receiving an Open Letter from 42 disgruntled fellows (a number that has subsequently grown to 64, including 6 Nobel prize-winners) strongly objecting to a position statement the Society had published the month before.
Widely perceived as an attack on OA, the Society's position statement was undoubtedly an attempt to derail the draft proposal published last June by Research Councils UK (RCUK). This envisaged mandating publicly-funded researchers in the UK to self-archive their published papers in institutional repositories.
Unsurprisingly, the Society's self-definition was greeted with considerable derision by open access advocates. “There is no such thing as 'delayed open access publishing', otherwise all publishers are 'delayed open access publishers', some merely having very long delay periods, corresponding to human mortality and the heat death of the universe," commented Harnad sarcastically. "The Royal Society, like all non-OA publishers, is an embargoed-access publisher."
On reflection, Harnad conceded that since the Royal Society allows authors to self-archive their papers in an institutional OA repository it too is a green publisher. However, since only 15% of authors do currently self-archive, the Society is clearly reluctant to make it mandatory.
Indeed, the Society's stratagem may not have been without some effect. At the time of writing, no progress has yet been made with the RCUK proposal, which has missed a number of deadlines for implementation.
But perhaps we should not be too critical of publishers. Rightly or wrongly they believe that OA poses a significant threat to their income, and they are understandably keen to protect that income.
Indeed, one could justifiably argue that the OA movement has only itself to blame for the current situation, since it has signally failed to produce a canonical definition of OA.
Thus while there have been a number of statements and declarations about OA — including the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative, the 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, and the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing — these all describe OA in slightly different ways. In addition, there is the BioMed Central Open Access Charter and the Public Library of Science [PLoS] definition of OA, both of which are different again.
And OA advocates have never sought to amalgamate these various descriptions in order to produce a single universal statement of what OA is, and what it entails.
True, in 2003 Suber made an unofficial attempt, but this tends to highlight the differences, rather than the similarities. Moreover, he omitted to include the Berlin Declaration in his analysis.
OA advocates often stress that the various definitions of OA agree on the fundamentals, but it is clear that the absence of a canonical definition is a source of considerable confusion, and leads to frequent factional sniping amongst OA advocates.
Crucially, this state of affairs allows publishers to mix and match different aspects of the various definitions in order to overplay their OA credentials. In seeking to talk up Springer's Open Choice, for instance, Velterop referred not to the most widely-cited definition outlined in the BOAI, but to the Bethesda Statement — because, as Velterop pointed out, the Bethesda Statement "carries the following rider: 'Open access is a property of individual works, not necessarily journals or publishers.'"
In other words, the lack of a single definitive description of OA also gives publishers and OA opponents wiggle room to seek to redefine OA for their own purposes.
There is perhaps no better example of the risks inherent in this vagueness than the way that it is allowing publishers to equate embargoed access with Open Access. After all, since the OA movement has not sufficiently stressed that OA implies immediate access, it is often difficult to challenge such claims.
The BOAI, for instance, states that the prerequisite for OA is the "free availability [of scholarly papers] 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."
This description makes no mention of the need for "immediate" access. (Neither does the Berlin Declaration).
Since the BOAI description is the most often cited, the failure to stress immediacy, says Harnad, was a regrettable oversight.
Again, publishers have been happy to exploit this lack of clarity. In an article in Serials Review last year, for instance, Chief Executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers Sally Morris described OA simply as "free, unrestricted access (to primary research articles) for everyone."
Aware of the growing risks of this lack of clarity, last year Harnad called on the BOAI signatories "to make explicit what was already implicit" in the BOAI.
In other words, he said, they should amend the BOAI statement to stress that OA "must be now and must be permanent (not, for example, a feature that is provided for an instant, a century from now).”
Why does immediacy matter? Its importance will, of course, depend on the discipline. But in the case of the biomedical sciences (the arena in which much of the battle for OA is currently being fought out) access to the latest research as quickly as possible is widely held to be essential.
No official organisation
Harnad's call for clarification, however, fell on deaf ears. But that is hardly surprising, since the ambiguity surrounding OA is symptomatic of a more serious problem: the absence of any central OA body to oversee and direct the movement.
Who, after all, could have usefully responded to Harnad's request? Even had the signatories of the BOAI heeded it, they would not have been able to legislate for the OA movement as a whole.
For unlike those in the Open Source Movement (who in 1998 created the Open Source Initiative [OSI]), OA advocates have resisted the creation of an umbrella organisation, for fear that it would lead to factional infighting, and so slow the progress of OA.
But is this rational? After all, the Open Source Movement suffers from factionalism and infighting too. One would only have had to monitor, say, the OSI's license-discuss list during last year's debate on licence proliferation to see how divided the movement can be, and how heated discussions can become.
Indeed, there can be few movements that have suffered more from internecine strife than has the Open Source Movement. What better example can there be than the oft-cited e-mail threat Eric Raymond sent to Bruce Perens in 1999. While Perens clearly exaggerated Raymond's message (implying that he feared Raymond might shoot him), the incident demonstrates just how inflamed discussion about open source software can become.
Yet despite this factionalism, and despite the insults and abuse, OSI has achieved a huge amount in the six years since it was established. A quick glance at its history is enough to see how successful an advocacy organisation it has been.
It has also produced a canonical definition of open source software, and it plays a vital role in certifying open source software licences.
The OA movement then could surely only benefit from emulating the Open Source Movement.
Wouldn’t it be good, for instance, if there were an OA body able to certify anyone wanting to promote themselves as an OA publisher?
Likewise, wouldn’t it be great if there were an official body able to scrutinise publishers' self-archiving policies, and award a seal of approval?
And wouldn't it be easier to attract funding if there were a central non-profit OA organisation?
For while both the Open Society Institute and JISC have proved generous and enlightened benefactors, the current situation is one in which external organisations are deciding where funding should be directed, and who should benefit. As such, they are making important strategic decisions that might be better made by the movement itself.
Moreover, with so many worthy causes in need of support, it is surely only a matter of time before these organisations decide to redirect their funds elsewhere — possibly before the movement has succeeded in its objectives.
When I interviewed the Open Society Institute's Melissa Hagemann last June, for instance, she pointed out that while the Open Society Institute had decided to extend its support for OA beyond the three years initially envisaged, there has never been any wish to "claim ownership" of the movement. "Our intention from the beginning was to provide seed funding, and to help to launch a broad-based movement." In other words, sooner or later, the Open Society Institute will move on.
The fact is that OA advocates have failed to claim ownership of their own movement; and they have failed to do so out of fear that they might unleash a wave of self-destructive infighting (as if infighting didn’t already take place). But unless they do so soon they risk the greater danger that opponents and foot-draggers will appropriate the movement, and emasculate it in the process.
Right now what the OA movement needs more than anything else is greater clarity, and a unified response to those who are trying to subvert it. But where is the Open Access Foundation that can provide this?