More on "open access"

I recently posted my concern about the use of “open access” as phrase which is sufficently broad to be confusing and Peter Suber has created a thoughtful and useful reply. I agree in detail with all his analysis and any differences are probably in emphasis and strategy.

Peter Murray-Rust, “open access” is not good enough, A Scientist and the Web, June 10, 2007.  Excerpt:
Comments [PeterS]

  • I agree with much but not all of what Peter MR says.  I’m responding at length because I’ve often had many of the same thoughts.
  • I’m the principal author of the BOAI definition of OA, and I still support it in full.  Whenever the occasion arises, I emphasize that OA removes both price and permission barriers, not just price barriers.  I also emphasize that the other major public definitions of OA (from Bethesda and Berlin) have similar requirements.

PMR: Agreed. PeterS continually and consistently asserts this – I am arguing that the level of emphasis throughout the community should be higher.

  • I don’t agree that the term “open access” on its own, or apart from its public definitions, highlights the removal of price barriers and neglects the removal of permission barriers.  There are many ways to make content more widely accessible, or many digital freedoms, and the term “open access” on its own doesn’t favor or disfavor any of them.  Even at the BOAI meeting we realized that the term was not self-explanatory and would need to be accompanied by a clear definition and education campaign.
  • The same, BTW, is true for terms like “open content”, “open source”, and “free software”.  If “open source” is better understood than “open access”, it’s because its precise definition has spread further, not because the term by itself is self-explanatory or because “open access” lacks a precise definition.

PMR: I accept this. In which case I think we have too look for additional tools of discourse. If “open access” serves an important current purpose in a broad sense it should continued to be used in that way but we should not expect it to deliver precision.

  • I do agree that many projects which remove price barriers alone, and not permission barriers, now call themselves OA.  I often call them OA myself.  This is only to say that the common use of the term has moved beyond than the strict definitions.  But this is not always regrettable.  For most users, removing price barriers alone solves the largest part of the problem with non-OA content, and projects that do so are significant successes worth celebrating.  By going beyond the BBB definition, the common use of the term has marked out a spectrum of free online content, ranging from that which removes no permission barriers (beyond those already removed by fair use) to that which removes all the permission barriers that might interfere with scholarship.   This is useful, for we often want to refer to that whole category, not just to the upper end.  When the context requires precision we can, and should, distinguish OA content from content which is merely free of charge.  But we don’t always need this extra precision.

PMR: agreed. But “we often need the extra precision” is also valid.

  • In other words:  Yes, most of us are now using the term “OA” in at least two ways, one strict and one loose, and yes, this can be confusing.  But first, this is the case with most technical terms (compare “evolution” and “momentum”).  Second, when it’s confusing, there are ways to speak more precisely.  Third, it would be at least as confusing to speak with this extra level of precision –distinguishing different ways of removing permission barriers from content that was already free of charge– in every context.  (I’m not saying that Peter MR thought we should do the latter.)
  • One good way to be precise without introducing terms that might baffle our audience is to use a license.  Each of the CC licenses, for example, is clear in it own right and each removes a different set of permission barriers.  The same is true for the other OA-friendly licenses.  Like Peter MR, I encourage providers to remove permission barriers and to formalize this freedom with a license.  Even if we multiplied our technical terms, it will usually be more effective to point to a license than to a technical term when someone wonders exactly what we mean by OA for a given piece of work.

This is the central and simple point on which we are agreed – for some of our problems we can solve this problem without extra tools if we put our minds and energy into it. We aren’t yet doing that sufficiently.
Part of the problem arises because in the Green approach to “open access” there is often an implicit trade-off between price freedom and permission freedom. There is tool-free access at the expense of having no permissions other than human readability – all the permissions (other than “fair use”) remain with the publisher. Many people may feel that this is a reasonable compromise in journal publishing at the present stage. Some may feel that 100% Green open access is an acceptable endpoint.
But I think it comes with a cost to those of us who wish to develop digital scholarship – the use of the information in scholarship by machines as well as humans. As an example the JISC meeting on institutional repositories  I have just been at was called “Digital Repositories – Dealing with the Digital Deluge”.  This is an emotive phrase – but it’s currently misleading. In many subjects there is a complete Digital Drought. And unless the permissions issue is dealt with there will continue to be. Permission freedom is essential for digital scholarship.
My concern is that unless we address the permission issue much more actively we shall slide into the acceptance that permission freedom is the exception or less important than price. The one area where we have to power to act unilaterally is those parts of our own scholarship over which we have effective control – theses, data in repositories, lteaching/learning materials, technical reports, etc. Let us work to make these 100% permission free.
My immediate urgency is fueled by the ETD2007 meeting tomorrow. I hope that we can find consensus on this issue.

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