What do we mean when we say “open access” (OA), and what are we working towards when we promote it?
Definitions: Less Ambiguous
The question of what OA means seems now to be pretty much settled: as I listen to and participate in conversations within the OA community (by which I mean the organizations and individuals who advocate for OA and who set up and manage OA initiatives such as institutional repositories, publishing concerns, lobbying groups, etc.), there seems to be a hardening consensus around the proposition that OA is defined by the principles laid out in the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities of 2003 (which itself expands on the Budapest Open Access Initiative statement of 2002). There are some who maintain that the Berlin Declaration has been the official definition ever since it was published, but until fairly recently I’m not sure the community itself had reached consensus on that. It seems to have done so now; today I think few, if any, in the OA movement would disagree that OA means what the Berlin Declaration says it means.
To the degree that it has settled this question, then, that community has adopted a definition that includes two major provisions:
a) unrestricted public access to “a complete version of the work and all supplemental materials,”
b) without any meaningful copyright restrictions.
Consequent to the hardening consensus around the official definition of OA, an important distinction between “open access” and “public access” has emerged. In this context, “public access” is what you have when the content of a document is freely available to read, but remains constrained by traditional copyright restrictions. In the United States, when government granting agencies define access requirements, these are generally couched in terms of public access rather than open access (see, for example, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy memo and the National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy), thus allowing authors to retain exclusive copyright prerogatives in their work. Among authors, for a variety of reasons, there remains significant ambivalence about abandoning those prerogatives.
Ultimate Goals: More Ambiguous
The question of what we are working towards when we undertake to bring about an OA future is less settled. Prominent figures in the OA movement have expressed a diversity of visions for the future, and here it’s important to distinguish between models and goals. There are different models of OA, and variations on each one. Under the “Gold” model, documents are made freely available from the moment of publication (preparation costs being covered by institutional subvention or author fees). Under the “Green” model, the document is published in a normal toll-access venue, typically a subscription journal, but some version of it (often the author’s final peer-reviewed manuscript) is placed in a public repository, often becoming publicly available after some embargo period designed to let the publisher try to sell access before access becomes free. Different models of OA are not necessarily in competition with each other; multiple models can coexist, and do.
What can’t coexist are a world without any toll access and a world that includes at least some toll access, and the question of which of these we should be working towards can be a touchy one. Not everyone who believes in OA is necessarily working towards a world of universal and immediate OA. Some prominent advocates see a legitimate place in the future for nonprofit toll-access scholarly publishing (no less an eminence than Robert Darnton has expressed support for this scenario). Some, especially OA publishers like Elsevier and Springer, see embargoes as an acceptable long-term solution to some of the challenges inherent in the Green model, while other OA proponents reject the idea of embargoes out of hand. Still others (such as Heather Joseph of SPARC) have expressed qualified support for embargoes as an element of compromise during the transition from toll access to OA, but one that should eventually be “remov(ed)… altogether.”
Questions for Authors
The fact that there is such a diversity of opinions and visions, even within the OA community, as to what that community’s ultimate goals should be, raises some questions for authors who have to make decisions about how to publish their work. These include:
- What do I think the future should look like? Do I want to continue supporting the prevailing scholarly-communication system (one that generally requires people to pay for access to what I publish), or do I want to help create a new one, in which access to what I publish is freely available for reading and reuse? If the latter, then which model of OA makes the most sense to me, and do I want to see that model become the universal program? Or would I prefer a blended solution, or perhaps some third option?
- When I am encouraged to support OA initiatives or join OA organizations, what are the ultimate goals of those initiatives and organizations? If you’re being invited to climb aboard a train, it’s reasonable to ask where the train is going. Interestingly (and perhaps a little disturbingly), I’ve found that it’s not always easy to get people or organizations to talk about their ultimate goals.
- What are likely to be the unintended consequences of any choice I make? Advocates for any program—whether for traditional publishing or for some version of an open access future—will invariably describe that program in terms of its desired outcomes and intended consequences. This is in the very nature of advocacy, and advocates will often object, sometimes angrily, to any attempt to discuss the possibility of undesired outcomes and the inevitability of unintended consequences. But for those who want to make rational decisions about where to invest their time or energy or money, discussion of those things is essential; what matters about a program or initiative is not just what it intends to do, but what it is actually likely to do.
The issues around access to scholarship are complex and difficult, and the right position on them is not always clear. For authors, especially—whose work is the lifeblood of the scholarly communication ecosystem—thinking carefully and critically about them is essential.