The Open Access Schism: Recapitulating Open Source?

As well as in free software itself, this column is interested in the ways that the ideas underlying open source are spreading far and wide. One of the earliest manifestations was in the field of academic publishing, where open access has been...


As well as in free software itself, this column is interested in the ways that the ideas underlying open source are spreading far and wide. One of the earliest manifestations was in the field of academic publishing, where open access has been gaining ground steadily. It seems that the open access world has just entered the schism phase that mirrors the similar split between those espousing “free software”, and those who resolutely call it "open source."

This most recent development is captured in yet another brilliant contribution from the unofficial chronicler of the open access world, Richard Poynder. His blog, called "Open and Shut?", is simply the best resource there is to find out about open access, its issues and key individuals. You could spend many days reading through the resources there, and it would be time well spent.

His latest post [.pdf] is nominally another interview, of which there are many on the site, this time with Paul Royster, Coordinator of Scholarly Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It’s well worth reading, but here I’d like to concentrate on the 11-page introduction that Poynder provides. In it, he explores the key issues raised by Royster concerning that old favourite of open movements everywhere: licences, and which ones are “best”. Here’s the background:

Let’s remind ourselves of the BOAI [Budapest Open Access Initiative] definition of OA. Open access to the scholarly literature, it says, requires, “its free availability 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 theinternet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

It seems fair to say that while the Creative Commons licences would not be released for another 10 months, this definition prefigures the terms of the CC BY licence.

But as Poynder points out, the trouble is that many of the open access repositories fail to comply with the BOAI definition:

Since most papers deposited in repositories (or “open electronic archives”as BOAI described them) will have been published in traditional subscription journals we must assume that, even if the publisher has not insisted on the author signing over copyright in a paper, it is highly unlikely that that publisher will permit the work to be made available on a CC BY basis—unless it has been published by an OA publisher (which would really make it gold OA, not green). It is, therefore, hard to see how green OA can hope to conform to the BOAI definition of open access.

That’s a bit of a problem, since many of open access’s biggest successes are of the Green kind (freely available from repositories of self-archived papers) rather than the Gold kind (freely available after formal publication of papers.) Worse, it is leading to a schism within the open access movement, between those who think CC-BY is indispensable for “true” open access, and those who think Green open access, with other licences such as CC-BY-NC or CC-BY-ND, is good enough. As Poynder writes:

how can repositorians like Royster be expected to stay motivated? If their hard work is disparaged by OA advocates, and pronounced second best, or even perhaps “not open access” at all—and all in the name of a definition of open access authored by 16 people (including two publishers) thirteen years ago—then why would they want to continue to be associated with the OA movement? The real issue here, says Royster, is that the OA movement is now alienating its allies. For that reason, he says, “I no longer call or think of myself as an advocate for ‘open access,’ since the specific definition of that term excludes most of what we do in our repository. I used to think the term meant ‘free to access, download, and store without charge, registration, log-in, etc.,’ but I have been disabused of that notion."

It’s a crucially important debate for the open access world, just as the one around free software and open source was. Or, perhaps even more pertinently, the continuing discussions about which licence is “better”- the GNU GPL, or the Apache licence. For a major concern about the current move towards CC-BY is that it might allow re-enclosure by companies:

Some see a third possibility, one in which publishers encourage the use of CC BY for research papers and then re-enclose them. This is a scenario suggested by assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa Heather Morrison. As she explains, “There is nothing in the CC BY license that would stop a business from taking all of the works, with attribution, and selling them under a more restrictive license—not only a more restrictive CC-type license (STM’s license [discussed in a previous column] is a good indication of what could happen here), but even behind a paywall, then buying out the OA publisher and taking down the OA content.”

There are (at least) two solutions to this problem. The first is to move not to CC-BY-SA, which would ensure that the licence was not changed by re-use, and thus that no re-enclosure could take place. That, of course, is similar to moving from Apache to the GNU GPL approach, which requires the same licence to be used.

Alternatively, the problems with Green OA could be addressed. The reason that many self-archived papers in repositories are not published under CC-BY is that the authors rather foolishly sign over their copyright to publishers, or agree to onerous conditions. This is really just a hangover from the past, when “ordinary people” didn’t really care about copyright, because it simply didn’t matter. But in the digital world, it does, because copies are being made all the time, and so copyright kicks in automatically.

Giving up the copyright on your creation is just folly, and academics need to think about why it would be better to stop doing so. After all, publisher don’t need copyright assigned to them – they just need a licence from the authors – but it’s something they routinely demand because they know that doing so puts them in the driving seat.

Refusing to hand copyright over or to agree to other restrictive conditions would allow academics to retain full control over their work , and to place their papers in a Green OA repository under a CC-BY or CC-BY-SA licence if they wished. That, in turn, would make those depositions fully compatible with the standard definitions of open access.

As Poynder’s introduction and interview reveal well, this issue of licensing really does go to the heart of what open access means, just as it does for free software and open source. Let’s hope the open access world can navigate this rocky patch as successfully as those groups did in the world of software, where both free software and open source advocates manage to co-exist and work together peacefully – more or less...

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and glynmoody on Google

"Recommended For You"

The Real Reason to Celebrate GNU's Birthday Open Source and Open Research Computation