Open Access Reinterpreted

Broadening the definitions.


March 3, 2016

Opening Access

‘Open Access’ (not to be confused with ‘accessibility’) is more than the removal of ..the cost to the reader; Open Access means the removal of other restrictions, in a way that the content can be fully used the way we use content today, with both human and computational methods, without the need to request the usual permissions, speeding things up and enabling a culture of collegial sharing and reciprocity. (For related definitions, The Open Knowledge Foundation maintains the Open Definition). Read-only access is not enough to make resources ‘Open Access’.

At a very basic level, of course, being able to read an article with our eyes is what most scholars, particularly in the humanities, have normally needed to do their job. This has changed. Computational analysis, distant reading and information visualisation, blogging about research, annotating articles, and reusing data sets are increasingly common scholarly activities in more and more fields. The more we read the small print in publishers’ and journals’ websites, the more we realise how many restrictions there are to the reuse and dissemination of scholarly research. At a very basic level, what counts is that individual people are able to read research. Removing the price tag from articles should be a good thing! However, that paywalled article you were lucky to get for free has already been paid for by someone. It is most likely still being paid for by someone, usually academic libraries.

People are free to use terms differently, to appropriate them and re-appropriate them. However, there is a reason why interpretive communities of practice agree on terms. It is not just me personally who agrees that Open Access is not just the removal of paywalls. Many agree that achieving Open Access means a concerted, gradual effort to change scholarly communications through open licensing, allowing the legal reuse without previous permission of the published articles (or other 'outputs').

In my view, Open Access needs to work through a change in licensing terms. It is basically about authors understanding what terms they are signing when they publish somewhere, and what they want others (and themselves!) to be able to do with their work. Creative Commons has insisted from the beginning open licenses are not against copyright. They are a complement of copyright. They seek to modify the law and/or its application through legal frameworks and advocacy. They open access by changing culture consensually, by inviting authors and publishers to adopt them.

Like most researchers, I experience the negative effects of paywalls as an obstacle to accessing research on a daily basis. I grew up surrounded by them.  I remain incredibly frustrated by paywalls and closed access. Like many others,  I have taken measures to actively tackle these huge, unfair barriers to access to information, through different methods, including founding an open access journal, doing research to enhance open publishing, contributing to guidance and publishing my work in open access repositories and journals.

From what I read online and hear in academic conferences, I realise there are still important disagreements on what the 'problem' that Open Access seeks to address is. I don't think we are using the same words to mean the same things.

For some, the problem seems to be the large profit margins of some commercial publishers,  paywalls and 'intellectual property, or copyright laws', and therefore argue that removing paywalls and ignoring such laws will 'solve' that problem. Others argue that removing paywalls is an act of ‘effective civil disobedience’ that could lead to a more sustainable change.

For me, the problem is not just paywalls, but licensing, and indeed the whole system of scholarly communications, that has failed to convince more academics (and indeed, that failed to convince more academics much earlier on) that scholarly publishing should be meant to be read and reused, shared and discussed, augmented and distributed more openly, more widely, more fairly.

The kind of effective civil disobedience I would like to see is one where the majority of scholars committed to, and respected, an Open Pledge like this one. I would like to see a scholarly community where authors and universities admitted their responsibility in making the current scholarly publishing situation what it is now. We need to change the culture that allowed the current state of affairs, and a culture cannot be merely imposed by employers or funders.

No Master Key

Open Access has mostly focused on new publications, and retroactive application of open access licenses to what was originally paywalled and All Rights Reserved work is not widely practiced. There is, however, evidence of this: UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), my own alma mater, has applied CC licenses retroactively to complete runs of journals and monographs that had previously been either offline or paywalled. It was the institution and the publisher itself who agreed to do this retroactive change in licensing, making these materials not only free to read, but Open Access.

I don't have the master key to open access to all published research.  I wish I did, legally. I wish publishers, but also, and this is very important, authors, understood that times are changing and that we cannot continue paywalling research not only from the public but from important segments of the international scholarly community itself. A culture is generated collectively. As Mozilla’s Mark Surman put it, ‘when people build things together they tend to own them emotionally and want to roll them out after they are created.’ If we believe the current situation is merely the publisher’s responsibility, it means we feel detached from the whole publishing process, disempowered and without will.   

The strategy to achieve an open scholarly culture is, for me, not a question of making something weaker, something else stronger. I want to believe we can all be stronger together, transforming scholarly publishing together by transforming the way we all contribute to it. This means influencing policy and legal frameworks.

The 'problem' is complex and I don't think there is one simple, quick magic bullet. The 'solution' is not just one simple answer. It's not one platform. It's not one strategy. The solution needs to be collective, consensual, with the key stakeholders (publishers, authors, funders, universities, charities, the legal system) agreeing on actions, steps to take us eventually there. It will be frustratingly slow. But Rome was not built in a day either.


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