Open Access Headaches

Tense, nervous headache? Feelings of confusion? Mood swings from warm optimism to a gnawing sense of futility? You’ve been reading about open access again, haven’t you? I know because I have and I recognise the symptoms. 

Open access week came and went in the latter part of October and brought with it a plethora of events, publications and blogposts. The worldwide verbiage on this topic increased once again. I hope that some new people might have gained an introduction to open access — that seemed to be the case at the event I attended at Queen’s University in Belfast — but the burst of activity also carries risks because more words on the topic don’t necessarily lead to greater understanding or engagement. 

I came across this myself in the past week when my attention was directed to a post at the blog hosted by the journal Cell Reports. The blogpost sought to clarify the open access choices for Cell Reports’ authors, in particular their licensing options. There are two — the less restrictive CC-BY which allows “others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation” or the more restrictive CC-BY-NC-ND, which prevents commercial re-use (NC = non-commercial) or any modification of the published work (ND = No derivatives). 

The post goes on to note that, given these choices, most authors opt for the more restrictive licence. Nature Publishing Group has reported similar findings, suggesting that open access still has to win some hearts and minds. The comment thread is illuminating on this point and worth reading. 

But what particularly confused me in the Cell Reports blog post was the claim that “even that most restrictive license grants full open access”. This struck me as odd. It is decidedly out of kilter with the definition of open access enunciated in the 2003 Berlin declaration (my emphasis in bold):

“a free, irrevocable, worldwide, right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship.”

That said, the phrasing of the Berlin declaration is clearer and more robust than the original Budapest statement from 2002:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean 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 the internet 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.

The idea of authors retaining control “over the integrity of their work” could be mis-construed as preventing the creation of derivative works but I understand (from Mark Patterson at eLife) that it is more to do with upholding the original meaning or intent of the work. That interpretation becomes clearer in the text of the BOAI 10 recommendations published in 2012 on the 10th anniversary of the Budapest declaration. With regard to licensing and re-use. Section 2.1 states:

We recommend CC-BY or an equivalent license as the optimal license for the publication, distribution, use, and reuse of scholarly work.

The BOAI 10 text explicitly recognises that some variants of open access are more open than others but recommends a pragmatic, can-do approach:

In developing strategy and setting priorities, we recognize that gratis access is better than priced access, libre access is better than gratis access, and libre under CC-BY or the equivalent is better than libre under more restrictive open licenses. We should achieve what we can when we can. We should not delay achieving gratis in order to achieve libre, and we should not stop with gratis when we can achieve libre.

In the light of these published statements, Cell Reports’ assertion that a CC-BY-NC-ND license corresponds with ‘full open access’ is, unfortunately, likely only to confuse authors and to add to the feeling that open access is just too complicated to bother with. I can’t quite bring myself to censure the journal for this confusion since it took me some effort to clarify the matter in my own mind. You would think after all I have written on this topic that I would already be familiar with the details of OA and CC licenses. But as I keep saying, it’s complicated. 

Fortunately, it does’t have to be this way. In my quest for clarification on the licensing issue, Mark Patterson kindly pointed me to a web-site created by Peter Suber that provides an authoritative overview on all the key issues surrounding open access. This will be my remedy in future if I every suffer further bouts of confusion and I recommend it to you also.  



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6 Responses to Open Access Headaches

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    “Cell Reports’ assertion that a CC-BY-NC-ND license corresponds with ‘full open access’ is, unfortunately, likely only to confuse authors and to add to the feeling that open access is just too complicated to bother with.”

    That is an extremely generous interpretation. Let me attempt a more concise rewrite:

    “Cell Reports’ assertion that a CC-BY-NC-ND license corresponds with ‘full open access’ is wrong”.

    Note that I am classy enough not to have suggestion what I actually suspect, which is:

    “Cell Reports’ assertion that a CC-BY-NC-ND license corresponds with ‘full open access’ is a lie”.

    • Stephen says:

      Well, to be fair Mike, I chose the generous interpretation since Stephen Matheson, the scientific editor at Cell Reports, engaged constructively in the comment thread beneath the blogpost at the journal and did say that they were “working on providing clearer explanations of the licenses and ramifications of their use”. He has his own viewpoint on the matter which isn’t quite the same as mine but, as is clear in the BOAI 10 statement, some OA is better than none.

  2. How Open Is It? is another useful resource to understand the different “flavors” of openness that publishers use.

  3. Andrew Miller (Elsevier) says:

    That Suber’s OA ‘overview’ is 5600 words long speaks volumes (23% longer than the US constitution!)

    A remedy perhaps but one that needs to be drunk from a bucket.

  4. Pingback: Two Different Kinds of Open Access Buttons | Be openly accessible or be obscure

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