This post is cross-posted from Peter’s blog

I’m going to ask questions. They are questions I don’t know the answers to – maybe I am ignorant in which case please comment with information, or maybe the “Open Access Community” doesn’t know the answers. Warning: I shall probably be criticized by some of the mainstream “OA Community”. Please try to read beyond any rhetoric.

As background, I am well versed in Openness. I have taking a leading role in creating and launching many Open efforts – SAX, Chemical MIME, Chemical Markup Language, The Blue Obelisk, Panton Principles, Open Bibliography, Open Content Mining and helped to write a significant number of large software frameworks (OSCAR, JUMBO, OPSIN, AMI2). I’m on the advisory board of the Open Knowledge Foundation and I have contributed to or worked with Wikipedia, Open Streetmap, Stackoverflow, Open Science Summit, Mat Todd (Open Source Drug Discovery) and been to many hackathons. So I am very familiar with the modern ideology and practice of “Open”. Is “Open Access” the same sort of beast?

The features of “Open” that I value are:

  • Meritocracy. That doesn’t mean that decisions are made by hand counting, but it means that people’s views are listened to, and they enter the process when it seems right to the community. That’s happened with SAX, very much with the Blue Obelisk, and the Open Knowledge Foundation.
  • Universality of participation, particularly from citizens without formal membership or qualifications. A feeling of community.
  • A willingness to listen to other views and find means of changing strategy where necessary
  • Openness of process. It is clear what is happening, even if you are not in command.
  • Openness of results. This is universally fundamental. Although there have been major differences of opinion in Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) everyone is agreed that the final result is free to use, modify, redistribute without permission and for any purpose. Free software is a matter of liberty, not price.
  • A mechanism to change current practice. The key thing about Wikipedia is that it dramatically enhances the way we use knowledge. Many activities in the OKF (and other Open Organisations) are helping to change practice in government, development agencies, companies. It’s not about price restrictions, it’s about giving back control to the citizens of the world. Open Streetmap produces BETTER and more innovative maps that people can use to change the lives of people living right now – e.g. the Haitian earthquake.

How does Open Access measure up against these? Not very well. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, but it means that it doesn’t have obvious values I can align with. I have followed OA for most of the last 10 years and tried to contribute, but without success. I have practiced it by publishing all my own single-author papers over the last 5 years in Gold CC-BY journals. But I have never had much feeling of involvement – certainly not the involvement that I get from SAX or BlueObelisk.

That’s a harsh statement and I will elaborate:

Open Access is not universal – it looks inward to Universities (and Research Institutions). In OA week the categories for membership are:


There is no space for “citizen” in OA. Indeed, some in the OA movement emphasize this. Stevan Harnad has said that the purpose of OA is for “researchers to publish to researchers” and that ordinary people won’t understand scholarly papers. I take a strong and public stance against this – the success of Galaxy Zoo has shown how citizens can become as expert as many practitioners. In my new area of phylogenetic trees I would feel confident that anyone with a University education (and many without) would have little difficulty understanding much of the literature and many could become involved in the calculations. For me, Open Access has little point unless it reaches out to the citizenry and I see very little evidence of this (please correct me).

There is, in fact, very little role for the individual. Most of the infrastructure has been built by university libraries without involving anyone outside (regrettably, since university repositories are poor compared to other tools in the Open movements). There is little sense of community. The main events are organised round library practice and funders – which doesn’t map onto other Opens. Researchers have little involvement in the process – the mainstream vision is that their university will mandate them to do certain things and they will comply or be sacked. This might be effective (although no signs yet), but it is not an “Open” attitude.

Decisions are made in the following ways:

* An oligarchy, represented in the BOAI processes and Enabling Open Scholarship (EOS). EOS is a closed society that releases briefing papers and has a members ship of 50 EUR per year and have to be formally approved by the committee (I have represented to several members of EOS that I don’t find this inclusive and I can’t see any value in my joining – it’s primarily for university administrators and librarians).
* Library organizations (e.g. SPARC)
* Organizations of OA publishers (e.g. OASPA)

Now there are many successful and valuable organizations that operate on these principles, but they don’t use the word “Open”.

So is discussion “Open”? Unfortunately not very. There is no mailing list with both large volume of contributions and effective freedom to present a range of views. Probably the highest volume list for citizens (as opposed to librarians) is GOAL and here differences of opinion are unwelcome. Again that’s a hard statement, but the reality is that if you post anything that does not support Green Open Access then Stevan Harnad and the Harnadites will publicly shout you down. I have been denigrated on more than one occasion by members of the OA oligarchy (Look at the archive if you need proof). It’s probably fair to say that this attitude has effective killed Open discussion in OA. Jan Velterop and I are probably the only people prepared to challenge opinions: most others walk away.

Because of this lack of discussion it isn’t clear to me what the goals and philosophy of OA are. I suspect that different practitioners have many different views, including:

  • A means to reach out to citizenry beyond academia, especially for publicly funded research. This should be the top reason IMO but there is little effective practice.
  • A means to reduce journal prices. This is (one of) Harnad’s arguments. We concentrate on making everything Green and when we have achieved this the publishers will have to reduce their prices. This seems most unlikely to me – any publisher losing revenue will fight this.
  • A way of reusing scholarly output. This is ONLY possible if the output is labelled as CC-BY. There’s about 5-10 percent of this. Again this is high on my list and the only reason Ross Mounce and I can do research into phylogenetic trees.
  • A way of changing scholarship. I see no evidence at all for this in the OA community. In fact OA is holding back innovation in new methods of scholarship as it emphasizes the conventional role of the “final manuscript” and the “publisher”. Green OA relies (in practice) in having publishers and so legitimizes them

And finally is the product “Open”? The BOAI declaration is, in Cameron Neylon’s words, “clear, direct, and precise:” To remind you:

“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.”

This is in the tradition of Stallman’s software freedoms, The Open Knowledge Definition and all the other examples I have quoted. Free to use, re-use and redistribute for any lawful purpose. For manuscripts it is cleanly achieved by adding a visible CC-BY licence. But unfortunately many people, including the mainstream OA community and many publishers use “(fully) Open Access” to mean just about anything. Very few of us challenge this. So the result is that much current “OA” is so badly defined that it adds little value. There have been attempts to formalize this, but they have all ended in messy (and to me unacceptable) compromise. In all other Open communities “libre” has a clear meaning – freedom as in speech. In OA it means almost nothing. Unfortunately anyone trying to get tighter approaches is shouted down. So, and this is probably the greatest tragedy, Open Access does not by default produce Open products.

For that reason we have set up our own Open-access list in the OKF.

If we can have a truly Open discussion we might make progress on some of these issues.

[1] Phylogenetic tree diagram by David Hillis, Derreck Zwickil and Robin Gutell.

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5 thoughts on “Is Open Access Open?”

  1. Ni! Hi Peter,

    Nice, intriguing post =D

    At the risk of sounding too vague, I say Open Access as a movement
    suffers from a chronic issue of incomplete focus, which is more
    fundamental than ill definitions and divisions, and leads to them.

    As I understand, access is only one part of an open system. So “open
    access” actually means “access for an open X”, where X in our context
    happens to be science.

    And that is why, as long as one focuses his discourse around access
    alone, he looses sight of the other aspects without which openness
    itself cannot be achieved: participation (some call it inclusiveness)
    and integration (some call it modularity).

    In terms of politics, “open access” by itself can be seen as “open
    data” – which is short for “data for an open government” – without the
    perspective of open government.

    In software terms, “open access” by itself is similar to developing a
    bunch of “open source applications” without recognizing the goal of
    building a libre operating system.

    So, as I see it, the path to achieve consensus and join forces for
    “open access” is to ask instead how can we open the process of
    scientific discovery and the community around it? And what kind of
    access enables that the most? That will tell us what “open access” has
    got to be.

    Thus, an increasing fraction of the times I’m asked to talk about it,
    I refer first to open science, and then derive into what kind of access
    is required for an open science, further observing that it – the so
    called “open access” – does bring with itself immediate benefits both
    practical and ethical.

    This is not always the right speech to convince most people, but it is the most convincing speech for the right people.



  2. You know Peter, if there were no splitters and carpers at work in the open access movement, you would doubt that the interests it threatens were taking it seriously. No reaction, no traction!

    The slow progress reflects the fact that much is at stake for many people. As is normal in any such IT advance, an attempt to model a historical process using networked computers has revealed the squirming interior of a social can of worms; “publication” has been found to encompass considerably more than merely making a text available to the public.

    So it’s hardly surprising that the useful idiots of the forces of reaction are numerous and active. They are even, doubtless, sincere. There is after all, a reasonable debate to be had about the detail of implementation.

    Fortunately, it is fairly simple to keep the big picture in mind. The dinosaurs will die out, to be replaced by those who get it, and things will change.

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