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Open Access

This research guide provides readers with a basic understanding of Open Access, which is broadly defined as content that is free to access and re-use.

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Eleven Things Open Access is Not

The following material is excerpted directly from Chapter 1.2 of Peter Suber’s Open Access (MIT Press, 2012), a quick introduction to OA that is freely available online. Key sentences are bolded here, but not in the original text.

  1. OA isn’t an attempt to bypass peer review. OA is compatible with every kind of peer review, from the most conservative to the most innovative, and all the major public statements on OA insist on its importance. Because scholarly journals generally don’t pay peer-reviewing editors and referees, just as they don’t pay authors, all the participants in peer review can consent to OA without losing revenue. While OA to unrefereed preprints is useful and widespread, the OA movement isn’t limited to unrefereed preprints and, if anything, focuses on OA to peer-reviewed articles. (More in section 5.1 on peer review.)

  2. OA isn’t an attempt to reform, violate, or abolish copyright. It’s compatible with copyright law as it is. OA would benefit from the right kinds of copyright reforms, and many dedicated people are working on them. But it needn’t wait for reforms and hasn’t waited. OA literature avoids copyright problems in exactly the same way that conventional toll-access literature does. For older works, it takes advantage of the public domain, and for newer works, it rests on copyright-holder consent. (More in chapter 4 on policies and chapter 6 on copyright.)

  3. OA isn’t an attempt to deprive royalty-earning authors of income. The OA movement focuses on research articles precisely because they don’t pay royalties. In any case, inside and outside that focus, OA for copyrighted work depends on copyright-holder consent. Hence, royalty-earning authors have nothing to fear but persuasion that the benefits of OA might outweigh the risks to royalties. (More in section 5.3 on OA for books.)

  4. OA isn’t an attempt to deny the reality of costs. No serious OA advocate has ever argued that OA literature is costless to produce, although many argue that it is less expensive to produce than conventionally published literature, even less expensive than born-digital toll-access literature. The question is not whether research literature can be made costless, but whether there are better ways to pay the bills than charging readers and creating access barriers. (More in chapter 7 on economics.)

  5. OA isn’t an attempt to reduce authors’ rights over their work. On the contrary, OA depends on author decisions and requires authors to exercise more rights or control over their work than they are allowed to exercise under traditional publishing contracts. One OA strategy is for authors to retain some of the rights they formerly gave publishers, including the right to authorize OA. Another OA strategy is for publishers to permit more uses than they formerly permitted, including permission for authors to make OA copies of their work. By contrast, traditional journal-publishing contracts demand that authors transfer all rights to publishers, and author rights or control cannot sink lower than that. (See chapters 4 on policies and 6 on copyright.)

  6. OA isn’t an attempt to reduce academic freedom. Academic authors remain free to submit their work to the journals or publishers of their choice. Policies requiring OA do so conditionally, for example, for researchers who choose to apply for a certain kind of grant. In addition, these policies generally build in exceptions, waiver options, or both. Since 2008 most university OA policies have been adopted by faculty deeply concerned to preserve and even enhance their prerogatives. (See chapter 4 on OA policies.)

  7. OA isn’t an attempt to relax rules against plagiarism. All the public definitions of OA support author attribution, even construed as a “restriction” on users. All the major open licenses require author attribution. Moreover, plagiarism is typically punished by the plagiarist’s institution rather than by courts, that is, by social norms rather than by law. Hence, even when attribution is not legally required, plagiarism is still a punishable offense and no OA policy anywhere interferes with those punishments. In any case, if making literature digital and online makes plagiarism easier to commit, then OA makes plagiarism easier to detect. Not all plagiarists are smart, but the smart ones will not steal from OA sources indexed in every search engine. In this sense, OA deters plagiarism.

  8. OA isn’t an attempt to punish or undermine conventional publishers. OA is an attempt to advance the interests of research, researchers, and research institutions. The goal is constructive, not destructive. If OA does eventually harm toll-access publishers, it will be in the way that personal computers harmed typewriter manufacturers. The harm was not the goal, but a side effect of developing something better. Moreover, OA doesn’t challenge publishers or publishing per se, just one business model for publishing, and it’s far easier for conventional publishers to adapt to OA than for typewriter manufacturers to adapt to computers. In fact, most toll-access publishers are already adapting, by allowing author-initiated OA, providing some OA themselves, or experimenting with OA. (See section 3.1 on green OA and chapter 8 on casualties.)

  9. OA doesn’t require boycotting any kind of literature or publisher. It doesn’t require boycotting toll-access research any more than free online journalism requires boycotting priced online journalism. OA doesn’t require us to strike toll-access literature from our personal reading lists, course syllabi, or libraries. Some scholars who support OA decide to submit new work only to OA journals, or to donate their time as editors or referees only to OA journals, in effect boycotting toll-access journals as authors, editors, and referees. But this choice is not forced by the definition of OA, by a commitment to OA, or by any OA policy, and most scholars who support OA continue to work with toll-access journals. In any case, even those scholars who do boycott toll-access journals as authors, editors, or referees don’t boycott them as readers. (Here we needn’t get into the complexity that some toll-access journals effectively create involuntary reader boycotts by pricing their journals out of reach of readers who want access.)

  10. OA isn’t primarily about bringing access to lay readers. If anything, the OA movement focuses on bringing access to professional researchers whose careers depend on access. But there’s no need to decide which users are primary and which are secondary. The publishing lobby sometimes argues that the primary beneficiaries of OA are lay readers, perhaps to avoid acknowledging how many professional researchers lack access, or perhaps to set up the patronizing counter-argument that lay people don’t care to read research literature and wouldn’t understand it if they tried. OA is about bringing access to everyone with an internet connection who wants access, regardless of their professions or purposes. There’s no doubt that if we put “professional researchers” and “everyone else” into separate categories, a higher percentage of researchers will want access to research literature, even after taking into account that many already have paid access through their institutions. But it’s far from clear why that would matter, especially when providing OA to all internet users is cheaper and simpler than providing OA to just a subset of worthy internet users. [...]

  11. Finally, OA isn’t universal access. Even when we succeed at removing price and permission barriers, four other kinds of access barrier might remain in place:

  • Filtering and censorship barriers: Many schools, employers, ISPs, and governments want to limit what users can see.

  • Language barriers: Most online literature is in English, or another single language, and machine translation is still very weak.

  • Handicap access barriers: Most web sites are not yet as accessible to handicapped users as they should be.

  • Connectivity barriers: The digital divide keeps billions of people offline, including millions of scholars, and impedes millions of others with slow, flaky, or low-bandwidth internet connections.

Most of us want to remove all four of these barriers. But there’s no reason to save the term open access until we succeed. In the long climb to universal access, removing price and permission barriers is a significant plateau worth recognizing with a special name.