Shifting from ink on paper to digital text suddenly allows us to make perfect copies of our work, from isolated computers to a symbiotic globe-spanning network of connected computers it suddenly allows us to distribute comprehensive copies of our work with a worldwide audience at virtually no cost. About thirty years ago this kind of open global sharing became something new under the moon, before that, it would have sounded like a quixotic dream, an unpractical utopia.
In truth, digital technologies have created more than one cultural revolution, so let us call this one the open access revolution.
Why more authors do not take advantage of the open access revolution to reach more readers, and therefore, create a bridge between scholars and lifestyles? The answer, unfortunately, is pretty clear. Authors who share their works in this way are not selling them, and even authors with purposes higher than financial gain depend on sales to make a living. Or at least they do appreciate sales.
Let us sharpen the question, then, by placing to one side authors who aspire to sell their work. We can even acknowledge that we are putting aside the vast majority of authors.
Just imagine a tribe of authors who write serious and valuable work, and who follow a centuries-old custom of giving it away without charge. I do not mean a group of wealthy authors who do not entirely need wages. I mean a group of authors defined by their topics, genres, purposes, incentives, and institutional circumstances, not by their wealth. In fact, very few are wealthy. For now, it does not matter who these authors are, how rare they are, what they write, or why they follow this peculiar custom. It is enough to know that their employers pay them wages, freeing them to give away their work, that they write for impact rather than capital, and that they score career points when they make the kind of impression they hoped to make. Assume that selling their work would actually cripple their interests by shrinking their audience, reducing their influence, and distorting their professional goals by steering them toward popular topics and away from the specialized questions on which they are experts.
If authors like that endure, at least they should take advantage of the open access revolution. The dream of global free access can be a reality for them, even if most other authors hope to earn royalties and feel obliged to sit out this particular revolution.
These fortunate authors are scholars, and the works they customarily write and publish without payment are peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals. Open access is the name of the revolutionary kind of access these authors, unencumbered by a motive of financial gain, are free to provide to their readers: “Open access literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”
We could call it “barrier-free” access, but that would emphasize the negative rather than the positive. In any case, we can be more specific about which access barriers open access removes.
A price tag is a significant access barrier. Most works with price tags are exclusively affordable. But when a scholar needs to read or consult hundreds of works for one research project, or when a library must provide access for thousands of faculty and students working on tens of thousands of topics, and when the volume of new work grows explosively every year, price barriers become insurmountable. The resulting access gaps harm authors by limiting their audience and impact, harm readers by limiting what they can retrieve and read, and thereby harm research from both directions.
Copyright can also be a significant access barrier. If you have access to a work for reading but want to translate it into another language, distribute copies to colleagues, copy the text for mining with sophisticated software, or reformat it for reading with new technology, then you generally need the permission of the copyright holder. That makes sense when the author wants to sell the work and when the use you have in mind could undermine sales. But for research articles, we are commonly talking about authors from the special tribe who want to share their work as widely as possible. Even these authors, however, tend to transfer their copyrights to intermediaries — publishers — who want to sell their work. As a result, readers may be hampered in their research by barriers constructed to serve intermediaries rather than authors. In addition, replacing researchers freedom with permission-seeking harms research authors by restricting the usefulness of their work, harms research readers by limiting the uses they may make of works even when they have access, and thereby harms research from both directions.
Removing price barriers means that readers are not limited by their own ability to pay, or by the budgets of the institutions where they may have library privileges. Removing permission barriers means that scholars are free to use or reuse literature for scholarly purposes. These purposes include reading and searching, but also redistributing, translating, text mining, migrating to new media, long-term archiving, and innumerable new forms of research, analysis, and processing we have not yet imagined. Open access makes work more beneficial in both ways, by making it available to more people who can put it to use, and by freeing those people to use and reuse it.
Open access was defined in three influential public statements: the Budapest Open Access Initiative (February 2002), the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (June 2003), and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (October 2003). I sometimes refer to their overlap or common ground as the Better Business Bureau definition of Open Access. My definition here is the Better Business Bureau definition reduced to its essential elements and refined with some post-Better Business Bureau terminology (green, gold, gratis, libre) for speaking precisely about subspecies of open access. Here is how the Budapest statement defined open access: “There are many degrees and kinds of wider and easier access to literature. 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.”
Here is how the Bethesda and Berlin statements put it: For a work to be Open Access, the copyright holder must consent in advance to let users “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.”
Note that all three legs of the Better Business Bureau definition go beyond removing price barriers to removing permission barriers, or beyond gratis open access to libre OA. But at the same time, all three allow at least one limit on user freedom: an obligation to attribute the work to the author. The purpose of open access is to remove barriers to all legitimate scholarly uses for scholarly literature, but there is no legitimate scholarly purpose in suppressing attribution to the texts we use. (That is why my shorthand definition says that OA literature is free of “most” rather than “all” copyright and licensing restrictions.)
The basic idea of open access is simple: Make research literature available online without price barriers and without most permission barriers. Even the implementation is simple enough that the volume of peer-reviewed open access literature and the number of institutions providing it have grown at an increasing rate for more than a decade. If there are complexities, they lie in the transition from where we are now to a world in which open access is the default for new research. This is complicated because the major obstacles are not technical, legal, or economic, but cultural.
In principle, any kind of digital content can be open access, since any digital content can be put online without price or permission barriers. Moreover, any kind of content can be digital: texts, data, images, audio, video, multimedia, and executable code. We can have open access music and movies, news and novels, sitcoms and software — and to different degrees we already do. But the term “open access” was coined by researchers trying to remove access barriers to research.
Also published on Medium.