Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

What Does "Open Access" Mean, Really?

What Does "Open Access" Mean, Really?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Having devoted part of my career to electronic systems for scientific and technical publishing I’ve tried to follow the “Open Access” movement but have never quite understood what “Open Access” means.

Supporters of the “movement” are trying to reduce such confusion. Three organizations have published a brief document that begins to define differences between “open access” and “closed access” regarding scholarly communication involving peer reviewed journal articles. The three organizations are:

The most useful part of the “HowOpenIsIt?” document is the table at the end that lays out a range of criteria from “open” to “closed” for each of the following categories:

  • Reader Rights 
  • Reuse Rights 
  • Copyrights 
  • Author Posting Rights 
  • Automatic Posting  
  • Machine Readability

I like the distinctions made in this table. Discussion of these will help clarify what Open Access really means.

I am disappointed, however, that there is not a column in the document’s table with the heading “Who Pays?” Even if you agree that large academic publishers are “sticking it” to academic libraries with grossly inflated annual subscription feessome one has to pay for the costs in doing the things mentioned in the individual cells of this table.

For example, say under “Author Posting Rights” you agree with the statement

Author may post final version of the peer-reviewed manuscript (“postprint”) to certain third-party repositories or websites

This is halfway between “Open” and “Closed” on the vertical scale. There are certain cost and governance issues that need to be addressed, e.g.,

  • Who pays for managing the peer review process?
  • Who decides when an article is “finished” and who pays the salary of that person?
  • Who maintains and pays for the third party repositories and web sites?

You could say that these types of questions are just more examples of the old “the devil is in the details” adage, and you would probably be right. But questions of who pays and how payments are related to actual costs are at the core of any system redesign effort.

On page 1 of this document, for example, we find this statement:

Open Access shifts the costs of publishing so that readers, practitioners, and researchers obtain content at no cost. However, Open Access is not as simple as “articles are free to all readers.”

I agree with the second sentence. I don’t understand what the first means.

If you are proposing to “shift the costs” don’t you need to specify:

  • Whose costs?
  • Which costs?
  • From whom?
  • To whom?

Designing an information system often involves definitions of the “as is” system and the “to be” system. Often there are multiple “to be” systems possible for solving the same problem. Designers often look at multiple options and the costs and benefits involved in moving from the “as is” to each of the “to be” systems.

As the table points out there are multiple possibilities for developing open access systems. In that sense this document is very useful since discussing it openly does force us to come to grips with complex questions related to costs, governance, and accessibility.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thanks to William Gunn on Google+ for sharing the original document!

Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

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