Defining Open Access. Again.

Next week is Open Access Week, and as has become my tradition, I will be traveling to another university (actually, two universities this year) to give presentations on copyright, scholarly publishing, Creative Commons and open access. This morning I ran into my former copyright professor. We got to chatting, he asked what I’ve been up to, and I mentioned my busy Open Access Week. My professor, as he is fond of doing, asked a good question.

“So, what does ‘Open Access’ mean when you talk about it?”

Flustered, I said something about how the organizers of international Open Access Week tend to focus on the classic definition and scope of OA, meaning peer-reviewed scholarly articles available for free online, preferably with open licenses attached. I also explained that the institutions I visit for Open Access Week tend not to have much expertise about copyright or publishing, and so rather than talk about Open Access what I actually do is teach a basic introduction to copyright and scholarly publishing. That’s all true, but it didn’t really do justice to the question. The definition of open access, and more importantly the public understanding of what open access means, was never terribly clear, but lately it seems to be getting fuzzier. That’s what my professor was really asking about.

As more and more open movements have sprouted and expanded over the last few years – open peer review, open education, open government – it gets harder and harder to tease them apart. Open means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and we can’t assume that a roomful of people who care about openness care about the same thing. Chances are they really really don’t.

Within the Open Access movement alone there are a growing number of tactics for achieving openness, not to mention a gradual loosening of the requirements for labeling something open. On the tactics front, we have the Compact for Open Publishing Equity, flourishing institutional repositories, deposit mandates from both funding bodies and research institutions, and good old fashioned outreach to faculty. As for loosening requirements, we have been conflating Open Access with Free Online Access for years. Things got even muddier when publishers like Springer and Elsevier started offering the “Open Choice” publishing option, which gives authors the “opportunity” to pay several thousand dollars to make their work freely available online. The other night a friend of mine mentioned that she and her co-authors were given several different options from their publisher, all confusing; she knew she wanted the one that would make their work free to everyone, but wasn’t confident she could identify which option would do that. She just told her co-author to look for the one that had open in the name, and hoped she was right. It’s all a far cry from the Budapest definition.

Is it bad, this watering down of Open Access? Certainly it makes it harder to talk about. It makes it harder to brand and market. But nobody owns open. That’s the whole point. Despite the fragmentation and confusion, ultimately I think it’s probably going to be better for the public and better for our future to have lots of people approaching the problem of how to improve access to knowledge and scholarly output from lots of different angles. Names and definitions are useful for raising awareness and building community, but the ultimate goal of the open access movement is to make itself and its definitions obsolete. If this movement succeeds eventually we won’t need to distinguish between open scholarship and closed scholarship. It will all be scholarship, and it will all be accessible.