What means Open Access?



More than ever before I’m hearing the complaint that the term “open access” doesn’t have a firm, common definition. This is not true, but it could become true if dilution and misuse of the term continue.

The three major public definitions of “open access” are contained in the Budapest, Bethesda, and Berlin public statements. Even though these three definitions differ from one another in small ways (which I explored in SOAN for 8/4/03), they agree on the essentials. Let me refer to them collectively, or to their common ground, as the Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin or BBB definition of open access.

Nearly all OA proponents agree on the BBB definition. When I defend the concept of open access against dilution, I’m defending the communal consensus embodied in the BBB definition, not my own private preferences. The three contributing public statements have unparalleled stature and influence within the OA movement. Only outsiders and newcomers might mistake this. And that, I believe, is part of the problem. Our growing success means that our message in one form or another, clear or garbled, is reaching new people who almost certainly do not know the BBB definition or its centrality for our work.

The best-known part of the BBB definition is that OA content must be free of charge for all users with an internet connection. However, the BBB definition doesn’t stop at free online access. It adds an extra dimension that isn’t as easy to describe, and consequently is often dropped or obscured. This extra dimension gives users permission for all legitimate scholarly uses. It removes what I’ve called permission barriers, as opposed to price barriers. The Budapest statement puts the extra dimension this way:

> 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.

The Bethesda and Berlin statements put it this way: For a work to be OA, 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”.

All three tributaries of the mainstream BBB definition agree that OA removes both price and permission barriers. Free online access isn’t enough. “Fair use” (“fair dealing” in the UK) isn’t enough.

Note that the three component statements of the BBB definition do not agree on exactly which permission barriers must be removed. There’s room for variety here. BBB requires removing barriers to copying and redistribution. It doesn’t require removing barriers to commercial re-use; authors can go either way on this. Two of the three BBB component definitions require removing barriers to derivative works.

One danger is the dilution of our term. That’s why I’m reminding us of the BBB definition and its place in our history. But another danger is the false sharpening of our term. If we thought that the BBB definition settled matters that it doesn’t settle, then we could prematurely close avenues of useful exploration, needlessly shrink the big tent of OA, and divisively instigate quarreling about who is providing “true OA” and who isn’t.

The BBB definition functions as a usefully firm definition of “open access” even if it leaves room for variation. We should agree that OA removes some permission barriers (e.g. on copying, redistribution, and printing) even if it leaves different OA providers free to adopt different policies on others (e.g. on derivative works and commercial re-use). My personal preference, for example, is to permit derivative works and commercial re-use. But (as I wrote in FOSN for 1/30/02) I want to make this preference genial, or compatible with the opposite preference, so that we can recruit and retain authors on both sides of this question.


I do not agree with the conclusion that BBB “doesn’t require removing barriers to commercial re-use”.

BOAI says: “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.” In my opinion that clearly allows commercial re-use. I do not see that “for any responsible purpose” in the Berlin declaration (and the Bethesda definition) excludes commercial re-use.

Suber has avoided mentioning the fact hat PLoS has chosen a less restrictive Creative Commons license (attribution, derivative works and commercial re-use allowed).

I would like to reduce BBB to one B: Berlin. Berlin is the broadest (and latest, basing on Budapest and – mainly – Bethesda) consensus of the Open Access community. Berlin clearly allows derivative works. We should not say that policies which forbidd derivative works are’nt “true Open Access” but we can say that they are definitively NOT compatible with the Berlin declaration.

And, by the way, we can definitively say that the Lund criteria for Open Access Journals (http://www.doaj.org) are NOT compatible with the BBB definition. Most of the listed journals allows only free access (journals with an embargo period are not listed) and have copyright reservations – no permission barriers are removed. I have called this “Open Access LIGHT”. The Open Access Community praises the Lund directory (although the EZB is much more better) but will not see the fact that the Lund criteria are exactly in the same way misleading as the diluting publisher’s use of “Open Access”.

Confusion is growing on the license question, i.e.: which legal licenses are compatible with BBB (or B)? Do we need a Berlin II conference clearing this point or should we allow a free choice by scholars or institutional policies? We can only hope that the derivative works and the commercial re-use will remain the only points conflicts can araise.

I fully agree with the following conclusion Suber’s on the dilution of Open Access especially made by publishers:

In evaluating new access policies, we needn’t confuse the widening of access with open access. And we needn’t confuse policies that stop short of open access with policies that make no progress. We can praise progress and criticize dilution of our term at the same time.

Autor: Klaus Graf

Historiker und Archivar, Blogger

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