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What is Open Access and why does it matter?

This week we’re posting about papers from AoB PLANTS, an open access journal for plant science, and launching in silico Plants, another open access journal for research between mathematics, computer science and plant biology. There’s also an option to publish papers with Open Access in Annals of Botany, but what does Open Access mean?

Open Access logo
Open Access logo by PLOS One.

The Budapest declaration says: “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.”

In the following years, things have got more complex.

Open Access papers are usually (but not always) released under a Creative Commons licence. The most basic licence is BY. This is part of all Creative Commons licences and means if you’re reproducing the work (or a part of it) you have to credit the original author. This licence can have some modifiers.

SA is Share-alike. This clause means if you release something with a BY-SA licence, then anyone publishing something that reuses your work should also release their work with a BY-SA licence. So if Marvel Studios decide to make their next film based on Botany One, they can – but they have to release it under a BY-SA licence too.

If you want to prevent commercial use altogether, you can add the NC, Non-commercial clause. Annals of Botany and AoBP Open Access licences used to be BY-NC. The reason for shifting is covered by Claire Redhead at the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association. First of all non-commercial is a vague term. Any serious attempt to enforce it is going to involve a lot of expensive lawyers. Secondly, it limits the reuse of the material in some other venues.

While Wikipedia has its faults, being able to add fact-based items to it is helpful. Last week I a ran a small poll, to see if people thought commercial re-use was necessary for a paper to be open access. The result 57% to 30% was no, with the remainder being undecided.

That willingness to label NC papers as OA does seem against the drift of publishers. It’s not just Annals and AoBP that use BY instead of BY-NC. The same is true of New Phytologist’s Open Access papers, and PLOS One has never had anything other than BY licences. Anyone planning to use papers in in silico Plants might also welcome that they’ll only be using a BY licence. But not everyone is focussed on reuse.

Matt Candeias of In Defense of Plants also left a comment.

There was a second poll at the same time, into this. I asked if an ND, No-derivatives clause was acceptable. A little leeway is necessary with no derivatives. If a scientific paper wasn’t derived in some way earlier work, there’d be no bibliography. In this context no derivatives means no lifting chunks of a work out for reuse. So if I were blogging a paper with an ND clause, I couldn’t reuse a diagram from it, even with attribution, without first arranging permission.

The result for the ND was similar to the NC poll. 50% said ND was acceptable for Open Access and 33% said no.

This result surprised me because we already have a word for papers you can access without charge: free. You can access Annals of Botany papers for free a year after publication, but when I promote these papers, I always use the phrase free access instead of open access. From a marketing point of view, I wonder if I’m missing a trick.

Less, cynically, you can also say that the difference between free access and open access is not apparent. Peter Suber has criticised the term free access as being ambiguous. ‘The main problem is that some people already use “free” to mean gratis (“free as in beer”) and some people already use it to mean libre (“free as in speech”).’

Reading through the newsletter I can see why Peter Suber has proposed gratis open access for papers free of financial cost and libre open access for papers with reuse rights, but as isolated terms, I’m not sure they’re any easier to understand. However, I’ve been surprised by poll results twice so far, so it seems reasonable to see if I’m wrong again and embed another Twitter poll here.

It seems that there is no simple definition of Open Access on the horizon. At the very least it means free-to-access at the publisher’s site, but beyond that it’s uncertain. If you’re planning to reuse material, you’ll save a lot of time if you check how open an open access paper is before working with it. If you’re paying a fee to make your paper Open Access, then it makes sense to see what it is that you’re paying for.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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