Open Access: Not All That is Gold Glisters

I've written elsewhere about how open access – the idea that academic research paid for by the public should be freely available online – was directly inspired by open source. So it's great to see open access making huge strides recently, including the following:

The government is to unveil controversial plans to make publicly funded scientific research immediately available for anyone to read for free by 2014, in the most radical shakeup of academic publishing since the invention of the internet.

Under the scheme, research papers that describe work paid for by the British taxpayer will be free online for universities, companies and individuals to use for any purpose, wherever they are in the world.

That sounds like really good news – open access has won, it would seem. But not so fast:

Though many academics will welcome the announcement, some scientists contacted by the Guardian were dismayed that the cost of the transition, which could reach £50m a year, must be covered by the existing science budget and that no new money would be found to fund the process. That could lead to less research and fewer valuable papers being published.

That's because what is being proposed here is known as "gold open access". Here's a good explanation of that term:

Gold applies only to publication through publishers. By submitting a manuscript here the publisher has the responsibility of making the manuscript Open in whatever form and preserving it indefinitely (maybe with a third party).

So what's the alternative? Why, green open access:

Green relates to self-archiving, normally of material published in a conventional journal. Assuming the author has the right, they may or may not choose to self-archive (i.e. by putting it on their website or in their Institutional Repository).

But as that same post points out, gold versus green is not the real story: there is also the libre versus gratis access that exists in the software world:

Gratis is "free as in beer" and libre is "free as in speech". Gratis grants no rights, other than to read; libre grants significant rights. The fundamental Open Access declarations (Budapest, berlin, Bethesda) defined open Access in "libre"-oriented prose.

Despite its upmarket name, gold open access is not necessarily better than green open access – on the contrary. Self-archived copies are frequently made available under liberal Creative Commons licences, whereas gold open access may only give you gratis access.

So, welcome as the news is that publicly-funded research will be immediately available – and I should note that the "immediately" part is actually important, and deserves special commendation here – the choice of gold open access means that the job is only half done. Although we will have gratis access to that work, it won't always be libre, which means that we are very limited in terms of what we can do with it.

Moreover, money will now be routed from research budgets to publishers, rather than from library budgets, so that's more of an accounting trick than any real change. The publishers still get to feed off the work of academics with only minimal input themselves (remember that most of the intellectual heavy lifting – the writing of the articles and the peer review – is done for free by academics.) What we need is a complete revolution in the way that knowledge is shared, and this is not really the best approach to doing it – see this great post by open access pioneer Stevan Harnard for more on this theme. As with open source and open standards, the battle for true and comprehensive open access goes on.

Update: here's a more upbeat analysis of what the costs of the new policy are likely to be.

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