Bill Gates and the True Nature of Open Access

I've been writing about open access - the application of open source-like principles to academic research publications - for many years now. Its steady ascent is both undeniable and with luck unstoppable. Here's the latest vote of confidence in both open access and open data from a rather unexpected source:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to information sharing and transparency. We believe that published research resulting from our funding should be promptly and broadly disseminated. We have adopted an Open Access policy that enables the unrestricted access and reuse of all peer-reviewed published research funded, in whole or in part, by the foundation, including any underlying data sets.

Interestingly it's the CC-BY licence, one of the most open, that has been adopted:

All publications shall be published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Generic License (CC BY 4.0) or an equivalent license. This will permit all users of the publication to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and transform and build upon the material, including for any purpose (including commercial) without further permission or fees being required.

Here are some figures that give an idea of the Foundation's scale and impact:

Asset Trust Endowment: $42.3 billion

Total grant payments since inception: $31.6 billion

Total 2013 grant payments: $3.6 billion

Total 2012 grant payments: $3.4 billion

Requiring open access to all publications that result from work it funds is not just a huge practical boost for the idea, it should offer validation for remaining sceptics of the whole concept. After all, a move of this magnitude would surely only have been made if Bill Gates approved, which indicates that he, too, has begun to appreciate the power of openness.

This new requirement by the Gates Foundation will also increase the pressure on traditional academic publishers to move towards providing open access to their journals, otherwise they risk being shunned by researchers funded by the Gates Foundation and many others with similar policies. Here's one example of that starting to happen, announced today:

All research papers from Nature will be made free to read in a proprietary screen-view format that can be annotated but not copied, printed or downloaded, the journal’s publisher Macmillan announced on 2 December.

The content-sharing policy, which also applies to 48 other journals in Macmillan’s Nature Publishing Group (NPG) division, including Nature Genetics, Nature Medicine and Nature Physics, marks an attempt to let scientists freely read and share articles while preserving NPG’s primary source of income — the subscription fees libraries and individuals pay to gain access to articles.

Macmillan is pretty much the Microsoft of the academic publishing world, so this is a significant move. But it's important to understand what it is - and what it is not. For example, this is not open access by any means: papers can be read on the screen, but not downloaded or printed. Here's how it will work:

ReadCube, a software platform similar to Apple’s iTunes, will be used to host and display read-only versions of the articles' PDFs. If the initiative becomes popular, it may also boost the prospects of the ReadCube platform, in which Macmillan has a majority investment.

ReadCubeis available for Windows, Macintosh and the iPhone - but not GNU/Linux, so this is a retrograde step purely in terms of platforms: PDFs may be clunky, but at least they can be read on most systems. And of course, in order to prevent people from downloading or printing a paper, ReadCube wraps PDFs with DRM. Again, that is making publishing less open than it is now. It also shuts out the visually-impaired, who will be unable to use their screen-readers if the files are locked up in a proprietary format on the ReadCube site: that's a huge kick in the teeth for a community that has enough problems to content with.

As Michael Eisen, one of the pioneers of open access, astutely writes of this move:

It’s actually kind of brilliant on Nature‘s part. They are giving up absolutely nothing. Readers of news stories about Nature articles were never going to pay to access the actual articles (like other publisher Nature has tried a pay-per-view system that has completely failed). And individuals and institutions that subscribe to Nature aren’t going to give up the convenience of being able to read articles on demand for the challenge of finding a link on Twitter (unless someone were to set up a database of these links…. hmmm….).

And let’s remember that subscribers to Nature were already sharing copies of downloaded PDFs quite abundantly. This was not, as Nature argues happening in an inconvenient way in the dark corners of the Internet. This was happening in email and on Twitter. The problem was that Nature had no control over this sharing. So, really, they’re not changing people’s ability to access Nature very much – what they’re doing is changing where they access it – likely with the hope that they will figure out ways to monetize this attention.

Thus Nature gets lots of goodwill, more people reading their papers, and they lose nothing in the process. At least not immediately. Because the irony of a system like this is that it can’t ever actually do what it purports to do. If it ever actually made it possible to find and get free access to any Nature paper, then people actually would stop subscribing and they’d have to end this kind of access.

Macmillan's move is certainly not open access, but as Eisen points out, it's not even *free* access - Ross Mounce rather wittily dubs it "beggar's access", because you have to beg someone for a link to the ReadCube versions. For truly free access - free as in beer, and free as in freedom - only open access will do. Nature's move is a pretty cynical attempt to undermine the argument in favour of open access by offering a fauxpen access - you can look but you can't touch - and trying to suggest that it is good enough. But like fauxpen source, it should be rejected and boycotted in favour of the real thing. The future of academic publishing is true open access under a CC-BY-SA or better licence - just ask Bill Gates.

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