Juliet Walker: Free v. Open Access

Recent changes to the BMJ’s copyright licence and the information it includes in research articles means that they can be formally listed as open access articles in PubMed Central and other repositories. So should we change the labels of open access research articles on our website from “free” to “open access”?

The term “open access” implies much more than just “free”. According to the Wellcome Trust, articles to be listed as open access must be freely available immediately, and publishers must also allow for their free reuse. This means that articles can be copied, distributed, displayed, performed and modified into derivative works by any user.

For institutions that provide the funding to make an article open access, it is important that all these criteria are met. However, users are probably more interested in knowing whether they can freely access the article, and the word “free” conveys this more clearly.

Peter Suber has made the issue of defining open access the subject of his extensive open access newsletter. He believes that the meaning of open access has become confused because it refers to two different things: the removal of price barriers and the removal of permission barriers. A journal or repository can refer to itself as open access if only one of these criteria is fulfilled, hence the confusion. Suber has suggested the adoption of the terms “libre” and “gratis” to clarify precisely which type of open access we mean. “Gratis” would be used to mean removal of price barriers and “libre” would mean the removal of both price and permission barriers.

Whether these terms catch on remains to be seen, but what is clear is that open access needs to be more clearly defined. Authors and readers won’t know what to expect from an open access journal until they know exactly what the term means. Once they have reached that happy state we will be able to use the term “open access” rather than simply “free” on our website

Juliet Walker is editorial intern, BMJ.

  • Open Access (OA) has been clearly defined several times. Unfortunately, some of the definitions have differed significantly, and no lasting consensus has emerged, other than that a necessary condition for OA is the removal of price barriers. However, that’s only the starting point. The differing perspectives of OA publishers, traditional subscription-based publishers, OA advocates, funders, editors and authors (for example, those authors who are also text- or data-miners) have yielded a variety of other conditions. Some versions of OA permit licenced reuse. Some permit deposition in an online repository for long-term archiving. The resulting muddle has been reviewed, from the perspective of an OA publisher, in an editorial by Catriona J. MacCallum, When Is Open Access Not Open Access? PLoS Biol 2007; 5(10): e285. See: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050285

  • The blogosphere – including well-known academics’ blogging – is happy to use the flexible-at-many-levels creative commons licence to specify conditions related to use, reuse and creation of derivative works. Perhaps that is a model worth considering in academic publications too. Throughout my PhD, it rankled me to see how publishers control access to research papers. Electronic publishing could reduce costs as well as enable easier searching for papers. A wholesale overhaul seems overdue for academic publishing if we are to ensure research is read widely and used to inform real-world choices and decisions.

  • John Dennis

    If the purpose of research includes that it should be “read widely and used to inform real-world choices and decisions” then the move of the BMJ away from free access will have limited its influence. I for one see the whole picture less frequently.

  • Alex Ishimaru

    If an article is labelled “open access” I know I have free access to it. I may also have some additional rights, such as the right to distribute copies. I might be unsure about exactly what those rights are, but I can find out.

    If an article is labelled “free” I know I have free access to it. I don’t immediately know why the article is free to access. I don’t know whether I have any additional rights, and may assume that I don’t.

    What does using the term “free” instead of “open access” achieve?

  • Open access journal articles are those articles whose summary or abstracts[100-150 words] is only freely available on the interne and for a full article the reader has to pay for it according to charges in USdollars or in pounds or in Euro pounds, while an non-open access ones, are those for everything a reader or even who wants to cite the articles has to pay on order to gain access to them[1]. Open access publishing thus may reach globally to readers, researchers through internet to more & more readers than subscription based access publishing journals. When I myself act as an author, want to publish my research[originals] or publish a rapid response to an article[in BMJ] or a letter to editor or Yours Opinion[The Lancet] my intention will be 1) more citation of my article 2) more numbers of viewers globally3) High impact journals. However no evidence is found on citation advantage for open access articles in the first year after publication as it was shown by Davis etal[3]. The citation advantage from open access reported widely in the literature may be an artifact of other causes[3]. Open Access Journals are usually of high or very high impact factor Journals. Wren studied just which subset it was and found that papers from journals with high impact factors were more likely to have free online copies at other locations around the web than papers from low impact journals. But one problem is that open access Journals offers an profiteering business for the publishers at the expense of the academic community by charging [2]. This is due to paying for an full article (research) or other articles. It also however helps the authors to keep secret some of his /her research data & same time to protect Copy Right of authors& from copying materials method /result/discussion for every one’s use particularly from drug houses, industries, companies, technologists, and distributing Xerox copies of articles without proper royalty to authors and researchers. Of course I myself is in favor of Open Access journals
    1) Peter Suber Editorial Open access, impact, anddemand BMJ 2005;330:1097-1098 (14 May), doi:10.1136/bmj.330.7500.1097
    2) Fiona Godle Editorials Open access to research Increases readership but not citations BMJ 2008;337:a1051
    3) Davis PM, Lewenstein BV, Simon DH, Booth JG, Connolly MJL. Open access publishing, article downloads, and citations: randomised controlled trial. BMJ 2008;337:a568.