Tracey Koehlmoos on open versus free access: lesson learnt

Tracey Koehlmoos Out of the blue on 28 March my colleagues and I received notification that all Lancet journals are now available to everyone in Bangladesh.  As you can imagine, this is excellent news for those of us who like to read the Lancet so that it did feel a little like Christmas especially for the systematic review team and our senior librarian.

Also, for people who have a hard time keeping up with a variety of passwords and special entry pages, in its new form, the Lancet is one click access just like the Cochrane Library. It is really fantastic. In order to update other people with a sincere interest in open access, I briefly wrote to my colleagues on the Health Information for All 2015 (HIFA2015) list-serve about Bangladesh’s good news. Additionally, as always, I expressed sincere concern for those who did not receive the surprise gift of access to the Lancet. I ebulliently noted, “Lancet journals are now open access in Bangladesh!”

The response to me came from many sources but the lesson is the same. What Bangladesh received is not “open access” but “free access” and for proponents of the open access movement, the distinction is very important.

I had not heard the phrase free access previously.  Free access, while important, is like a gift and is associated with no rights and might be temporary, and thus able to be withdrawn. Ginny Barbour , the chief editor of PLoS Medicine, explained to me that the withdrawal of publishers from HINARI (the WHO’s initiative with major publishers that gives developing countries access biomedical and health literature) earlier this year was an example of an end to a free access situation. 

However, in a true open access situation, information is available to all irrevocably.  Peter Suber, a dedicated promoter of the OA movement defines it as “online access to scientific articles without charge to the readers or libraries” (Suber 2011).  It means information without barriers, anywhere, anytime. Lesson learnt.

Dr. Barbour has a high profile blog about Open versus Free Access issues that is worth reading if you are interested in these issues called Going the Last Few Miles: http://bit.ly/i2yai2

In the meantime, with my expanded vocabulary, I am really enjoying reading the Lancet. I do wonder how long it will last and I think about my systematic review colleagues working in Uganda. I know that they would enjoy this too. Like many people, I receive the table of contents of the journals I read the most sent to my inbox including the BMJ and the Lancet.

Thank you to the Lancet and thank you to Elsevier.

Tracey Koehlmoos is programme head for health and family planning systems at ICDDR,B and adjunct professor at the James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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  • Neil Pakenham-walsh

    There are at least two other big differences between the free access offered to selected institutions in low-income countries by Elsevier and other HINARI publishers, and open-access as offered by publishers such as PLoS:

    1. Open access means the content is potentially freely accessible to everyone in the world (I say potentially because 1. not everyone has internet access, although 2. open access means that even if you do not have direct internet access, you may be able to obtain the information from someone who does – see point 2 below). Free access is generally only available to people authorised under the license agreement. For HINARI in Bangladesh, this means only people who are affiliated with a Bangladeshi institution, such as a university or the ICDDR,B, that is officially registered with HINARI. It does not usually (or even ever?) mean that the journals are free to everyone in the country.

    2. Open access publications are freely reproducible, providing proper acknowledgement is given to the source. Free access publications generally retain copyright restrictions, and may not be reproduced or redistributed without permission (and such permission often involves a significant financial payment).

    Best wishes,
    Neil Pakenham-Walsh
    Coordinator, HIFA2015 http://www.hifa2015.org