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.