Re: Free Access vs. Open Access

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 31 Dec 2003 15:16:06 +0000

The discussion of the Free/Open Access distinction appears to
be growing. I see that Peter Suber has posted a reply to the
SOAF list, which I will re-post to the Amsci Forum in a moment
so I can reply to it on both lists after I have replied to
Mike Eisen (in prep.!).

But before I reply I would like to introduce two historical/factual
points, and one logical point that they entail, for reflection:

(1) Let's ask ourselves what it was, exactly, that changed, with the
advent of the online age, insofar as the specific literature we are
discussing here -- which I must never tire to remind everyone is the
annual 2.5 million articles published in the world's 24,000 peer-reviewed
journals -- is concerned?

Others may have other answers, but by my lights what changed was nothing
more or less than the *means* and the *cost* of making one's peer-reviewed
research accessible to would-be users: In the on-paper era, access had to be
restricted to those users whose institutions could afford the subscription
access tolls, and the potential usage and impact from those would-be
users whose institutions could not afford the access tolls had to be
renounced as lost -- in order to ensure the recovery of the substantial
real costs of on-paper publication (without which there would be no access
or impact at all).

In the on-line era it became possible, at last, (a) for researchers,
if they wished, to make their peer-reviewed articles accessible to
all would-be users toll-free, by self-archiving them on the web, and
thereby putting an end to their lost potential impact. It also become
possible (b) for publishers, if they wished, to cut the costs of on-paper
publication and recover the much lower on-line-only costs by charging
the author-institution a fee per outgoing article published instead of by
charging user-institutions an access-toll per journal or article accessed.

Again, by my lights: (a) and (b) were quasi-independent: Authors might
(or might not) choose to maximise their research impact by providing
toll-free access to their full-text articles online; and publishers might
(or might not) choose to convert to providing toll-free full-text access
by cutting costs and recovering them from author-institution fees.

(2) Until (what subsequently became known as) the "Budapest Open Access
Initiative" meeting in December 2001, (a) and (b) did not really have
a name, but at that meeting (a) and (b) were baptised, respectively,
as BOAI open-access strategy 1 and BOAI open-access strategy 2 --
where "open access" was the toll-free access in question and BOAI-1 and
BOAI-2 were the two means of attaining it.

    "The purpose of the meeting was to accelerate progress in the
    international effort to make research articles in all academic fields
    freely available on the internet."

    "To achieve open access to scholarly journal literature, we recommend
    two complementary strategies... Open access to peer-reviewed journal
    literature is the goal. Self-archiving (I.) and a new generation of
    open-access journals (II.) are the ways to attain this goal."


(1) and (2) were my two historical/factual points. Now the logical point:

(3) If BOAI-1 (self-archiving) indeed yielded only "free" access but not
"open" access:

    (i) Why would we dub BOAI-1 an "open-access" strategy rather than
    merely a "free-access" strategy?

    And (ii) why would we call the Budapest Open Access Initiative the BOAI
    rather than the "Budapest Open Access Publishing Initiative" ("BOAPI")
    -- since "open access" can only be had by publishing in an open
    access journal?

I will frankly say that I not only consider the free/open distinction to
be an ill-conceived and insubstantial after-thought and a red herring;
but, if sustained and promoted, I believe it will add yet another a
huge and needless delay to the provision of the toll-free, full-text,
online access that (for me, at least) this has always been about, since
the advent of the online era.

(And I will be forced to re-baptise the American Scientist Open Access
Forum -- yet again -- as the "American Scientist Toll-Free Access Forum"!)

I hope not! I hope we will let neither semiological quibbles nor
gratuitous superadded handicaps keep holding us back from the optimal
and the inevitable outcome.

Must we remind ourselves that what we need -- and don't have, but
could have virtually overnight if we make up our minds we want it --
is maximised research impact through maximised research access? Isn't that
what this is all about? That does *not* mean holding out for XML mark-up,
raising the goal-posts so that only XML articles are seen as meeting the
goal, and withholding the title of having met the goal from any article
that is not XML -- while the *real* problem, which is the continuing
toll-barriers to access and impact, just keeps on festering, unremedied!

And the irony of it is that if we dropped this absurd free/open
distinction now, when we are toll-free-access beggars (not "XML-access
choosers") and united solidly behind the goal of *open access* -- defined,
as it should be, as that toll-free online access to the full-text that
we presently *lack* for most of the annual 2.5 million articles -- then
that would not only bring us our goal, but it would soon even bring us
the XML bonus too, soon after!

I wonder how many other progressive movements have run aground over
magnified trivia such as these?

Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing open
access to the peer-reviewed research literature online is available at
the American Scientist Open Access Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01 & 02 & 03):
    Post discussion to:

Unified Dual Open-Access-Provision Policy:
    BOAI-2 ("gold"): Publish your article in a suitable open-access
            journal whenever one exists.
    BOAI-1 ("green"): Otherwise, publish your article in a suitable
            toll-access journal and also self-archive it.
Received on Wed Dec 31 2003 - 15:16:06 GMT

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