Re: Applying OA Elsewhere?

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 01 Oct 2004 06:59:32 -0400

Stevan Harnad, Professor of Cognitive Science
Southampton University, UK

Dear All,

I wrote:

> > But the only OA issue is access, and only access to the target literature (which
> > is, to a first approximation, one and the same as the 2.5 million articles
> > published in the planet's c. 24,000 peer-reviewed journals). The OA movement is
> > not the "Open Information" movement.

Richard Poynder replied:
> This then presumably means that the answer to the question "Could the open-access
> model of knowledge management be applied beyond scholarly academic publishing?"
> (Which Heather has kindly reminded us is one of the key points proposed for
> discussion in this forum) is no?

There is no "open-access model of knowledge management" and the premise
here is still wrong: OA is not about "scholarly academic publishing" in
general either! It is not about textbooks, books, professional magazines,
etc. Those may all be scholarly academic publishing, but there is no
case for Open Access (OA) to their contents. The open/shut case is
only for OA to (all 2.5 million yearly) peer-reviewed journal articles
(24,000 journals).

There may be other candidates for OA. If we stick to scholarly/scientific
writing (and leave out the wider world of news, entertainment,
nonscholarly writing and vanity press), the criterion is always the same:
Is the (digital) text an author give-away? If so, it is a candidate
for OA. Examples would be scholarly monographs that meet the standards
for scholarly publication but either cannot find a publisher because they
would sell too few hard copies to make ends meet, or the author wishes to
give them away online, to maximize their usage and impact. Such cases fit
the same access/impact model as journal articles. There may be others,
but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Associated cases would be data-archiving and -sharing. Scholarly/scientific
data are not normally co-published with the journal articles reporting
and analyzing them, mainly because it used to be too expensive to publish
them on paper. Today they can be made OA too, and so can other add-ons
and enhancements that used to be too expensive or long to add to the
print version.

I do not, however, think it is useful to speak of all cases of what used
to be called "vanity press" publication -- writing that could not meet
the quality standards of a publisher, so it was published at the author's
expense -- as if that too were now "OA." This blurs the distinction
between (Q) the quality-controlled and the non-quality-controlled
literature, as well as the distinction between (P) work that used to
have to be paid for in order to access, but can now be made accessible
for free, and work that was never paid for, but always free (because
no one would have paid for access to it). Let us reserve "OA" for the
work that used to be accessible only for-fee (on-paper), even though its
(give-away) author would have preferred otherwise, but is now accessible
for-free, because the new on-line medium makes it possible.

The wider and vaguer proposition that all "knowledge" or all "information"
should be free is nonsense, and this will be apparent to anyone who
reflects for a moment about whether the principle that creators are
entitled to try to seek payment for their products (and to not produce
them if unpaid) has any reason to be suspended when the product happens
to be digital rather than analog. [The rest (in the words of the wag)
is just haggling about the price.]

> If the answer is indeed no, then is there not at least something that we can learn
> from the Open Access movement that could be usefully applied elsewhere? And is
> there nothing the Open Access movement can learn from the growing number of other
> initiatives currently working to curtail the increasing trend for information that
> ought rightly to be held "in the commons" from being - to all intents and purposes
> - privatised by commercial organisations?

The Open Access Movement and the Creative Commons (CC) Movement have some similar
disderata, but they are not the same movement: CC has a wider reach, but a less
clearly defined constituency (of give-away creators). OA's constituency is
unambiguous and exception free (all refereed journal authors), and, most
important, it does *not* require copyright revision or the adoption of a CC
license (though of course those are welcome whenever they are successfully adopted

The reason peer-reviewed journal-article authors all want to give away
their writing is twofold: (1) their rewards (job, salary, promotion,
research funding, prizes, prestige) come from its research impact, not
from royalty income from its sales and (2) per-article sales-income
is negligibly small in any case. It seems to me that other work may
fit this give-away model too, sometimes only temporarily, as in the early
stages of the creator's career, when the work is being promoted;
collective/collaborative work would also fit, and of course so would
humanitarian work. Creators may also want to exercise some charity or
restraint in seeking payment (but that again is just haggling about
the price).

    Harnad, S., Varian, H. & Parks, R. (2000) Academic publishing in the
    online era: What Will Be For-Fee And What Will Be For-Free? Culture
    Machine 2 (Online Journal)

But the clearcut case for OA to the refereed research literature is not
strengthened by blurring it into whatever a creator may wish to give away,
digital or otherwise.
> In thinking of ways in which the OA model could be applied elsewhere Heather
> suggests its use with government publications.
> [See, ]

If the creators/funders want to give it away, by all means.

> What about the (non copyrightable) legal facts that James Boyle earlier cited as
> costing an arm and a leg to access
> [See,]:

Same there too: Whatever in the analog world could not afford to be free
(but wanted to be) can now be made free in the digital world (but its
creators/funders must want it to be).

> could not the Open Access model be beneficially applied here? As I understand it,
> many court web sites in the US are severely limited in the historical coverage they
> provide on legal opinions etc. (and historical data is all important when litigating
> in the US). Moreover, since the court-hosted data is dispersed across dozens of
> different sites requiring knowledge of a wide range of, often inferior, search
> engines, all but the experienced searcher is effectively disenfranchised from
> accessing a lot of the current data too. To make matters worse, I am told,
> commercial providers like Westlaw and LexisNexis do not allow public libraries to
> provide patrons with access to legal subscription databases.

The secondary publishers like Westlaw and LexisNexis are not the creators
of those data, they are merely its harvesters and packagers. If the
creators are willing to make their data available to OA providers too,
there is no reason why that version could not be made OA. (The same would
be true with journal article abstracts: In paper, only the American
Psychological Association had the resources to harvest all authors'
journal-article abstracts, package and sell them. Online, an OA provider
could do it automatically, and for free. And of course full-text OA is
merely an extension of this. Some add-on services like reference-linking
could go the same route too. But there are no doubt other add-ons,
perhaps labour-intensive ones, for which it would depend on the provider
whether or not they would be happy to do it for free.)

> I am not aware of any equivalent to PubMed Central for legal information in the US,
> or any plan to produce one. If that is right then perhaps there should be one? Is
> this not another case where the public is being denied free access to
> publicly-funded information? And is this a problem in other countries? If so,
> could the situation not be remedied by applying OA methods there too?

PubMed Central is a harvester and depository for refereed journal
articles that their authors have an interest in making OA (for the sake of
maximizing their research impact). I don't know whether there is analogous
motivation on the part of the primary providers of legal data. If there
is, and if they are willing to provide it to another harvester/packager
too, then there is no reason why there should not be an OA version of
the legal databases. But as it is at the moment only the commercial
secondary database providers that take the initiative today make the
investment in the harvesting and access-provision, they can and will
continue to charge for their efforts.

Stevan Harnad
Moderator, American Scientist Open Access Forum

Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton, UK

20 September- 4 October 2004: gpgNet Forum on "Open Access to Scholarly Publications:
A Model for Enhanced Knowledge Management?" Co-hosted with the Open Society
Institute (OSI).

Read background paper to the discussion at
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Received on Fri Oct 01 2004 - 11:59:32 BST

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