Sunday, November 25, 2007

Open Access and Accessibility for the Print Disabled


Open Access and Accessibility for the Print Disabled are two goals that fit together like hand and glove. In the online environment, it just makes sense to think about accessibility as we create information, rather than creating inaccessible information and building expensive services to overcome barriers that we have built later on. A document in XML or HTML is more accessible than one in PDF. A PDF that is not locked down with permissions, and not image-based, is more accessible than a PDF that is either locked down or image-based. The Budapest Open Access Initiative was not designed specifically to meet the needs of the print disabled; but a document that meets the BOAI definition of open access will be accessible for the print disabled, too. Similarly, when advocates for the print disabled convinced Adobe to build accessibility into their product (1), they were not thinking about accessibility for the rest of us, but their efforts have already (inadvertently) meant that many a PDF - whether published by a traditional or open access publisher - is much closer to meeting the BOAI definition of open access. This post includes a listserv message and comments, some from experts, and concludes with some final thoughts, including whether this might be considered a peer-reviewed listserv / blogpost, whether the publisher's PDF is, as often referred to, a value-add - or a value-subtract.


This post began as a message to the SPARC Open Access Forum, ERIL-L, SSP list, liblicense, and Scholcomm. The above paragraph reflects modification based on comments by at least two experts on services for the print disabled, one publishing industry expert (private correspondence), and Peter Suber (on Open Access News. Comments posted publicly are listed below.

Heather's message to various listservs, Nov. 5, 2007
Note: the wording on different listservs varies a bit

For the print disabled, the difference between a PDF that is locked down and one that is not, is the difference between a work that is accessible, and one that is one.

A locked PDF is an image file, with inaccessible text. An unlocked PDF has text that is accessible, that can be manipulated by screen readers designed for the print disabled. Even without special equipment, is it easy to see how an unlocked PDF can very easily be transformed into large print, or read aloud.

Publishers, please unlock your PDFs! Librarians, please ask about unlocked PDFs when you purchase.

If a country has a law requiring access for the print disabled, is it even legal to purchase databases with unnecessarily locked-down PDFs?

The Budapest Open Access Initiative did not aim to meet the needs of the print disabled. This is just another side-benefit of open access.


Corey Davis on ERIL-L: Thanks for the imperative Heather. I would also recommend that librarians look for databases that have multiple full text options, such as PDF and HTML. Having worked with the print disabled community for several years, I can tell you that PDFs--even accessible ones--can be quite problematic, especially when it comes to reading order.

For more information, check out Joe Clark's article on A List Apart

Mike Rogawski on the SPARC Open Access Forum:

Adobe makes it possible to apply different types of restrictions to PDFs. Obviously, publishers don't use the most common type of "locking" which requires a password to open and read the document, and they don't impose restriction on printing.

However, occasionally they may impose a more subtle form of locking, which makes a password necessary for "Content Copying or Extraction." This type of restriction is unnecessary and diminishes the utility of the article for scholars, teachers and students. Indeed, it makes it difficult for users to exercise some fair use rights.

For example, it prevents a reader from taking notes by copying snippets of text to a personal journal. It also prevents a reader from copying a literature citation from a reference list (thus increasing the chances that an error will be made with manual copying).

Also, it prevents a teacher from using Photoshop to rasterize an image (such as a chart, graph, diagram, cartoon or picture) within the article for use, for example, in scholarly research, classroom teaching, or in preparing to teach a class, as permitted by fair use.

Publisher should not distribute scholarly articles with restrictions on content copying or extraction. Authors should inform publishers that these restrictions inhibit the fair use of their work.

Peter Suber on Open Access News Exactly. If publishers insist on using PDFs at all, then at least they should unlock them. To facilitate re-use even further, they should offer HTML or XML editions alongside the PDFs.

(1) Private conversation, Mary Anne Epp, Manager, Contract Services, Langara College

Heather's final comment and thoughts: This process reflects some elements of peer review, doesn't it? Could this be a peer-reviewed listserv / blogpost? We often talk about the added value of the publisher's PDF. If a locked-down or image-based PDF is a less useful than an XML or HTML file - is the publisher's PDF a value-add, or a value-subtract?