Tuesday, January 08, 2013

A simple definition for open access: a proposal to open the discussion

This post proposes a shift from the detailed BBB definition of open access to Peter Suber's brief definition, as follows: Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions (from Suber's Open Access Overview).  


In my dissertation, I map and analyze the relationship of open access and various Creative Commons licenses and conclude that OA and CC licenses, despite superficial similarities, simply do not map, and that attempting to equate OA with a particular CC license such as CC-BY is highly problematic for scholarship.

For a journal, I argue that the best way to express a journal's open access status may well be the default Open Journal Systems (OJS) statement, which reads: this journal provides immediate open access to its content on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge.

This is an open definition in a very important sense: it leaves room for scholars to consider, and experiment with, exactly what open access can or should mean, or do for scholarship. We should be articulating the commons - engaging in thinking about what a knowledge commons might mean - not jumping to a quick technical solution such as a particular CC license (acknowledging that the CC licenses, all of them, are valuable tools for scholars). Some of the elements that we should consider in articulating the commons include:

  •  the traditional concept of reciprocity that is an expectation with gift-giving in many various societies, as reported by Mauss;
  • developing a sustainable knowledge commons could benefit from the research of Ostrom, for example the importance of developing community expectations and sanctions in sustaining a commons; and,
  • expanding the limitations of western concepts of ownership through incorporating concepts from traditional knowledges.  

Why not CC-BY?

The Creative Commons Attribution Only (CC-BY) license superficially looks exactly like the BOAI definition of open access: works that are free online and free for re-use. However, a careful examination of the legal code, discussion with the Creative Commons community, and analysis of scholarly works and how businesses could interact with scholarly works licensed under Creative Commons, demonstrates that it is not wise to equate open access with CC-BY. To help make the shift, the following dispels a few myths about CC-BY.  

Myth: Creative Commons licenses are for works that are free of charge to users, just like open access is meant to be.  

Fact: Creative Commons licenses are not specific to works that are free of charge; they can also be used for works that are toll access.  

Myth: CC-BY is needed so that we can do text and data-mining.

 Fact: CC-BY is not necessary, sufficient, or desirable for text and data-mining.

Why CC-BY is not necessary for text or data mining: any work that is posted on the web without technical or licensing restrictions preventing mining (such as the use of norobots.txt or locked-down PDF files) can be used for text or data mining. This is how search engines work!

Why CC-BY is not sufficient for text or data mining: a CC-BY license can be used for a work that is technically not fit for text or data mining. There is nothing in the CC-BY license that says the licensor cannot use norobots.txt on the same webpage, for example. A CC-BY license can be used with image files that are useless for text or data mining.

Why CC-BY is not desirable for text or data mining: the attribution element is problematic for data and text-mining involving large numbers of files. Public domain - or perhaps no CC license at all, just relying on fair use - may be better.

Myth: once a work is released under a CC-BY license, it will remain open access for all time.

Fact: it is correct that a CC-BY licensed copy will remain CC-BY licensed, even if the licensor changes the license downstream. However, this is only useful for scholarship if the CC-BY licensed copy is retained in a location where future scholars can access it, such as an open access archive. Otherwise, a CC-BY licensed copy may be on someone's computer somewhere, but for someone who does not have access, this is not helpful. An open access publisher can change their mind and change all of their works from open to toll access, with no notice requirement. This could easily happen if one publishing company is sold to another.  

Myth: there is an emerging consensus on the adoption of CC-BY.  

Fact: as of summer 2012, only 28% of journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals used any kind of CC license, and only 11% used CC-BY (Suber, SPARC Open Access Newsletter 164). Outside of the fully open access journals listed in DOAJ, CC-BY is even less common. All faculty OA permissions policies specify that works are not to be sold for a profit, strongly suggesting that faculty themselves do not support giving away their work for others to sell, as CC-BY licenses do.

This post is a very brief summary of select points from my dissertation Freedom for scholarship in in the internet age section, Open Access and Creative Commons, downloadable from here - see p. 49 - 63. 

This post is part of the Creative Commons and open access critique series

Respectful comments and questions are welcome and encouraged.


  1. I think this section is in error and might cause needless confusion around CC licensing. I suspect the error is unintentional, and I hope you hasten to rephrase it.

    "CC-BY does not mean that a work will remain open access. A CC-BY copy will always retain the CC-BY license, however the licensor can change their mind and apply a different license anytime. One example of where this could happen is if an open access publisher is sold to another company; the buying company has no obligation to keep the works open access."

    The error here is the implication that CC enabled Open Access can be revoked if the publisher is sold to another company. It can't.

    Because CC licenses cannot be revoked, anyone who gets a copy of a CC licensed work can copy and distribute the work. For example, if the work is put into a library's repository, another library can download it and add it to their repository. The journal of poetic economics can include the work in their next issue and continue to publish it.

    It's certainly true that without community support, a CC license is no guarantee of Open Access. But the way it's framed in this post, a reader might presume that this is a disadvantage. In fact, ALL Open Access fails without community support. Without a CC license or similar, anything published "open access" is in danger of revocation.

    Unglue.it works with LOCKSS to make sure "unglued" works remain openly accessible into the future, regardless of the rights holder's subsequent licensing decisions.

    In short, once a work is released with a CC license, its OA status can be secured by the community. Period.

  2. Eric,

    What I said - copying from your comment above - is "A CC-BY copy will always retain the CC-BY license". I am not claiming that a CC license for a work already distributed can be revoked. What I am saying is that the licensor has no obligation to continue to make the work available under this license. In other words, I have not made the error that you have claimed that I made, and so there is no need for correction.

    It seems that we are in agreement that ongoing OA requires commitment by the community and is not inherent in the CC license. Where we may not see eye to eye is whether one can assume that all open access CC licensed works actually are, and will continue to be, archived and made accessible by the OA community. I think that we need to be very explicit about this need and ensure that open access archives receive the support that they need.

  3. Thanks to Paul Royster for this article "Up from under the open access bus" in the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication: http://jlsc-pub.org/jlsc/vol1/iss2/3/

    In brief, Paul expresses his frustration with working hard over a period of years to achieve open access, only to have the results labelled not good enough by some in the open access movement. I share Paul's frustration. This is another reason to develop a more inclusive approach to open access; strong demands for a very narrow definition of open access both exclude and discourage a large portion of the open access community, indeed probably the majority.

    Citation: Royster, P. (2012). Up from Under the “Open Access” Bus. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 1(2):eP1045. http://dx.doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.1045

  4. Quick question - do you know (or have an educated guess) how the percentage of CC-BY _articles_ vs. CC-BY _journals_ stacks up? This is probably an important distinction, because many OA journals are _much_ larger than others (PLOS ONE, which is CC-BY, comes to mind as one example). [full disclosure: I am a volunteer academic editor for PLOS ONE and a volunteer blogger at PLOS blogs]

  5. I don't agree that this is an important distinction. The fact that Elsevier continues to publish a large percentage of the world's scholarly journals is not an endorsement by scholars of Elsevier's approach to copyright.

    If the editorial board of a small journal considers the options for licensing and decides on CC-BY-NC-ND, this may well represent the opinions of as many, or even more, scholars than were involved in the decision to make PLoS CC-BY.

    With respect to your question about the percentage of CC-BY articles, I don't have the answer.


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