Open Access: More, please!

By Jackie Marchington, Director of Global Operations

As it’s open access week, I thought I’d write about a disagreement I had with my esteemed colleague (aka best buddy) Gary a couple of years ago, while developing some giveaways about open access. Gary was taken with the phrase “less is more” credited to the architect Mies van de Rohe (or “- = +” as he put it on Skype). Consequently, he cut my copy in the giveaways right down, some of which was OK, but other edits took out the meaning, so that it wasn’t so much “- = +” but “- = 0” (less is meaningless). Or sometimes, less was misleading. This took me back to a point I made early in our discussion, which was “open access is complicated”.

The ‘less’ version of open access is simple: anyone gets to read everything, online, for free. However, although the goals of the open access movement are laudable, authors aren’t quite ready to make their content freely accessible on the internet without some way of controlling how it’s used, so that’s where Creative Commons comes in. The Creative Commons licences are the mechanism by which authors retain some control over the fruits of their academic labours, and which enable open access.

Unfortunately, you can’t discuss open access without discussing copyright, and this takes us into ‘more’ territory – but it’s essential ‘more’. Open access is about consuming content, copyright is about protecting content. Everyone loves open access because they can read what they want for free, but condemn copyright because it means they need a subscription or some other way to get past a paywall to read something. Why is that? Copyright is intended to protect the rights of the creator of the content, not to deny the rights of others to consume that content. The problem is that copyright has become the coin of the academic realm and has been commoditized by publishers. Although no money may change hands in the traditional academic publishing model (let’s leave colour and page charges aside for now), the authors sign over their copyright to the publisher in exchange for the publisher making their content available to whoever they publish to – e.g. journal subscribers. The publisher then recoups the cost of that publication process by charging subscription fees and commercially exploiting derivative works.

Both Creative Commons and copyright are intended to protect the rights of the author, and ensure credit where credit’s due. What complicates open access is the way it’s been incorporated into mainstream publishing by publishers who are used to commoditizing copyright.

When you chose the open access option in a traditional journal (read: mainstream publisher), you keep your copyright, you pick one of the Creative Commons licences offered by the journal and you will often sign a licence to publish (exclusive or non-exclusive). You pay your article processing charge (APC) and you’re done. The catches are the types of Creative Commons licence on offer (almost always including the non-commercial [NC] clause) and the licence to publish, which almost always includes the transfer of commercial rights to the publisher and places limitations on how the authors are permitted to use their own work – to which they still, at least technically, hold the copyright. If the Creative Commons licence also includes the no-derivatives (ND) clause, then that, combined with a restrictive publishers licence, is about as close as you can get to traditional copyright with the only advantage being that the article is free to read.

You have to ask yourself why you’re paying the open access fee in the first place. If you want everyone to be able to access your research without a paywall in the way, then don’t worry about the publishing licence. If you want to be able to use your own material in any way that you wish (as in, retain copyright in your work in the way that open access was supposed to work), then worry, because the publishing licence conditions most likely prevent you from doing anything other than using it for non-commercial teaching.

In the interests of completeness, there are, broadly speaking, two other models. On acceptance, you transfer copyright as normal to the publisher, pay an APC and the publisher makes the article free to read, but all other rights are reserved. Or proper open access, where you pay an APC, pick a licence and that’s it – no publisher licence, authors retain copyright (e.g. PLoS and BMC journals). Simple.

So you see, open access is not as straightforward as it should be. Thankfully, I love it – ‘more, more, more!’

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