30 April 2008

What's in a Name? Strong and Weak Open Access

A few months ago, I had the temerity to suggest the following:

Definitions matter. If you want to see why, compare the worlds of open source and open access. The very specific definition of what is open source - having an OSI-approved licence - means that it is relatively easy to police. Open access, by contrast, does not have anything like a tight, "official" definition, with the result that less scrupulous publishers try to pass off their wares as open access if it's vaguely open or vaguely accessible.

This brought down upon me the wrath of Mr Open Access himself, as the comments to the above post bear witness. Happily, I survived the thunderbolts, and therefore lived to see the following declaration from the same presiding OA oracle:

The term "open access" is now widely used in at least two senses. For some, "OA" literature is digital, online, and free of charge. It removes price barriers but not permission barriers. For others, "OA" literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of unnecessary copyright and licensing restrictions. It removes both price barriers and permission barriers. It allows reuse rights which exceed fair use.

There are two good reasons why our central term became ambiguous. Most of our success stories deliver OA in the first sense, while the major public statements from Budapest, Bethesda, and Berlin (together, the BBB definition of OA) describe OA in the second sense.

As you know, Stevan Harnad and I have differed about which sense of the term to prefer --he favoring the first and I the second. What you may not know is that he and I agree on nearly all questions of substance and strategy, and that these differences were mostly about the label. While it may seem that we were at an impasse about the label, we have in fact agreed on a solution which may please everyone. At least it pleases us.

We have agreed to use the term "weak OA" for the removal of price barriers alone and "strong OA" for the removal of both price and permission barriers. To me, the new terms are a distinct improvement upon the previous state of ambiguity because they label one of those species weak and the other strong. To Stevan, the new terms are an improvement because they make clear that weak OA is still a kind of OA.

On this new terminology, the BBB definition describes one kind of strong OA. A typical funder or university mandate provides weak OA. Many OA journals provide strong OA, but many others provide weak OA.

This was partly what I was trying to get across, in my own, 'umble and clearly not very successful way: the fact that "open access" was being used for quite different things - now named "strong" and "weak" open access - which confused matters no end, not least for people who were coming to the concept for the first time.

As a result of this new nomenclature, we now have precisely the "tight" definitions I was looking for:
"Weak OA" literature is digital, online, and free of charge. It removes price barriers but not permission barriers. "Strong OA" literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of unnecessary copyright and licensing restrictions. It removes both price barriers and permission barriers. It allows reuse rights which exceed fair use.

There, that wasn't too hard, was it?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

In a sense, they’ve come upon the exact same problem the Free Software definition has been weakened by (due to use of free overwhelmingly to mean gratis), but found more useful words to engender :)

Gratis being Weak OA, libre being Strong OA.
(Not to claim that they exactly match the meanings though)

glyn moody said...

There's certainly a close parallel there,though I think weak OA is, er, stronger than gratis, since for OA purposes, even free access is quite useful because you can extract the underlying information.