Recently I attended the conference of a major learned society in the humanities. I was only there for a day and attended only two sessions: one as a panelist and the other as an observer. Both sessions dealt with issues related to open access (OA), and in both of them I was deeply taken aback by the degree to which the scholars in attendance—not universally, but by an overwhelming majority—expressed frustration and even outright anger at the OA community. The word predatory was actually used at one point—not in reference to rapacious publishers but to OA advocates. That was pretty shocking.
More recently, in a different meeting, I listened to a presentation by the executive director of another large and important scholarly society, this one in the social sciences. His presentation was in no way heated or angry, but he made it abundantly clear that among his organization’s members there was deep dissatisfaction with significant aspects of the OA movement’s current direction.
Many private conversations before and since, often with scholars who did not want to express publicly anything that might be construed as objection or resistance to OA, have only reinforced the messages I received in those meetings.
What is the nature of the concern? Why would these scholars and scientists—academics who value the sharing of knowledge and who want to see the benefits of scholarship spread as broadly as possible (and who presumably want to reach as many readers as possible)—object to OA?
The answer is that they don’t typically object to OA itself, and in my experience many of them say so very explicitly in the context of voicing their concerns and frustration. What they object to is a particular parameter of OA as it is currently defined by a large and dominant segment of the OA community: the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license, which is enshrined in what is now the closest thing to a canonical definition that OA has: the Berlin Declaration on Open Access. The declaration does not use the term Creative Commons (CC licensing was a relatively new thing when it was being formulated), but it defines acceptable reuse licensing in terms that align exactly with those of CC BY:
Berlin Declaration: The author(s) and right holder(s) of (open access) contributions grant(s) to all users a…license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship.
CC BY definition: This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.
What this means is that, according to the Berlin Declaration, what makes an article OA is not that it can be accessed and read by everyone at no charge. In order to be considered OA, the article’s content (and “all supplemental materials”) must also be made publicly available for any kind of reuse, including commercial reuse, without the author’s permission.
It’s important to note that not everyone in the OA community agrees that CC BY, or its functional equivalent, is a necessary feature of true OA. Some distinguish between “gratis” OA (which makes an article free to read but leaves the author some or all of the traditional exclusive prerogatives provided by copyright law) and “libre” OA (which makes it reusable under CC BY terms) and are happy to consider both of them genuine forms of OA. Some prominent voices in the movement insist that CC BY should not be regarded as a sine qua non of OA, while others assert that there is no such thing as OA without CC BY.
So why does this issue amount to more than intramural squabbling over a controversy that will inevitably end up getting resolved internally at some point? Several aspects make it noteworthy and worth careful consideration on the part of anyone interested in the future of scholarly communication.
First of all, although there is squabbling among individuals in the OA community about whether CC BY should be enshrined in our definition of OA, highly influential institutions have taken significant steps—in some cases within the last month—to make that enshrinement more official. In addition to its functional inclusion in the terms of the Berlin statement, CC BY licensing is also publicly endorsed by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) as “the standard terms for Open Access.” Recently, both the Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation have announced that all of their grant-funded projects and research must be published under CC BY licenses. The Public Library of Science (PLOS)—whose journals collectively published more than 35,000 articles last year, making it the undisputed 500-pound gorilla of OA publishing—asserts flatly that “open access stands for unrestricted access and unrestricted reuse” and does not allow its authors to use any license other than CC BY. Nor does BioMed Central, another very important OA publisher, or its sister company Chemistry Central. In the UK, the Research Councils UK (which funds roughly $4.5 billion of research each year) also generally requires the results of research it funds to be published under a CC BY license. (If a funded author does not use RCUK block grant funding to cover an article publishing charge, then she may restrict commercial reuse of her work.)
Second of all, consider the findings of a recent survey taken by the publisher Taylor & Francis among its authors, who represent a broad spectrum of academic and scientific disciplines. That survey found that fully 65 percent of them consider the reuse terms of CC BY to be “unacceptable.”
All of this suggests an important question: Why do authors mind? The answer will vary from author to author, of course, but one of the most common concerns expressed has to do very specifically with commercial reuse. In one recent situation, several authors who had published with PLOS and BioMed Central were startled and outraged to see that their articles had been bundled, without their permission but in full compliance with the terms of CC BY, into a high-priced book published by Apple Academic Press.
In my experience, many authors who would happily make their work freely available for noncommercial reuse, adaptation, remixing, performing, etc.—for whom, in fact, that kind of free and noncommercial reuse is a big part of what OA is all about—are not comfortable allowing all comers to reuse their work commercially without at least asking permission. The authors I have spoken with mostly tend to say the same thing: “We believe in openness and sharing, and we want our work to be as freely and widely available as possible. But if you’re going to take my work and somehow sell access to it or otherwise use it to make money, you need to ask my permission first.” Some would be willing to allow commercial use in a nonprofit context without permission; others don’t want any commercial reuse of any kind without their authorization. Not all of the authors who have published in OA outlets have been aware that this has meant doing so under CC BY, but the number of authors who have figured this out is growing quickly, with predictable results. (And then there’s the growing question of whether it would be acceptable to require students to make their work available on an OA basis, including CC BY, as a condition of academic progress.)
So the question we in the scholarly community need to be asking ourselves is: Where do we believe authors’ rights should end and the public’s right to access and reuse should begin? Does it make a difference whether the scholarship in question was supported with public funds? If so, does public funding give the public a moral right to read the results of that scholarship, or to read and reuse without any restriction, or to read and reuse with some restrictions? What if the scholarly product was not supported by public funding—should it be made freely available simply because it is scholarship and we don’t want to commodify knowledge?
I don’t know how this issue will end up being resolved. One thing does seem clear to me, however: if authors (in the aggregate) have anything to say about it, the future of OA is unlikely to include CC BY as a required feature. Of course, not everyone wants authors to have anything to say about it. That fact should prompt us to deep and serious reflection about what we think the limits of academic freedom ought to be.