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Open Access is dead: Long live Open Access


On 15th February 1971, the UK moved to a new decimal system of currency. The unit of currency, the penny, was retained, so the new penny had to be distinguished from the old. The Royal Mint issued the decimal currency coins with the moniker not just pence but ‘new pence’ written on the coins, and we all learnt to write 10 n.p. (new pence) instead of the old 10d. In 1982 the Royal Mint dropped the word ‘new’ from the text on the coins, and they became merely 1 penny, and 2, 5, 10 and 50 pence pieces. It took a mere 11 years for a completely new national currency officially to become the norm and no longer be flagged as ‘new.’

What if Open Access (OA) was no longer considered to be ‘new’? The term Open Access – i.e. immediate free access under a licence for use with proper author attribution – has been around in its current common usage for reading and accessing scholarly publications for over 20 years since at least 2002 (see Budapest OA Initiative and Berlin Declaration & Bethesda Declaration both of 2003). It is commonly accepted that OA is a ‘good’ thing: research institutions and funders have issued OA policies aiming towards 100% OA, and publishers extol the benefits of OA and state how supportive they are of a move towards ever more openness. Despite being commonly accepted, and the numbers of OA items increasing in article discovery and access systems, OA items continue to be labelled ‘OA’ as if it’s something that is novel and avant-garde. 

It is true that we are far from every scholarly work being OA. There is a long way to go, but after all this time, OA is no longer novel, nor remarkable. In fact, works in some areas, such as COVID research, are arguably expected to be OA, and it is a surprise when they are not. In the current environment of establishing Open Science, shouldn’t we be more perturbed when we can’t get immediate free access to a work and use it under its author’s licence? We should no longer be impressed just because an article is OA. It is increasingly frustrating when a work is not freely accessible, and users have either to employ complex workarounds or pay considerable charges in order to gain access to texts. Surely after 20+ years, we have reached the tipping point when OA should be considered the default, if not the norm? 

We should no longer be impressed just because an article is OA. It is increasingly frustrating when a work is not freely accessible, and users have to employ complex workarounds or pay considerable charges to gain access to texts. Click To Tweet

We should now be referring merely to ‘access’ rather than preceding it with ‘open.’ We should be highlighting works that have barriers to access and use, rather than the other way round. My local council doesn’t bother telling me when a road is open and I am able to drive down it. They only bother to erect a sign when it’s a dead end, a cul de sac, or no entry. Surely the world should by now have shifted to expecting OA without it having to be specifically labelled? 

Similarly, given that most people involved in scholarly communications and research dissemination would agree the OA die is cast, we should have no need to talk about an ‘OA movement’ and ‘OA advocates.’ That ship has sailed. We have yet to reach 100% implemented OA to all published works, but I would argue that we have reached the tipping point in terms of user attitudes towards OA for some time.

By coincidence, Lisa Hinchliffe and Kalyn Nowlan recently published a very interesting piece in the Scholarly Kitchen: A Failure to Communicate: Indicators of Open Access in the user interface. The article describes how publishers have adopted a variety of methods to indicate OA and other types of access. There is no consistency, and this unsurprisingly results in user confusion.

As Hinchliffe & Nowlan point out:

Another confusion is an absence of information to help a user distinguish among open / free / full / available / etc. access. Sometimes it is not clear whether the user has “free access” or “full access” to an article because they are affiliated with an institution with a subscription or because the article is open for reading for everyone. And, open access is indeed a kind of free access, but the inconsistency in terminology is likely to cause confusion.”

What a phenomenal mess.

A change of labelling would not resolve all these complex nuances, but it would approach the matter from the opposite end: 

  • Readers should expect immediate open access to scholarly content under a licence for use (for example, an appropriate Creative Commons licence). Items would not be labelled as Open Access.
  • If the article is not OA and there is some form of barrier to access and/or use, then access and use conditions should be clearly indicated. For example, ‘Access price £X / Password required,’ ‘Download prohibited,’ ‘Your institution has paid for access for you,’ ‘Sharing forbidden with groups X, Y or Z.’ As noted in Hinchliffe & Nowlan’s findings, there should be a consistent means across all publishers to do this.
  • In a parallel action, there needs to be aggressive promotion of tools that assist users in finding a freely available version of works such as OA-Button (etc).
  • Equally, if access and use of a published article are restricted, the question should not be whether there’s a repository copy. The question should be how to locate the open repository copy.

By turning the tables so that OA is the norm, the concept of restricted sharing masquerading as a generous improvement to barriers to access and use would be reversed. The term ‘sharing’ is currently used by large publishers to indicate ‘authors may only share their works with restricted groups under restrictive conditions.’ 

By turning the tables so that OA is the norm, the concept of restricted sharing masquerading as a generous improvement to barriers to access and use would be reversed. Click To Tweet

I realise that I am being somewhat flippant and accept that when examining the alternative view above in detail, a myriad of practical difficulties will quickly emerge. Despite that, I stand by the principle – in my opinion, we should no longer be labelling OA as if it were new and exceptional. What is exceptional for 2022 is when people cannot access knowledge and research findings because there are barriers such as paywalls and re-use restrictions in their way. 

Sally Rumsey

Sally Rumsey was, until July 2022, Jisc’s OA Expert working as support for cOAlition S in all areas covered by Plan S, especially the Plan S Rights Retention Strategy. Prior to that, she was Head of Scholarly Communications & RDM, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. There she managed the University’s repository service for research outputs, Oxford University Research Archive (ORA and ORA-Data https://ora.ox.ac.uk). She was previously e-Services Librarian and manager of the repository at the London School of Economics. Sally remains a member of the UKSCL (Scholarly Communications Licence) group.