Free versus Open Access

Juliet Walker has posted Free v. Open Access at the BMJ Group Blogs (August 15, 2008). Excerpts:

Recent changes to the BMJ’s copyright licence and the information it includes in research articles means that they can be formally listed as open access articles in PubMed Central and other repositories. So should we change the labels of open access research articles on our website from “free” to “open access”?

The term “open access” implies much more than just “free”. …

… [Peter] Suber has suggested the adoption of the terms “libre” and “gratis” to clarify precisely which type of open access we mean. “Gratis” would be used to mean removal of price barriers and “libre” would mean the removal of both price and permission barriers.

Whether these terms catch on remains to be seen, but what is clear is that open access needs to be more clearly defined. …

I posted this response (on August 19):

Open Access (OA) has been clearly defined several times. Unfortunately, some of the definitions have differed significantly, and no lasting consensus has emerged, other than that a necessary condition for OA is the removal of price barriers. However, that’s only the starting point. The differing perspectives of OA publishers, traditional subscription-based publishers, OA advocates, funders, editors and authors (for example, those authors who are also text- or data-miners) have yielded a variety of other conditions. Some versions of OA permit licenced reuse. Some permit deposition in an online repository for long-term archiving. The resulting muddle has been reviewed, from the perspective of an OA publisher, in an editorial by Catriona J. MacCallum, When Is Open Access Not Open Access? PLoS Biol 2007; 5(10): e285. See:

The final sentence in the editorial by Catriona J. MacCallum:

Perhaps the real key to establishing a broad consensus around the meaning of open access will be the development of resources that demonstrate the potential of unrestricted reuse of the literature—the “Lego factor.” If certain work is not included in these resources because of restrictive license agreements, authors will probably pay much closer attention to the claim that a publisher is “open access.” Enlightened self-interest can be a powerful force.

My own view: “Open Access” seems likely to continue to have multiple definitions, and those with different kinds of self-interest seem likely to continue to prefer different definitions. More categories than Peter Suber’s first two (“gratis OA” and “libre OA”) will probably be needed.



  1. tillje said

    For more about variations in the approaches that different publishers have taken to provision of Open Access, see: A template for authors’ rights, and a modest proposal., Kevin Smith, Scholarly Communications @ Duke, Duke University Libraries, August 19, 2008. Excerpt:

    The easier deposit in PubMed Central is made, the more a publisher will stand out from the crowd. …

    … I think many authors would be very surprised at just how limited their rights to make their own work available to others are when they sign publication agreements. …

  2. Jim Till said

    Meredith Salisbury, in Open Access: What Does It All Mean?, Genome Technology (November 2008), compares “open access” with “public access” as follows:

    Open access: The pure form of open access is considered research that’s made freely available for reuse in any way another scientist might dream up. In general, as long as the original author is credited for what’s his, any other scientist can add to the work with no strings attached.

    Public access: By contrast, public access usually describes repositories like PubMed Central, where papers may be made available but can still be subject to various copyright barriers, or may not contain the full article content. Public access can also mean papers are available in locked formats like PDF, preventing them from being mined or analyzed.

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