Is the definition of Open Access closed? leaders debate language strategy

cover_natureNature magazine published a special issue “The future of publishing: a new page“ 27 March 2013. The next day, Cameron Neylon published a Comment, “Let’s get this straight: Open-access terminology needs to be employed accurately“), in Times Higher Education.

This is a “storify” or gathering of an extended conversation on Twitter, referencing the issue and article above, between me and a number of leading advocates of and commentators on  Open Access publishing:

I. Conversation archive
II.  Afterword:  proposing “Collaborative Advocacy”
III. Followup conversation (added 31 Mar)


I.  Conversation archive

Wilbanks states unequivocally a version of what is sometimes called the “BBB definition” of Open Access, from the Budapest, Berlin, and Bethesda declarations/statements of 2001 and 2003: “open access — the free, immediate online availability of scholarly articles coupled with the right to use them fully in the digital environment.” He then reasserts, as do others, that “the use of the Creative Commons attribution licence (CC-BY) fulfils the community definition of open access.”

[update 31 Mar: Wilbanks also afterwards put up a blog post "A Fool’s Errand, Annotated", commenting on and clarifying points in the Nature article. He notes,

My quarrel is with the publishing industry’s attempt to write a new license [i.e. "CC Plus"] and I have no wish to lump those with whom I have a philosophical disagreement with those OA advocates who sincerely dislike CC BY, like Heather Morrison or many in humanities, into the same pool.


Eve has elsewhere advocated the use of CC-BY licenses for Open Access humanities scholarship, which is the focus of the Open Library of Humanities project.

The next day, Cameron Neylon’s piece ”Let’s get this straight: Open-access terminology needs to be employed accurately” was published in Times Higher Education.


After this exchange, I wrote a comment to the Times Higher Education article by Neylon.

Tim McCormick | 29 Mar 2013 6:44am

Besides the terms “Gold” and “Green” being misused, the term “Open Access” (or “open access”) itself is a battleground between factions as well. Differing visions of future publishing, and differing strategies of how to progress, both play out upon it.

For example, John Wilbanks’ article in the current special issue of Nature (“The future of publishing”) argues that “for an article to be considered truely open access, it has to meet the…definition in the Budapest Open Access Initiative,” preferably expressed by the CC-BY license. (

However, “Open Access” is being pervasively applied to practices which don’t meet the BBB (Budapest, Berlin, & Bethesda declaration) definitions — e.g. embargoes, NC or ND license restrictions. Is this allowing the pollution and undermining of the movement, or is it reasonable accommodation to circumstances, and steps towards the longterm goal — bringing various communities together in common cause, around a more capacious understanding of the principle? In political terms, is there more need for Big Tent, or message descipline?

If positions on this aren’t well-considered, it can lead to similar problems as misuse of “Green” and “Gold”: language getting in the way of issues, sound and fury, people talking past each other, distrust and distraction. While the great ocean of opportunity lies mostly undiscovered before us.


Tim McCormick
@tmccormick / / Palo Alto, CA, USA

Peter Murray-Rust also wrote a blog post following up on Neylon’s article, titled “#openaccess; Let’s get rid of “Green” “Gold” and use precise language such as “CC-BY”. And be joyous.” Here are key sections:

Cameron Neylon has written a compelling article and why we should get rid of “Green” “Gold” “Open Access” as meaningful labels. Because they no longer mean anything. They are as useful as “healthy” in a burger advertisement. I’m not going to repeat Cameron’s arguments – just read them yourself and redistribute.

Most publishers now produce inconsistent quasi-legal rubbish on their web pages. The try to write terms and conditions that are meaningful and normally they aren’t. They are almost an insult to readers (most of whom are actually intelligent knowledgeable humans). There is a spectrum of rubbish, varying from specialist departments of “Universal Access” whose business is in producing platitudes and not answering questions, to others that think that “all-rights-reserved” means something. [...]

There is a spectrum of publisher attitudes to licences. At one end we have BMC, PLoS, eLife, peerJ Charlie, and Tim Gowers initiatives and Ubiquity Press and… They positively WANT people to re-use material. It’s honest. At the other end we have unnamed (because I will get sued) publishers who state they are “incredibly helpful” to people like me and somehow seem to make re-use impossible through fudge, inconsistency deliberately unhelpful licences, bad or non-existent labelling etc. Phrases on Open Access papers like “This journal is Copyright XYZ”. Yes, the *journal* is copyright but the paper is APC-paid Open Access and you haven’t the decency to tell the world. That’s weasel words and an insult to the authors and readers. Be honest and say

“This article is CC-BY”. Revere the authors. They want you to acknowledge them and use the article or bits of it for anything anywhere for any legal purpose and they rejoice in people making money out of it without their explicit permission because the more this happens the prouder they feel and the more others value them.

So maybe we need a joyous declaration on scholarly papers. After all Open Access is good and wonderful.

A; Open access means people can live and make a better planet. Not-A: Closed access means people die. A OR not-A ?


II.  Afterword:  proposing “Collaborative Advocacy”

In my next post, I plan to expand on my suggestion of working together to articulate and relate positions / counter-arguments in one place. This approach might be called  ”Collaborative Advocacy“: try to bring together advocates who don’t necessarily agree, and collaborate for optimally engaged, evidenced, clarified expressions of their respective positions. The topic in this case is Open Access, but obviously the approach might be tried for any number of other issues.

Possibly, such a forum/argumentation design could encourage credibility being based on clear, easily-accessible and verified evidence of deep, good-will engagement with counter-argument and diverse views. Which is, you know, not always what happens in the rich human tapestry of discussion. And which would be, arguably, a format expressing in situ the structure which the scholarly or scientific worlds purport to have as a whole. 

This has some potential advantages not only for audiences, but for advocates themselves, who often have to continually restate nearly the same arguments in many forums, with comparatively little time to fine-tune or correct their statements. This way, they can get arguments as right as possible, and then just refer people to them by number — like an old couple who know each others’ jokes so well they can just refer to them by number and make each other laugh.

In scholarly publishing terms, this is something like the contrast between the “article”, or individual exposition model, vs. the “topic page” as represented by Wikipedia and scholarly reference works. Except it would not be single point of view, and particular arguments would be attributable to particular contributors. (possibly close to a Wikipedia-style overview page that has broken a topic/issue into sub-, variant, and conflicting views with their own pages).


III. Followup conversation (added 31 Mar)