#openaccess 10 years on; can we say “This is for everyone”?

[This is probably the first of several posts]

This is OpenAccess Week #oaweek #oaw13 and I generally try to post something to give a perspective. It’s 10 years since the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) which I thought was a wonderful initiative and fully supported (in so far as my support matters). It reads

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.

This is a marvellous political vision and a useful implementation guide. It is heavily influenced by the freedoms in software (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Free_Software_Definition ) written over 25 years ago:

The word “free” in our name does not refer to price; it refers to freedom. First, the freedom to copy a program and redistribute it to your neighbors, so that they can use it as well as you. Second, the freedom to change a program, so that you can control it instead of it controlling you; for this, the source code must be made available to you.

It has influenced the OKFN’s Open Definition (http://opendefinition.org/) 2004

“A piece of data or content is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike.” –

In 2003 I assumed that the signatories of the BOAI would act in united fashion to make the spirit and the letter of BOAI reality. I thought it would change the world. I pledged myself to help insofar as I could.

It hasn’t changed the world and I am now not sure what the role  of individuals such as me is..

That’s a strong statement. Some will argue that we must be patient and we are making good progress. I don’t take that view. I also ask “progress towards what?”

The world is capable of moving at an speed unimaginable 25 years ago. I am inspired by collective efforts such as the WorldWideWeb,  Wikipedia and the Human Genome (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermuda_Principles)

These “Bermuda Principles” (also known as the “Bermuda Accord”) contravened the typical practice in the sciences of making experimental data available only after publication. These principles represent a significant achievement of private ordering in shaping the practices of an entire industry and have established rapid pre-publication data release as the norm in genomics and other fields.

The three principles retained originally were:

  • Automatic release of sequence assemblies larger than 1 kb (preferably within 24 hours).
  • Immediate publication of finished annotated sequences.
  • Aim to make the entire sequence freely available in the public domain for both research and development in order to maximise benefits to society.

The genome projects could have worked in a closed environment, keeping data to themselves, patenting, gaining personal credit. They didn’t; just as TimBL didn’t patent the WWW. They made everything freely and openly available immediately. “This is for everyone.”


Technically we could have made #openaccess available to everyone for a fraction of the cost that publication costs us now ($15 B USD). We could have transmitted STM scholarship (I’ll concentrate on Science Technology Medicine) to everyone connected to the Internet.

Instead, 10 years on we have schoolboy genius Jack Andraka asking his parents to pay access charges (30 USD per paper) for medical papers. #openaccess is effectively a closed community where little reaches out beyond academia and – for the large part – academia doesn’t care. The single thing that is working is #openaccess in fully BOAI-compliant journals such as BMC, PLoS, eLife, PeerJ, Ubiquity, etc. and the support of an increasing number of governments and funding bodies. The BOAI-compliant OA is about 2-20% of the publication output depending on field and who you listen to. (Hybrid OA is a waste of money and so are university repositories – they have failed to make any impact on the wider world. I have yet to find a mainstream scientist or someone outside academia who regularly uses Green OA.)

Is 20% useful? It depends on what you want to do. For some of my work (bioscience) it’s quite useful. For other aspects (e.g. chemistry) it’s useless.

And if the currently slow progress continues where will we end up? There’s very little clear vision and a great deal of fighting and confusion.

In the next posts I will try to compare OA with other Open Initiatives and suggest what could be done.