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Free but not Open?

There is an interesting editorial out today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ). It applauds the establishment of the journal Open Medicine by former editors of CMAJ. It also gives a clear exposition of why it believes Open Access publishing is important. Finally it establishes itself to be the open access journal which in the World is leading in general medicine.

You might wonder why that last sentence is so convoluted. I’m not a great writer but still I ought to be able to do better than that. You might also be expecting me to tell you what the CMAJ says about Open Access publishing. Perhaps I might even give you some direct quotations.

Well I would love to but the fact is I’m a little scared. You see all the content of the CMAJ is copyright to the Canadian Medical Association or its licensors. And that copyright says that I can’t republish, redistribute, store in a retrieval system or transmit in any form or by any means, anything published there without explicit permission. I suppose I could trust to the vagaries of ‘Fair Use’ laws. But quite frankly I don’t want to take the risk.

This of course raises the question of whether CMAJ is right to call itself an open access journal.

A few years ago Open Access was a very clearly defined term but these days that clarity is becoming clouded. So let me take on the mantle of bellman and tell you again
the four unmistakable marks by which you may know, wheresoever you go, the warranted genuine Open Access publication.

1. Content is made freely and immediately accessible to all. This basically means that you can get it on the internet without paying anything in addition to what it costs you to access the internet.

2. Authors retain the rights of attribution. So the work is the authors. The author doesn’t sign over the copyright to the publisher or anyone else. Rather the author allows the publisher to publish the work under licence. A licence which also ensures that:

3. Content can be distributed and reused without restriction. So I or anyone else can take Open Access content and use it, in whole or in part, for any purpose including purposes that have not yet been dreamt of as long as I don’t infringe the Authors rights of attribution.

4. Papers are deposited in a public online archive such as PubMed Central. This ensures, as best as anyone can, that the above three conditions continue to apply to the Open Access content in perpetuity.

There is plenty of scope for argument about the details here, especially the exact conditions of the Open Access licence. Creative Commons have a number of possible licences from the least restrictive, full Attribution licence as used by us here at PLoS or the Attribution Share Alike license used by Open Medicine; to the most restrictive Attribution, Non-commercial, No Derivatives license that some argue is not an Open Access license at all and have nicknamed the ‘Free Advertising’ license. However, if a journal can’t meet all four of the above criteria, then it simply isn’t publishing Open Access however much they say they are.

Free Access to scientific research is great, and all publishers who make their content free to read should be praised for doing so. But this is not Open Access. It is like giving a child a Lego car and telling them that they can look at it, perhaps touch it, but certainly not take it apart and make an aeroplane from it. The full potential of the work cannot be realised.

It is depressing not to be able to take things on trust, but it would seem that these days, as with all gift horses, when someone tells you they are giving you Open Access you need to check the small print.

Discussion
  1. Note: I help OM with lots of their tech things, and am deeply interested in Free software and Open Access.

    Hello Chris!

    Thank you very much for your post. Upon reading the editorial, I was also quite unsettled by the apparent misunderstanding about the issues of Open Access and what it means. Your post has beautifully expressed the core weakness of the article.

    As a note, the Open Medicine editorial team has responded to the commentary.

    tarek : )

  2. It would probably be helpful and instructive for people interested in open access journals to have a look at the various licenses (GPL, etc) that have been developed for use in the OpenSource software world.

    There is a difference between Free Beer and Free Dom. But it’s subtle, apparently…

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