“Open Access” is not a marketing phrase and you are not free to use it as you see fit.

Peter Murray-Rust recently pointed to Paul Wicks’ (Nature Networks) blog article, “Is Publisher-Lead “open access” a swindle?“, which refers to PMR’s recent blog series on publisher licensing and permissions barriers in hybrid OA models. In comments on Paul’s entry, Jennifer Rohn pointed out

The two dedicated open-access publishers (BioMed Central and Public Library of Science) don’t have these problems. People who want to ensure their articles are truly going to be open access, published by companies who have put real thought into the publishing as well as business model, might want to look there.

PMR quoted that comment, to which Maxine Clarke replied (in a comment on PMR’s entry) with what looks for all the world like classic publisher anti-OA FUD:

Hello, I declare conflict of interest as I am an editor at Nature, not in itself open access but our publisher has many open access projects and products.
In response to Jennifer’s point: I agree that BMC has got an OA publishing/business model and indeed business, but the PLOS model is dependent on a large grant from a charitable foundation, so the jury is still out (in my opinion). As an editor I am concerned about the archiving and the preservation of the scientific record, for example.

I note the commendable upfront COI declaration and state for the record that I do not think Maxine was consciously engaging in FUD. It is nonetheless standard operating procedure for OA opponents to link PLoS to “charity” and cast vague aspersions on the ability of OA publishers to maintain the scientific record. PLoS was intended as a flagship-cum-icebreaker for OA; breaking even financially was always a secondary objective. Nay-sayers about the viability of OA in business are invited to explain the success of (at least) BioMed Central, Hindawi and Medknow. Persons who wish to claim that OA puts the record at risk are invited to explain how a proprietary archive in the hands of a for-profit publisher is safer than PubMed Central or the wide network of repositories linked by OAI-PMH. (Again, I don’t think Maxine was making such anti-OA claims, but it bears pointing out that what she did say contains clear echoes of standard FUD.)
Peter MR’s response to Maxine’s comment was this entry, in which Peter sets out to find the “many open access projects and products” and gets no further than did Jonathan Eisen, who praised the establishment of Molecular and Systems Biology (NPG’s only OA journal) only to find that in fact the MSB license is the same as CC-BY-NC-ND, which is far too restrictive to call itself OA. As Chris Surridge (of PLoS) puts it in comments on Jonathan’s entry,

‘Free Advertising’ isn’t ‘Open Access’ in my book.

Maxine had this to say:

Nature Precedings, several database publications, Nature Reports publications (3), Nature Network, Scintilla, online daily news service, gateways, blogs, many individual articles and collections of articles are freely available (“projects and products” as I mentioned in my comment to your earlier post. MSB is to my knowledge NPG’s only formal open access journal.)

Peter responded with another post, giving the necessary background and pointing out that, excepting MSB,

…the rest of [Maxine’s] list completely muddies the “open access” debate. If Nature believe that “open access” applies to any freely visible information on their site, most not peer-reviewed, many without licences and many with the publisher’s copyright, then they are making my life much harder.

This is clear and unexceptionable in the context of Peter’s ongoing quest for clarity in publisher OA-related policies. That context, or at least its existence and importance to the entry in question, was made clear by the entry itself, and I take ordinary netiquette to involve being familiar with an ongoing conversation before taking part. Nonetheless, Maxine again:

frankly I was not responding to anything you have written in the past few weeks, I was responding to your request to give examples of NPG’s “open access” or “free” material.

This is weak at best. Peter asked for “pointers to [Nature’s] open access products and the licences which they carry”; see also netiquette, ongoing conversations and. Claims of a limited response made in ignorance of context are either disingenuous or, if made in good faith, still no excuse.
Maxine continues:

It is your perogative to define terms however you like, but not your perogative to enforce other people to use the same definitions – I know what I mean by “open” or “free” content and I don’t need to be told off by you for having a different definition to whatever your definition is

I don’t know and I don’t care what Maxine means by “open” or “free”. I care what the BBB Declarations mean. Peter is not defining terms however he likes; he is working with published, widely accepted definitions. He is well within his rights to expect that other people will indeed use the same definitions: that is, after all, the point of having developed and published them. Nature does NOT have “many open access projects and products”, it has one (barely) OA journal and the excellent Precedings, together with a number of commendable free-to-read initiatives (blogs, Nature Network, the various free-to-read web special collections, etc). “Open Access” is not a fuzzy buzzword that Maxine is free to define as she sees fit, and if she is going to start abusing it as marketing for Nature then she most certainly does need telling off.
Peter has apologized for being “over-brusque”, which is a handsome gesture but in my opinion no such apology was called for.

4 thoughts on ““Open Access” is not a marketing phrase and you are not free to use it as you see fit.

  1. Disclamer: I worked a couple of months for MSB
    In biomedical publishing I see Nature alongside with PLoS as the current main developers of technology that can take advantage of the web as a means to connect scientists and to disseminate knowledge. I think the open access movement is a great fight and it is surely a part of I think is actually the really important and broader goal of improving access to knowledge and to resources (data and people) online. Maxine is right in pointing out all those resources that Nature has been creating recently (Connotea, Nature Networks, Precedings, Nature Reports, Scintilla, Pathway Interaction Database, etc). These resources are all free and can be used by scientists to increase the efficiency of information exchange and collaboration. They deserve some recognition for this.
    Having said that I agree with you that Open Access cannot be used as marketing gimmick and the definition should be always clear to everyone. I really suspect that a lot of people at Nature are thinking hard on how to make the journals open access. If the consumers demand open access and a publisher is able to do the same job (determine quality, impact and main audience of a paper) and have it be open access then the consumers will change provider.
    As I mentioned recently in my blog it is possible that in order to make this possible they might have to find a way to decrease the overall rejection rate (by having more journals covering lower impact research).
    In the end if PLoS ONE is successful it might even be the case that the scientific community can do away with the journals altogether (in their current form).

  2. Pedro, thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree with your suspicion that a number of people at Nature have seen the writing on the wall for traditional publishing, and that is why Nature is doing so much experimenting with ways to take advantage of the web. I also agree that they deserve recognition for these experiments. I don’t, however, want them calling such things “Open Access”. If commercial publishers want the goodwill/PR that goes with being OA, they had better actually offer OA.

  3. For what it’s worth, I’ve just commented on the evolgen blog in much the same sentiment as Pedro:
    “You have to admit, though, that Nature has taken great strides to make more of their content openly available, or at least greater strides than any other top tier journal. I work at a major research university, and I am continually amazed at how difficult it is to get access to Science articles, for example. In my opinion, while no one will probably ever be as open as PLoS has been, or at least as pioneering, Nature deserves at least some credit in this arena.”
    I am in complete agreement though, Bill, that Nature is most definitely not completely or even largely “open access.” To label themselves as such is to be misleading if not flat-out incorrect.

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