OK, but I still don’t want to see “Open Access” become the new “Low Fat”.

Peter Suber commented on the last entry to clarify his position on the varying uses of the term “Open Access”:

For me, OA in the strict sense removes both price barriers and permission barriers; all the major public definitions say so; and I’m only too glad to repeat this whenever it comes up. However, as a matter of word usage, the term now covers more territory than this and I’ve stopped fighting that fact. That is, the term is often used for content that is merely free-to-read.

Peter goes into more detail in a recent entry on his blog:

…many projects which remove price barriers alone, and not permission barriers, now call themselves OA. I often call them OA myself. This is only to say that the common use of the term has moved beyond than the strict definitions. But this is not always regrettable. For most users, removing price barriers alone solves the largest part of the problem with non-OA content, and projects that do so are significant successes worth celebrating. By going beyond [I would say “outside” — BH] the BBB definition, the common use of the term has marked out a spectrum of free online content, ranging from that which removes no permission barriers (beyond those already removed by fair use) to that which removes all the permission barriers that might interfere with scholarship. This is useful, for we often want to refer to that whole category, not just to the upper end. When the context requires precision we can, and should, distinguish OA content from content which is merely free of charge. But we don’t always need this extra precision.
In other words: Yes, most of us are now using the term “OA” in at least two ways, one strict and one loose, and yes, this can be confusing. But first, this is the case with most technical terms (compare “evolution” and “momentum”). Second, when it’s confusing, there are ways to speak more precisely. Third, it would be at least as confusing to speak with this extra level of precision –distinguishing different ways of removing permission barriers from content that was already free of charge– in every context. […]

and in the Sept 2004 edition of the SPARC OA Newsletter:

One danger is the dilution of our term. That’s why [this newsletter discusses] the BBB definition and its place in our history. But another danger is the false sharpening of our term. If we thought that the BBB definition settled matters that it doesn’t settle, then we could prematurely close avenues of useful exploration, needlessly shrink the big tent of OA, and divisively instigate quarreling about who is providing “true OA” and who isn’t.
The BBB definition functions as a usefully firm definition of “open access” even if it leaves room for variation. We should agree that OA removes some permission barriers (e.g. on copying, redistribution, and printing) even if it leaves different OA providers free to adopt different policies on others (e.g. on derivative works and commercial re-use). My personal preference, for example, is to permit derivative works and commercial re-use. But (as I wrote in FOSN for 1/30/02) I want to make this preference genial, or compatible with the opposite preference, so that we can recruit and retain authors on both sides of this question.

I’ve omitted a lot of good information to save space here; anyone interested in this issue should read all of the linked discussions. In particular, the SPARC newsletter goes into useful specifics about the OA-related activities of a number of publishers.
Peters Suber and Murray-Rust have both pointed out that one way to be specific about “levels” of openness is to be explicit about licensing — PMR:

If the community wishes to continue to use “open access” to describe documents which do not comply with BOAI then I suggest the use of suffixes/qualifiers to clarify. For example:

  • “open access (CC-BY)” – explicitly carries CC-BY license
  • “open access (BOAI)” – author/site wishes to assert BOAI-nature of document(s) without specific license
  • “open access (FUZZY)” – fuzzy licence (or more commonly absence of licence) for document or site without any guarantee of anything other than human visibility at current time. Note that “Green” open access falls into this category. It might even be that we replace the word FUZZY by GREEN, though the first is more descriptive.

I take Peter S to be saying that it’s inevitable that “Open Access” will come to mean, in general use, more things to more people than strict BOAI, and we will not achieve anything by making arseholes of ourselves over it. (Even if that’s not quite the way Peter S would put it, that’s the way I’ve come to look at the situation.) There’s no point in picking quarrels we don’t have to have. It’s enough to be more careful in our own usage, for which purposes suffixes a la Peter MR should prove very useful when we need extra precision. I don’t think we need invent terms (“fuzzy”) just yet — “OA (specific licence, with hyperlink if writing online)” and “OA (free to read)” should cover most cases.
If we can get to the point where the average consumer — basically, any researcher — responds to an OA claim or label by asking “which licence?”, we will have done an end-run around the problem of term dilution.

2 thoughts on “OK, but I still don’t want to see “Open Access” become the new “Low Fat”.

  1. Meaning, a useful (but in some ways limited) idea that is sometimes mistaken for the solution to problems it does not adequately address by people whose insistence on this view approaches the dogmatic?
    Mmmm. I think OA is rather more practical an idea than falsification, so the analogy is not especially compelling to me. But then, I would be one of the overzealous cheerleader types I guess, so the Mandy Rice-Davies rule applies. 🙂
    If I read your comment aright, I appreciate the warning. I have been wondering along similar lines myself lately.

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