February 16, 2012 | By Parker Higgins

A Decade of Open Access (And the Challenges Ahead)

Ten years ago this week, the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) was released to the public. This seminal document explained how technology could revolutionize academic publishing, and defined "open access" as the free and unrestricted availability of peer-reviewed journal literature online. Perhaps most importantly, the BOAI laid out a strategy for making open access a reality. In the decade since its publication, the 13 original signatories behind the initiative have been joined by a still-growing collection of over 5500 individuals and 600 organizations.

The history of the movement goes deeper, of course, and is intertwined with that of the Internet; given the academic roots of the Internet and the World Wide Web, that connection is hardly a surprise. Tim Berners-Lee's announcement introducing the Web stated that the Web "project started with the philosophy that much academic information should be freely available to anyone." Academics newly connecting to the network intuitively understood the appeal of online publication, and the first major collection of self-archived papers, arXiv.org, appeared a full decade before the BOAI in 1991.

But BOAI marked a crucial turning point. In the years since, the open access movement has established itself as a real force in academia. Not only have programs like MIT's OpenCourseWare brought the idea of openly sharing educational resources into the mainstream, but prominent universities like Harvard have instituted policies to mandate open access for newly published research. And the National Institute of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy has been another major success story: it requires that scientists whose receive public funds for their research publish final manuscripts of their articles to their archive, PubMed Central, within a year of acceptance for publication.

These programs have been major boons to the academic community and the general public, providing greater distribution for authors and better access to research for scholars. Unfortunately, there's one group that isn't happy with the successes of the open access movement: traditional publishers. Those companies, who produce the "big name" journals like Nature, Science, and the New England Journal of Medicine, don't like open access because it threatens their very lucrative position in the middle of the academic world.

They're right to feel threatened. Increasingly, academics are realizing that these publishers are acting as the worst sort of middleman, providing little value and reaping extreme profits. There's even a movement to boycott some of the major publishers altogether. And just one look at the business model of these publishers confirms, that movement's on to something.

The legacy academic publishers profit from selling access to material that the public has already paid for many times over. First, the research that goes into journal articles is frequently funded by the government, through grants or university budgets. Then academics (who are often employees of those same public universities) conduct the research and write an article based on their conclusions. The academics submit it to journals, who coordinate a peer review process. The peers that do the actual reviewing, though, aren't employees of the publisher. They review voluntarily, and often work for -- you guessed it -- publicly funded universities.

And for the role they play, publishers usually demand an exclusive copyright assignment to the article. Then they publish it in a journal priced so exorbitantly high -- in 2008, a subscription to the "Journal of Comparative Neurology," for example, cost $21,852 -- that members of the public can generally only access them at a university library.

The publishers aren't going to give up a racket like that without a fight. So not only have they been backers of general misguided copyright bills, like the Internet blacklist legislation defeated last month, but they've also pushed for specific laws that would undermine open access journals and policies. Take for example the Research Works Act, introduced this year in the House, which would outlaw NIH's Public Access Policy requirements for any work that passed through a commercial publisher's hands, regardless of the public funds involved. That bill is the latest in a series of publisher-backed proposals like the Fair Copyright in Research Act, which died in committee a few years back.

Fortunately, some politicians are on the right side of this issue. Rep. Mike Doyle has recently introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2012 (pdf) that would strengthen the NIH policy, reduce the waiting period between acceptance for publication and open access release from a year to six months, and require similar policies by other federal agencies funding research. If passed, this legislation would be a major step in the right direction, helping to grow the body of work that the public can access. The Alliance for Taxpayer Access, a coalition of open access groups directed by SPARC, has created an action alert encouraging people to contact Congress to ask them to support this bill.

In the decade since the BOAI was published, its authors' hope for a powerful public good to emerge from the combination of scholarship and new networking technology has proven possible, if not easy. As with the other fields that new technology disrupts, the legacy players are willing to kick and scream against it. But the promise of open access as set out by the BOAI, to "lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation," is too important to give up in the name of preserving profits.

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