cognitive science
and more
The difference between freely accessible content and Open Access

'Open access' is somewhat of a buzzword within academia. But unfortunately the term is widely misunderstood. All too often, the label 'open access' is used to refer to any content that can be accessed online for free. By this (incorrect) definition, most websites would be open access, because they offer content that you can read (or watch, listen to, etc.) for free. But you are usually not allowed to reproduce that content, or to sell it, modify it, etc. The only thing that you, as a consumer, are allowed to do is view the website right then and there, for as long as the owner of the website permits you.

This may be free of charge. It may even be a nice gesture. But it is not open access.

The definition of 'open access' is still evolving, but by consensus a number of conditions need to be satisfied for it to apply. In PLoS Biology, Michael Carroll gives us the following list:

Full open access content is

  • Easily accessible online
  • Available to anyone free of charge
  • Available for re-use without restriction except that attribution be given to the source.

No one of these alone qualifies content for an open access label.

The paper by Carroll satisfies these criteria. I downloaded it for free. I am allowed to reproduce and redistribute the paper in it's entirety (here it is). And so are you. I didn't need Carroll's permission to upload his paper. And I do not (have to) care if he likes it. I just needed to provide attribution.

An open access license (such as CC BY) provides safeguards. Once a scientific paper is published under an open access license, it will be available to anyone, for ever (unless, of course, all copies get lost by some bizarre coincidence). Neither the author nor the publisher can undo this afterwards: The work is safe. In addition, open access publishing makes science accessible to the general public, which is invaluable. (Scientists are, after all, public servants.)

Most people agree on this. But not everyone has a clear picture of what open access means exactly. And this makes it possible for publishers to label their journals as open access, without actually providing open access.

As a case in point, let's consider the following statement, made recently by the editor in chief of Journal of Vision (also here).

(...) the need for an open access [emphasis added] venue for description of substantial new technical developments, and the unique capabilities of Journal of Vision for publication of code and demonstrations, has convinced us of the value of publishing methods reports in the Journal of Vision.

There's a lot to like about this statement. In fact, I agree with pretty much everything. Except... Journal of Vision is not open access. Their business model is essentially that of an online newspaper. You are allowed to access their content for free, but all rights remain with the publisher. In theory, nothing prevents the publisher from retroactively 'unfreeing' all of the journal's content in the future. And, although access is free, for particular uses you have to request permission and pay a fee:

If you would like to use material from an [sic] JOV article for which you were NOT an author, please obtain permission through the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC). There is a fee of $35 per figure or table plus a small CCC service fee.

Now compare this with the following passage from the Introduction to the 10th anniversary issue of Journal of Vision:

The advent of the internet made it possible to be everywhere, while the emergence of the concept of open access allowed us to be free by allowing completely unrestricted access [emphasis added] to every article."

Clearly, the journal's conditions are more restrictive than this passage implies.

Let me be clear about the point that I want (and do not want) to make: Journal of Vision is a good journal, and it rightfully enjoys considerable support from the scientific community. Also, providing free access, while reserving all rights, is a perfectly acceptable business model. But it is not open access. And the fact that the journal labels itself as such is misleading. Particularly when you consider the publishing fee that authors pay, most of them presumably under the assumption that their work will be open access.

Of course, Journal of Vision is just an example, which I happened to have picked because I'm a vision scientist myself. As pointed out by Carroll, many publishers incorrectly label their journals as open access. In some cases there may not be any malicious intent at all. Many journals are published by small organizations, which may be just as confused about the (novel) concept of open access as their readers and contributing authors.

But that's no excuse, because these things do matter. Freely accessible content is emphatically not the same as open access. Neither from an idealistic nor a practical point of view. For example, Carroll highlights the risk of bankruptcy. Consider what would happen if a non-open access publisher goes bankrupt. Nowadays many journals are purely digital, so if the publisher's website goes down, all content vanishes along with it. One would hope that a benefactor would step in and pay a large sum of money to prevent all digital content from being lost forever. But there is no guarantee.

In contrast, if an open access publisher goes bankrupt, the chance of content being lost is negligible. Anyone would be free to download and redistribute the entire archive of the soon-to-go bankrupt journal. And someone almost certainly would.

It's a shame that (too) many publishers use the term 'open access' (too) loosely. I wish they would be more open, if only about the fact that they aren't really open (access).


Carroll, M. W. (2011). Why full open access matters. PLoS Biology, 9(11), e1001210. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001210 [Link: open access]

Watson, A. B. (2011). Introduction to the 10th Anniversary Issue of the Journal of Vision. Journal of Vision, 11(5). doi:10.1167/11.5.i [Link: free access]

Watson, A. B. (2011). It seemed like a good idea at the time: A brief history of Journal of Vision. Journal of Vision, 11(5). doi:10.1167/11.5.ii [Link: free access]