New consensus for defining open access

May 1st, 2008 by dwentworth

Even among those who follow developments in the open access (OA) movement closely, there is sometimes confusion over definitions. Does open access publishing mean placing the work online without price barriers (for free) — or must you also remove permission barriers (for instance, by adopting a Creative Commons license that permits reuse without permission)?

Earlier this week, open access leader Peter Suber and “archivangelist” Stevan Harnad reached consensus on terms to describe these two forms of open access: “weak” OA (removing price barriers alone) and “strong” OA (removing price and permission barriers). Explains Suber:

There are two good reasons why our central term became ambiguous. Most of our success stories deliver OA in the first sense, while the major public statements from Budapest, Bethesda, and Berlin (together, the BBB definition of OA) describe OA in the second sense. […]

We have agreed to use the term “weak OA” for the removal of price barriers alone and “strong OA” for the removal of both price and permission barriers. To me, the new terms are a distinct improvement upon the previous state of ambiguity because they label one of those species weak and the other strong. To Stevan, the new terms are an improvement because they make clear that weak OA is still a kind of OA.

On this new terminology, the BBB definition describes one kind of strong OA. A typical funder or university mandate provides weak OA. Many OA journals provide strong OA, but many others provide weak OA.

Forging agreement on the terms “weak” and “strong” OA is a promising development. Not only could it bring more clarity to the discussion about open access in the community, it could also help more people understand intuitively that there is a spectrum of openness, and choices you can make to maximize the value of that openness.

For further discussion, check out Why weakOA and strongOA are so important, What is strongOA? and Klaus Graf on what is strongOA over @ Peter Murray-Rust‘s blog.

Update (May 6): Stevan Harnad: “[We] are looking for a shorthand or stand-in for ‘price-barrier-free OA’ and ‘permission-barrier-free OA’ that will convey the distinction without any pejorative connotations for either form of OA.”

Peter Suber: “Stevan is right.  Last week we introduced terms (‘weak’ and ‘strong’ OA) to describe an important and widely recognized distinction.  But the terms were infelicitous and we’re still looking for better ones…The effort here is not to make any kind of policy recommendation, but simply to achieve new clarity in talking about different policy options.”

4 Responses

  1. Stevan Harnad, on May 2nd, 2008 at 8:34 am

    Important caveat: “Weak/Strong” OA marks the logical distinction: price-barrier-free access is a necessary condition for permission-barrier-free access, and permission-barrier-free access is a sufficient condition for price-barrier-free access. That is the logic of weak vs. strong conditions.

    But since Peter and I agreed on the distinction, and agreed that both price-barrier-free access and permission-barrier-free access are indeed open access, our colleagues have been contacting us to express concern about the unintended pejorative connotations of “weak.”

    As a consequence, to avoid this unanticipated and inadvertent bias, the two types of OA cannot be named by the logical conditions (weak and strong) that define them. We will soon announce a more transparent, unbiased pair of names. Current candidates include:

    Transparent, self-explanatory descriptors:

    USE OA vs. RE-USE OA



    Generic descriptors:




    The ultimate choice of names matters far less than ensuring that the unintended connotations of “weak” cannot be exploited by the opponents of OA, or by the partisans of one of the forms of OA to the detriment of the other. Nor should mandating “weak OA” be discouraged by the misapprehension that it is some sort of sign of weakness or of a deficient desideratum

    Stevan Harnad

  2. Peter Karp, on May 2nd, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    This weak/strong distinction strikes me as bogus.

    If weak OA is truly “removal of price barriers alone”
    (as stated on this page), then weak OA is really
    just “free”. Nothing more. “Free” is a perfectly
    fine word to describe it, so why use another word?

    The intent of “open”, as far as I have always been
    able to tell, is to mean “may be redistributed with
    no barriers or requirements other than attribution”.

    By the way, do you think PubMed Central is open?
    If so, think again, and read the fine print on
    their web site. It’s free, not open, despite
    their claims of no barriers on their home page.

  3. Klaus Graf, on May 3rd, 2008 at 7:36 am

    Thanks for mentioning, but please Graf not Graff 😉

  4. CAS-IP, on May 14th, 2008 at 3:52 am

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