Open Access: Conflict and Heresy

Open access (OA) is a long-standing topic of conversation in the scholarly communication field, and the issue remains vexing. The controversy has two primary dimensions. First, within the movement itself, there is pervasive disagreement over how the term should be defined. Second, there is disagreement between those inside and those outside the OA movement about whether OA (however defined and implemented) offers a net benefit or a net detriment to the world of science and scholarship. Apart from those two dimensions of essential conflict, there is one other, which arises whenever a member of the scholarly or scientific community attempts to address issues related to OA in a critical—rather than evangelical—mode. In this editorial, I will briefly discuss each of the three aspects of controversy and conflict.

In common parlance, OA is generally understood to refer to “the practice of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly research”.1 However, the formal definition of OA has been a matter of controversy for virtually as long as the concept has existed.2 Three formal definitions in particular are cited often: one arising from the Budapest Open Access Initiative3 of 2002 and two others arising from the Bethesda Statement on Open Access4 and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities5 of 2003. Two of those documents—Bethesda and Berlin—specify that OA implies more than simply giving the reading public free access to the work in question, that it also means allowing reuse of the work by the public in ways that would normally be controlled by the copyright holder, including the creation and publication of derivative works. Although many individual members and constituent organizations of the OA movement strongly support that criterion, others in the scholarly community are often surprised to learn that what they think of as OA (free access to the reading public) is considered by others to be something less than “real” OA. That recognition frequently leads to conflict.6

Furthermore, it is not universally agreed that the term OA should apply only to peer-reviewed scholarly or scientific work, although peer-reviewed scientific publications are generally the focus of concern. There is also disagreement over questions of versioning: Is public access to the author’s final manuscript sufficient under an OA regime, or must the OA version be the final, fully edited article, formatted for publication? And what about embargoes? If an article meets the strictest definition of OA but is made publicly available after some embargo period rather than immediately on publication, does it still qualify as OA? Opinions on those matters vary considerably, and the issue continues to be controversial.

Compounding the disagreements is the vexing problem of economics. Clearly, a scholarly journal that does not charge readers (or readers’ agents, such as libraries) for access to its content is likely to have trouble maintaining a revenue stream. Two general models of OA address that problem. The first is the “gold” model, under which an author typically pays an up-front fee (thus preserving the publisher’s revenue stream) and the article is made immediately available on an OA basis on publication. The second is the “green” model, under which the article is published as usual in a conventional subscription journal, but the author is allowed to archive some version of the article in a public repository, either immediately or after an embargo period. The latter version of OA poses a greater or smaller economic challenge to the publisher depending on which version of the article is made freely available and on the length of the embargo. There is a wide spectrum of opinion within the OA movement on the relative merits of these models, and the disagreements often become quite heated.

The first dimension of conflict, then, is largely over issues of definition and boundary maintenance, and much of it plays out between the members of the scholarly community who are already committed to OA in principle. The arguments might be likened to sectarian disputes between religious denominations, all of which agree on the general outlines of belief but differ on questions of authority, rite, and doctrine.

The second dimension of conflict arises when there is disagreement between OA advocates and those who are not committed to OA, either in principle or in practice. The latter distinction—between principle and practice—is important. Some members of the scholarly community support OA in principle but have concerns about its practical implications or about aspects of currently prevailing OA models; others, while recognizing the desirability of expanded access to scholarship, are not convinced that any OA model offers the best solution to the problems that face scholarly communication. This conflict might be likened to one between religious believers and agnostics or atheists. Some outside the community of OA advocates and activists have, for example, pointed out that gold OA models will probably redirect research funding away from research itself and toward the dissemination of research and that a supply-side funding model poses the danger of putting more low-quality research into the marketplace.7 The question in this case is whether the world benefits more from universal access to less research or from limited access to more research.

Observers have also raised concerns about the downstream consequences of green OA policies and mandates,8 which tend to make it harder for publishers to sell access to their content. Some scholars would be happy to see large commercial publishers’ revenues being affected that way but may be less sanguine about the prospect of financial harm to their own scholarly and scientific societies—many of which rely on revenues from their own subscription journals, which are often published on a nonprofit basis.

Those conflicts are fundamentally healthy in that they represent engagement with serious and basic issues. OA constitutes a substantial change in how scholarly communication takes place, and it is only to be expected that such change would be difficult and in some ways controversial.

However, there is a third dimension of conflict around OA, and it is far less healthy. It has to do with the OA community’s frequent reluctance to acknowledge, take seriously, or (in some cases) even allow critical questioning of OA’s foundational assumptions or of the wisdom of particular OA initiatives. In general, the OA community tends to tolerate disagreement and discussion about the proper definition of OA, the appropriateness of embargoes, and the relative merits of gold and green models. But it is much less tolerant of discussion concerning the potential adverse (or even simply unintended) downstream consequences of OA itself. That reluctance is particularly alarming because it tends to set boundaries on what it is acceptable to say or to think. Here, again, a religious analogy suggests itself: all too often, to question the appropriateness, wisdom, or efficacy of OA is to be treated as a heretic. Those who raise questions or concerns about OA are regularly accused of being against openness and sharing or are told that they should not raise such questions in OA discussion forums, or they are even accused of being agents or shills for commercial publishers. (Here, I write both from personal experience and on the basis of experiences shared privately with me by others who are afraid to air their concerns publicly.)

That dynamic is by far the most alarming aspect of the current conversation around issues related to OA. As a model, OA is both interesting and promising. In some important ways, its growth continues to be marked and fostered by vigorous and healthy debate. But as long as the culture of OA advocacy actively discourages critical engagement with the assumptions of OA itself and discourages the airing and discussion of OA’s adverse effects (both actual and potential) as well as its favorable ones, the movement’s growth and legitimacy will be undermined. The OA community’s projections and analyses will lack authority, its proposals will be regarded with suspicion, and its advocates will be applauded by partisan supporters and distrusted by everyone else. Driving critical questions and concerns underground may make life easier for the OA community in the short run, but it will only create deeper problems for that community in the long run.


  1. Wikipedia. “Open Access” (cited 6 December 2013).
  2. Meyers B. Society for Scholarly Publishing Issue Status Report. “Open Access: a matter for definition” (2004 June).
  3. Budapest Open Access Initiative. (cited 6 December 2013).
  4. Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing. (cited 6 December 2013).
  5. Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. (cited 6 December 2013).
  6. Royster P. “Up from under the “Open Access” bus”. J Librarianship and Scholarly Communication. 2012;1(2):eP1045.
  7. British Sociological Association. Submission to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee inquiry into Open Access. 7 Februry 2013.
  8. Esposito J. Scholarly Kitchen. “When it comes to Green OA, nice guys finish last”. 26 September 2013.

RICK ANDERSON is associate dean for scholarly resources and collections in the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

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