Taking the Long View of Open Access

Open Access still feels new and revolutionary, even after several decades of experiments and real-world implementations.  Boiled down to its essentials, the worthy, public-spirited impulse behind developing and publishing research outputs — articles, books, datasets, and so on— through an Open Access framework is to maximize access to the scientific and scholarly materials of the highest quality, for the widest public. The route to this laudable goal has not be been without its bumps in the road, however. This year, in celebration of Open Access Week 2019, we’re taking a few steps back for a historical view, and highlighting a few promising developments of the here and now, and slightly over the horizon.

The Earliest Glimmerings of OA

Various commenters put the earliest days of the Open Access (OA) movement at different times. Certainly, Michael S. Hart’s Project Gutenberg was in operation during 1971, an effort (originally) to digitize public domain works which deserves some pride of place, as it predates even all but the earliest beginnings of what became the Internet and is still operating today. Although Usenet, a distributed discussion system, was widely available from 1980 onward, it wasn’t until 1989, 18 years later, that Charles W. Bailey began publishing The Public-Access Computer Systems Review, one of the earliest known scholarly open access efforts, primarily representing a bibliography of Internet-published materials.

arXiv.org might be a better OA origination spot to consider; it went up in 1991 as a resource for a relatively small number of working physicists (including those in government, academia, and a few in commercial organizations) and soon expanded to include related topics such as mathematics, astronomy, electrical engineering, etc. 1991 pre-dates widespread implementation of the protocols for the World Wide Web (HTML standards and so forth) by several years and yet it continues as a vital resource for its participants to this day.

In 1994, UK-based Professor Stevan Harnad proposed scholarly “self-archiving” (a concept later re-envisioned  as “Green Road OA”) and the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) was launched as a repository for preprints of social science articles to enable the sharing of information before formal publication. In 1996-97, PubMed, a free search engine from the National Institutes of Health for a broadly-based database of medical literature based on Medline was launched. And in 2000, PubMed Central began offering full text articles. Together, these events might well be considered the critical milestones in the gestation of OA.

Wikipedia, the enormous and radically open online encyclopedia, begin its operations in January, 2001.

By 2002-3, the movement really found its feet, as the Budapest OA Initiative, Creative Commons, RoMEO & SHERPA all launched within a few months of each other, and were soon followed by declarations and position statements known by their places of announcement: Bethesda and Berlin.

But the funding side was slower to come around, at least in the US and the UK. It wasn’t until 2003 that the National Institutes of Health began to request – but not insist – on OA archiving from their grant recipients. A similar process occurred in the UK in the same years.

In another milestone of note, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) was founded in 2008.

A quick aside for a hat tip: Professor Peter Suber, Director of Harvard’s OA Project, has been meticulously tracking developments in OA since at least 2002, and his book, Open Access (MIT  Press, 2012) is the locus classicus of the topic. Close watchers of the topic cannot do better than to subscribe to his daily summary, “OATP Primary.” Suber’s watchful eye is a key resource for us, and everyone in the movement, as we follow the progress of Open Access.

The Modern Era of OA

In recent years, Open Access —of various kinds — has achieved a solid footing in the landscape of scholarly publishing. To list but a few indicators:

And that’s just a few of the many, many OA achievements so far. We can’t include all the highlights in the space of a short blog post, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention CCC’s own contributions to the OA solutions space: RightsLink for Scientific Communications (formerly RightsLink Author), and OA Agreement Manager, aim to “to streamline and automate OA funding requests, enabling all stakeholders –publishers, institutions, and funders – to more easily coordinate” their OA choices. We’ve been fully involved in this effort for more than a decade now, and, as with all things in the Open Access Movement, there’s no turning back.

To sum up, I think Stewart Brand’s insightful observation from 1984 continues to be valid, and highly appropriate to the progress and promise of Open Access:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time…”

Although there continue to be tensions, “growing pains” one might say, the road to maximized access to scientific and scholarly materials of the highest quality, for the widest public may be long, but —I think—it bends towards Open.


Author: Dave Davis

Dave Davis joined CCC in 1994 and currently serves as research analyst. He previously held directorships in both public libraries and corporate libraries and earned joint master’s degrees in Library and Information Sciences and Medieval European History from Catholic University of America. Dave is fascinated by copyright issues, content licensing and data. Also, rock and roll music.
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