Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, defines open-access (OA) literature as “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”
He also gives the definition from the Budapest Open Access Initiative. “There are many degrees and kinds of wider and easier access to this literature. By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”
Then he gives the Bethesda and Berlin statements. “For a work to be OA, the copyright holder must consent in advance to let users ‘copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship ….’”
In its strict sense, OA refers to scholarship published in open access academic journals. It can be viewed as a segment of the bigger entity of OER or open educational resources which, according to Creative Commons, “are free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes.”
The array of OERs and OA literature, at this point, is wonderfully vast. Available to us are academic resources like the MIT Open Courseware (https://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm) and the Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (https://dash.harvard.edu/); multimedia collections like that of the New York Public Library (https://www.nypl.org/research/collections/digital-collections/public-domain) and the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/collections/); repositories from institutions like the Asian Development Bank (https://www.adb.org/publications) and governments like the U. S. (https://www.data.gov/). We can get free ebooks from Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/) and watch smart people give talks at TED (https://www.ted.com/talks).
There’s so much good free stuff online (Khan Academy! Coursera! Caltech Authors!—the list goes on and on) that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, perhaps even jaded by it all.
But it’s inspiring how people use these resources. I open CUNY Academic Works and look at the map and see where the downloads are coming from—Nebraska, California, and Ohio in the U.S.; Brisbane, Australia; Airai, Palau; Akershus, Norway. People are looking at papers about Italian architecture, media representations of Asian-Americans, rhetoric and violence.
I look at stories people have shared about how they have used the open access publications. There’s a nurse in an Australian aboriginal community who entertained herself in her remote location by accessing scholarship about Cormac McCarthy. There’s a high school debater in the U.S. who does her research in institutional repositories because she cannot access scholarship behind a paywall. There’s a scientist in Mexico whose investigation in climate change is aided by research shared by other scientists and offered free of charge.
In the various definitions I’ve read of OER and OA, they sound not so much a collection of resources but a movement—a vibrant, worldwide, diverse movement. It seems unstoppable, and I hope it is.