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Part 2: Who is the owner of open access publications?

Parte 2: ¿De quién es lo que se publica en acceso abierto?

Lorena Pilloni

Open access: freeing things or freeing people

In the first instalment we outlined how it’s possible for the big publishing conglomerates to be paid with public resources —even a triple amount of money— for the same scientific article a) by financing research institutionally, b) by paying the article processing charges —known as APC— that firms charge for publishing research output, and c) when publishers sell to libraries and public universities the edited contents. Neither is it difficult for such publishers to find how to make open access cost-effective when it’s not based on a change of premises with regard to social relations in the scholarly work nor on any redefinition of intellectual property in the digital age being completely respectful to copyright but also considering the need to extend access to knowledge output, in particular, that financed with public resources.

As pressure is put on academics to gift —without grumbling— big publishers their work, who with unique joy own it, open access itself seems to be another manifestation of the neoliberal search for freeing things rather than people. Academics feel constrained to do so since their poor working conditions compel them to join institutional incentives programs (“points” programs), which are based on reductionist assessments, the more articles they’d submitted to the oligopolistic publishing circuit the better their mark.

A call to “situated openness” isn’t enough, facing economic and political relations that condition knowledge production and communication is necessary, as well as an attempt to give a more well-thought-out answer rather than a mere utterance for opening more or less access to the processes of science or its output.

To bet on unrestricted open access via mandates that oblige authors to make their work open will hardly mean immediate opposition to the big publishers’ trade. The more these flood the market, the more their power is increased to keep imposing the rules of the scientific production and communication game. The result then of open access doesn’t necessarily favour the democratisation of knowledge.

In this general context, open access progresses with its particular characteristics in the North and with different perspectives in the South. In the North’s canonical statements (scarcely brought into question by the South) there’s virtually no reference to the academics’ work —as authors and referees— which ends up being for free. Besides, it is only in a few of such statements that explicit reference is made to an intellectual property positioning. Some such as Budapest or Plan S, however, are very clear on rights and the preferred creative commons license as shown in Chart 1.


Statement on Open Access

Stance on copyright

Promoted creative commons license

Budapest Statement (2002)

“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.”

CC BY license is encouraged.

Bethesda Statement (2003) and Berlin Statement (2003)

“The author(s) and copyright holder(s) grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to 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, as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.”

Compatible with CC BY license, though not explicitly mentioned.

Salvador Statement (2005)

The different circumstances of Latin American countries is noted and open access is presented as a route to “facilitate the active participation of developing countries in the global exchange of scientific information, including free access to the patrimony of scientific knowledge, an efficient participation in the process of knowledge generation and dissemination, and the strengthening of covering topics significantly relevant for developing countries.”Authors’ work and copyright are not mentioned but the right to have access to information and patrimony is emphasised.

No specific creative commons license is encouraged.

SciELO (2015)

It argues that creative commons CC BY license is “the most effective to maximise the dissemination of information” and focuses on “freeing contents.”
For it, the acknowledgement of authorship (moral rights in copyright system) suffices.

Creative commons license CC BY. As second options it admits other licenses under the phrase “some rights reserved.”

Declaration of Mexico (2017)

Emphasising protection, it agrees on the above definitions on open access before the appropriation of the South’s open resources by commercial systems.
Hence, they seek to guarantee protection of academic and scientific production in open access to create, share, maintain and preserve the region’s knowledge.

The adoption of creative commons license Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) is proposed.

Panama Declaration (2018)

The citizens’ lawful right to “produce and use science, technology and innovation” is mentioned.
Open access is contended in terms of the Berlin Statement.
With regard to licenses it clarifies that: “This requires encouraging the use of open licenses, especially in those researches financed with public grants and by national or multilateral funding organizations.”

No particular license is recommended.

Plan S (2018)

It maintains that the author or their institution retain the work’s copyright as copyright holders. Permissions to unrestricted reuse of works ought to be established for scholarly articles. It’s based on Berlin Statement’s definition of open access. Non-commercial licenses are explicitly rejected (cOAlition S, undated).
Protected author moral and patrimonial rights by the Berne Convention are recognised.
A policy regarding third-party content in open access works is stated (cOAlition S, undated: 4).

License CC BY 4.0 is preferably encouraged.
CC BY-SA 4.0 and public domain (CC0) are also accepted.

Source: personal compilation.

Virtually, none of these make any reference to the academics’ work or the social relations involved in the production of resources that will be published in open access. Such are assumed since all of them emphasise the freeing (—the protection— in the Declaration of Mexico) of things by giving access to them online, instead of their producers or users. The call here is to question such approach and start introducing into the discussion the specific situation —an unequal, precarious one— in which scientific knowledge is produced and spread in different regions and institutions.

A call to “situated openness” isn’t enough, facing economic and political relations that condition knowledge production and communication is necessary, as well as an attempt to give a more well-thought-out answer rather than a mere utterance for opening more or less access to the processes of science or its output.

Researchers ignore which are and how do their copyright work, what’s more, little do they understand how creative commons work and what their advantages are. They keep signing exclusive copyright assignments contracts with universities and publishers.

What’s more, even though the statements share definitions of open access it catches our attention that while the founding statement of the North’s open access movement —Budapest— explicitly mentions the necessity to maintain the authors’ control over the integrity of their works, Bethesda and Berlin both introduce more clearly the distinction between author and copyright holder. They are not necessarily the same entity and this supposes that open access is perfectly compatible with third-party copyright transfer, which in a context of great capital domination and the academics’ defencelessness before such it will easily, as it does in practice, end up in delivering copyright systematically to the big oligopolistic firms. Admitting it isn’t bad. It doesn’t downplay open access. But we’d better keep this in mind.

In contrast, and with good reason, in the South’s statements and declarations —apart from SciELO— a clear concerned is expressed about the region’s great inequality issues both in social terms and regarding scientific development. Therefore, unlike the North, open access is sought to combat such inequalities. The stress, however, still is on the dimension of access without mentioning that even this dimension it’s materially conditioned by the relations of economic and political domination on scientific knowledge production, communication and use. It is only in the Declaration of Mexico that special reference is made to the protection of editors, authors and their copyright.

Final Considerations: the age of contradictions

As declarations and discussions come and go in some countries such as Mexico, institutions and journals live confusing and contradiction-riddled times concerning academic work conditions, its assessment, intellectual property and electronic publishing in the open access age. Institutions align with statements and sign principles to encourage creative commons licenses, legal departments reject their use, nonetheless, exercising their right on the Ley Federal de Derechos de Autor (Federal Law on Copyright). Yet indices, databases and even the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) put pressure to use them.

Additionally, researchers ignore which are and how do their copyright work, what’s more, little do they understand how creative commons work and what their advantages are. They keep signing exclusive copyright assignments contracts with universities and publishers and at the same time post their works on private academic social networks such as Researchgate or even if they don’t have the copyright holder’s permission (i.e. to whom they transferred the rights) but they are unaware of that. Many, in practice, don’t publish in open access, they welcome the opportunity of being able to have unrestricted access to the literature needed for their research notwithstanding (Bongiovani, Gómez and Miguel, 2012). And that because they do not have consistent institutional incentives for that either (Schonfeld and Wolff-Eisenberg, 2019).

Researchers are, perhaps, not so concerned for the open access thing and copyright of publications in open. They are rushed for accumulating enough points to avoid ranking low in the institutional incentives program which helps them maintain their income higher than their precarious base salary. Publishing in a renowned journal that is “of value” in assessments (i.e. WoS or Scopus) and not necessarily in open is what matters most. They don’t give thought to whether this journal is published by a commercial publisher that benefits from the free work of researchers or referees, and little do they call this into question.

When it comes to publications, editors and academics of universities and public research centres from the South gladly adopt open access and actively promote it in our institutions and academic communities. We don’t escape contradictions, however. We read “all rights reserved” in journals and electronic books in the same legal page along with name, icon and the link to the terms of a creative commons license which means “only some rights reserved.” The meaning of adopting open access in all its dimensions hasn’t sink in: for managing our journal’s intellectual property, our relationship with authors and their works or what we’re allowing to do readers and information gatherers, repositories or other editors that would like to reuse the articles we publish.

We, editors, like to be up to date but amid our work overload it’s hard for us to gather information to create and base our viewpoints about copyright trends in open access. It seems we’re waiting for other stakeholders such as indices or databases to tell us what to do when is our great responsibility to be informed in order to make the best decisions for our journal and institution as well as for guiding authors.

But our institutions’ commitment and support are required as well. And this with regard to the conditions in which authors produce their articles and editors publish, as well as assurance of copyright policies compliant with the open access that not only seeks to free things but to contribute to society. That means that any discussion on licenses and intellectual property has to take into account the conditions and social relations of scientific knowledge production and dissemination, our place in such processes, our work and who gets the benefit.

All in all, our debates should go beyond discussing which is the best license and which is not. But we need first to reflect upon and talk about things like

  • Who’s the owner of that which is produced (with public resources)? Who has the right to use, reuse and disseminate it? Does anyone have the right to profit from it? If so, who? Who shouldn’t have the right to profit from it and why?
  • How should the work of producers of scientific knowledge who make their works open be socially rewarded? What can we do to provide worthy conditions for science production and communication to those who generate such output and processes?
  • What would happen if, in a context of inequalities and domination, all barriers that hinder others from using and benefiting from our scientific output were removed? Would everyone use and benefit from it equally, or would we, unintentionally, be reinforcing such inequalities for it might be expected that the big firms would find their way for profit while those that are usually excluded won’t be even able to access a computer? I mean, honestly, what can we expect from the precariousness-open access relationship?
  • Is there any way to reconcile the promotion of highest openness that seeks to facilitate access for all and to democratise knowledge with the publishing firms’ —which we can’t just wish away or make disappear even with our complaints— inherent commercial purposes and desire to expand the market?
  • Do we have to leave all information equally free for all (CC BY) or are some padlocks required (CC BY NC SA)? How much do these padlocks limit/sabotage open access’ original purposes? Isn’t this only about that? Are we missing something else?
  • In sum, how do we effectively build an open access and open science that really contribute to the furtherance of scientific knowledge and to reduce social inequalities instead of ending up reinforcing the private appropriation of social scientific output?

Bongiovani, P., Gómez, N, D., & Miguel, S. (2012). Opiniones y hábitos de publicación en acceso abierto de los investigadores argentinos. Un estudio basado en los datos de la encuesta SOAP. Revista Española de Documentación Científica, 35(3), 453-467. doi: 10.3989/redc.2012.3.903

cOAlition S (undated A), Making full and immediate Open Access a reality. Guidance on the Implementation of Plan S. Retrieved from

cOAlition S (undated B), “Ten Principles”, in Plan S. Retrieved from Declaration on Open Access (2003). Retrieved from

Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (2003). Retrieved from Statement (2002). Retrieved from

Declaración de México a favor del ecosistema latinoamericano de acceso abierto no comercial (2017). Retrieved from

Declaración de Panamá de ciencia abierta (2018). Retrieved from

Declaración de Salvador sobre acceso abierto: la perspectiva del mundo en desarrollo (2005). Retrieved from

Schonfeld, R, C. & Wolff-Eisenberg, C. (April 15th, 2019). Open Access Publishing: New Evidence on Faculty Attitudes and Behaviors [blog post]. The Scholarly Kitchen. Retrieved from