Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Birth of the Open Access Movement

Twelve years ago, on October 21st 1999, Clifford Lynch and Don Waters called to order a meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The organizers, Paul Ginsparg, Rick Luce, and Herbert Van de Sompel, had a modest goal: generalize the High Energy Physics preprint archive into a Universal Preprint Service available to any scholarly discipline. (Currently known as arXiv and hosted by Cornell University, the HEP preprint archive was then hosted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.)

This meeting constructed the technical foundation for open access: the Open Archives Initiative and the OAI Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH). It coined the term repository. (Yes, it was a compromise.) It inspired participants. Some went home and developed OAI-compliant repository software. Some built or expanded institutional and disciplinary repositories. Some started initiatives to raise awareness.

At the meeting, there were high-flying discussions on the merits of disciplinary versus institutional repositories. Some argued that disciplinary repositories would be better at attracting content. Others (including me) thought institutional repositories were easier to sustain for the long haul, because costs are distributed. In retrospect, both sides were right and wrong. In the years that followed, even arXiv, our inspirational model, had problems sustaining its funding, but the HEP community rallied to its support. Institutional repositories got relatively easily funded, but never attracted a satisfactory percentage of research output. (It is too early to tell whether sufficiently strong mandates will be widely adopted.)

There were high hopes for universal free access to the scholarly literature, for open access journals, for lower-priced journals, for access to data, for better research infrastructure. Many of these goals remain high hopes. Yet, none of the unfulfilled dreams can detract from the many significant accomplishments of the Open Access Movement.

Happy Twelfth Birthday to the Open Access Movement!


  1. I hate to have to throw a blanket on this 12th birthday parade, but the birth of the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) (a protocol for making online bibliographic databases -- initially called "archives," later re-baptised "repositories -- interoperable) in 1999 certainly was not the birth of the Open Access Movement.

    Either the Open Access Movement began (as I prefer to think) in the '80s or perhaps even the '70s, when (some) researchers first began making their papers freely accessible online in anonymous FTP archives, or it began with the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI, 2001) where the term "Open Access" was first coined (a few months after, just as "Open Archives" was coined a few months after the Santa Fe meeting).

    Nothing here to compete in primacy for, however, since the progress of the OA movement has been dismayingly slow, ever since, and still is, to this very day.

    But it's particularly ironic to see the origins of the OA movement (warts and all) attributed to OAI when in fact the idea of freeing the refereed research literature from access toll barriers was very explicitly (and exceedingly rudely) disavowed by the prime organizer of the three organizers of the Santa Fe meeting. The archival record for this seems to have disappeared, but I've saved the two postings from which the following is excerpted:

    Tue, 30 Nov 1999 20:14:30 -0700
    "…someone also forwarded me from the times higher ed supp 12 nov 1999:

    "Harnad, who attended the Santa Fe meeting, said all conference participants agreed that scientific and scholarly publishing was being 'held hostage' and needed to be freed. 'They all felt ... . Most wanted...'"

    "i don't remember anyone saying anything about hostages (though i did miss the end of the first day) -- isn't it demagoguery to impute words and sentiments?..."

    The rest of the posting expands on these sentiments:

    30 November will also be the 12th anniversary of the last time I ever exchanged words with the prime organizer in question.

    Stevan Harnad

  2. @Stevan:
    Any movement has many parents and many birthdays. This is the one I remember fondly for a variety of reasons, one of them: that was the first time I met you in person!

  3. Dear Eric, in my blog version yesterday, my intro was as below. You are of course right that there have been many factors in the growth (if not the birth!) of OA, and OAI has certainly been one of them. Best wishes, Stevan

    "My friend Eric Van de Velde, who did so much for the growth of Open Access at Cal Tech across the years, has just (over)generously credited the birth of the Open Access (OA) Movement to the birth of the Open Archives Initiative (OAI)."

    Linked version:
    "12th Anniversary of the Birth of the Open Archives Initiative (sic)"