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When Is Open Access Not Open Access? - Reply

Posted by pbio on 07 May 2009 at 22:20 GMT

Author: Thomas Lemberger
Position: Editor
Institution: EMBO
Submitted Date: October 31, 2007
Published Date: October 31, 2007
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

Dear Dr. MacCallum,

Thank you very much for your Editorial “When Is Open Access Not Open Access?” published in PLoS Biology on October 16, 2007. I completely share the opinion that there is an urgent need to better inform the scientific community on the subtleties of publishing licences – “the small print” as you rightly qualify these – and clarify their implications for the concept of “open access”.

It is however quite unfortunate and somewhat ironic that you chose to stigmatise Molecular Systems Biology as an example of a journal that would “promulgate” confusion about open access. As it turns out, Molecular Systems Biology is very attached to the idea of making research freely available and to let authors decide what to do with their own research. In this spirit of openness and respect for authors, we have recently adapted our licence to publish (Oct 1st, 2007). If you take a few moments to actually follow, on our website, the “prominent link in the left hand column titled ‘open access’” (, you will discover that we offer our authors the option to select the type of licence under which their paper will be published:

“Molecular Systems Biology articles are published either under a Creative Commons Attribution – NonCommercial – ShareAlike 3.0 licence or an Attribution – Creative Commons – NonCommercial – NoDerivs 3.0 licence, at the free choice of the authors.”

The first licence allows derivatives and adaptations; the second does not.

I believe that providing authors the possibility to choose their licence has some decisive advantages: first, enforcing a conscious choice by authors will inevitably raise awareness on the issue within the community; second we would like to see this question being addressed in a more democratic way by the community itself rather than through incantations of what the ideal solution should be. My guess – and my personal hope – is that most of the authors will indeed choose the most open version of the licence, but I think that it is important to respect the opinion of those who think differently and would feel uncomfortable with the idea that their article can be remixed or adapted without them being fully aware of it.

Our attitude is motivated by the fact that, at Molecular Systems Biology, we see the role of a scientific journal more as a catalyst facilitating and accelerating scientific discovery rather than a policy-making instrument. What is Systems Biology? Rather than providing a rigid definition of a rapidly evolving field, we prefer to let the community define the scope of this field and we adapt to it. What is open access? Rather than relying on a dogmatic position in a still fluid situation, we prefer to let scientists define their priorities.

Having said that, I truly believe that open access offers a tremendous potential for researchers and scientific publishing and the current explosive development of data and text mining, semantic-web and information aggregation technologies represents one of our main motivations for providing our content freely available in an as open form as possible. Therefore, I cannot agree more that the time is now ripe to push the discussion of principles on one side and devote more efforts into realizing this potential by concrete achievements.

Yours truly,

Thomas Lemberger

Competing interests declared: I am Editor of Molecular Systems Biology.