History of open access

From Peter Suber
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Nobody has written a comprehensive history of open access (OA), and I don't plan to. But many of my writings and projects over the years will help those who want to study that history. Here I try to pull them together. —Peter Suber.

Quick summary of four major projects:

Analogy. Suppose a small town began to grow in a former wilderness. Early in its history it had a newspaper. In time it had a phone book, tax roll, town hall, post office, telegraph office, public library, school, church, cemetery, train station, doctor, surveyor, bartender, and private eye, each accumulating records in its own idiosyncratic, incomplete way. None of these caches of information is a history of the town. All are useful for studying the history of the town. Someone who knew where a good fraction of them were located would do a service by pointing them out. In this sense, I haven't written a history of OA. But I've created materials, alone or with others, useful for studying the history of OA. And here I'm pointing them out, with some notes on their scope, preservation, and searchability. Needless to say, the history of OA is still unfolding. The small town didn't disappear except in the sense that it grew into a large city.


  • In February 2002 I started a Timeline of the Open Access Movement.
    • At first it was a hand-coded HTML page. But as progress accelerated, and we passed more and more OA milestones, more and more quickly, that method didn't scale.
    • In February 2009, I created a wiki version of the timeline at the Open Access Directory. The idea was to crowd-source the job of updating and improving it. Unfortunately very few people have yet contributed to the OAD/wiki version.
    • Right now the timeline is fairly thorough up to and including 2007, and very meager after that.
  • Although I started it in 2002, I deliberately went back to add entries on earlier landmark events.
  • I say that the timeline runs "to 2007" (in the blue-box summary above). That's because I stopped updating it myself in 2007 and few people have enlarged it since then. I don't want to overstate its present scope. However, the OAD version is crowd-sourced. If the crowd takes an interest, the timeline could become comprehensive, right up to the present, and stay comprehensive. Volunteers wanted. Every little bit helps. See our handout on how to contribute to the OAD.

Newsletter (2001-2013)

  • I wrote a regular newsletter on OA for 12 years. For its first two years it was called the Free Online Scholarship Newsletter (2001-2002). Then I renamed it the SPARC Open Access Newsletter (2003-2013). At first it was weekly, with a few exceptions. In July 2003 it became monthly, and in September 2011 it became quarterly.
  • Here's a list of links to each issue on the Earlham College server. Each issue and each major article is also on deposit in DASH, Harvard's institutional repository.
    • For long-term access, I suggest linking to the DASH versions, which are better preserved and more discoverable than the Earlham versions.
    • The Earlham versions of the newsletter issues are also preserved at the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. But the DASH versions are more discoverable than the IA versions.
  • I often wrote about contemporaneous OA developments. In that sense, the newsletter articles are relevant in the way that my blog posts are relevant, though the articles provide much more detail and analysis.
  • See my articles on lobbying, debate, adoption, and challenges to the NIH policy.
  • You can search the newsletter with a Google "site" search of the section of my Earlham site containing the Earlham versions of each issue.
    • This method will search my blog and newsletter together, which is usually an advantage.
  • You can also search the newsletter in Google without special syntax. Just precede each search string with "peter suber" (keeping the quotation marks) and newsletter. This method will include some hits that quote the newsletter, but it won't omit any hits from the newsletter itself. If you also throw in the keyword dash, you'll focus on the copies in DASH.
  • You can also search the newsletter together with my other writings on OA, but not including my blog, by searching DASH, Harvard's institutional repository. However, Google is more flexible than the DASH search engine for boolean and phrase searching

Open Access News (2002-2010)

  • I launched a blog called Open Access News in May 2002, and blogged extensively until April 2010.
    • My goal was to track and share all that was going on with OA. I didn't succeed, of course. But I covered a lot of ground: about 18,000 posts, with occasional co-bloggers.
    • Aside: Why did I even try, and why for so long? The short answer is that I needed to monitor what was happening with OA in any case, for my other OA work (advocacy, writing, analysis, strategy, assistance). As long as I was doing this, I wanted to share what I was learning.
  • OAN is also preserved in one large zip file (about 337 KB) created by Charles W. Bailey Jr. (Thanks, Charles.)
  • OAN is also preserved in the section of Harvard's H-Sities that captures and preserves my entire Earlham College web site. While comprehensive and well-preserved, this copy is hard to search.
  • Most of OAN is backed up and searchable in a Google Group of the same name.
    • I forget what trick I used to send each blog post to the Google Group. But whatever it was, I didn't think of it until after I'd been posting for a while. The Group captures about 14k of the 18k posts. You don't need to be a member to view or search the Group.
    • I was the only member of the Group, and now that I've stopped posting to OAN, I've also stopped posting to this Group. There's no reason to ask to join.
    • The Group-specific search search engine leaves a lot to be desired. If you search for Elsevier, it will tell you there are 11 hits (by default sorted by date). But if you scroll through the hit list to the end, you'll find 203. If you scroll back to the top, you'll see that Google updated its estimate to 203. And if you turn off date sorting, by deleting %7Csort:date from the end of the URL, then Google updates its estimate to "about 490". (Google: What gives?)
  • You can also search OAN with a Google "site" search of the section of my Earlham site containing the blog.
    • This method will search my blog and newsletter together, which is usually an advantage.
  • You can also search OAN in Google without special syntax. Just precede each search string with "peter suber" and "open access news" (keeping the quotation marks). This method will include some hits that quote my blog posts, but it won't omit any of my blog posts.
  • Do not use the search engine on the blog itself.
    • The blog embeds a Google Custom Search Engine (CSE), which formerly worked like a charm. But Google let it deteriorate for years, and now it's as good as dead.
    • The search returns are scanty and unrepresentative, when they used to be plentiful and comprehensive.
    • Every blog post has a unique URL, my CSE indexed them all, and every CSE search has/had a unique URL. Hence I could easily link to all my blog posts on a certain topic (word, phrase, or boolean compound) by linking to a CSE search for the same topic. I loved that and did it often. Now the blog is full of dead links to those CSE searches. The decline of CSE makes the posts much less useful than they were, and embarrasses me for putting that much trust in Google.

Open Access Directory (2008 - present)

  • In 2008, I co-founded the Open Access Directory with Robin Peek. It's an OA encyclopedia of OA. Unlike other encyclopedias, it limits itself to simple factual lists, in part to avoid edit wars and in part to lower barriers to contributions and verifications.
  • I say "2008-present" because that's when OAD has existed. But many of its lists cover OA developments prior to 2008.
  • The OAD is a wiki and depends on the OA community to keep it accurate, current, and comprehensive. It's crowd-sourced and distributed under a CC-BY license. To limit spam, editing is limited to registered users, but registration is free and easy. Volunteers wanted. Every little bit helps. See our handout on how to get started as an OAD contributor.
  • Many of the OAD lists cover parts or threads of OA history. In most cases (not "Early OA journals"), I launched these lists and maintained them with the help of research assistants and interns.

Open Access Tracking Project (2009 - present)

  • I say "2009-present" because that's when OATP has existed. But this needs two qualifications.
    • On the past: OATP encourages retroactive tagging. We're gradually capturing more and more OA developments that we missed in real time, including those that occurred before OATP launched in 2009. This search shows the current extent of our retroactive tagging.
    • On the future: In its start-up phase, OATP benefited from grant-supported tagging as a supplement to volunteer tagging. But in September 2018 weaned itself off grant-funded tagging and now depends entirely on volunteer taggers. Its quantity and quality now depend on the OA community at large. To become an OATP tagger or recruit new OATP taggers, see our handouts on how and why to tag for OATP.
  • All OATP tag libraries are crowd-sourced and updated in real time. You can make them more complete by taking part as an OATP tagger. Volunteers wanted. Every little bit helps.
  • Because every OATP tag publishes a tag library and real-time feed, the list above is just a small sample of what OATP has to offer. For more, see the full list of OATP tags in use (more than 10,000) and the full list of project-approved tags (more than 250).
  • Items in a given tag library are listed in the (reverse) order in which they were tagged, not the (reverse) order in which they occurred or were published.

Google+ blog (2011-2019)

  • When I laid down Open Access News in 2010, I didn't want to stop blogging altogether. So in July 2011, I launched a new blog at Google+.
  • The purpose of OAN was to cover OA developments comprehensively, but that's precisely the job that didn't scale for an individual blog, and the job taken up by the crowd-sourced Open Access Tracking Project. Hence, unlike my old blog, the new blog never intended to cover OA comprehensively, and didn't limit itself to the topic of OA. Despite these differences, the new blog still covered many OA developments.
  • I stopped blogging at G+ in November 2018, and Google deleted all user posts in April 2019.
  • G+ is not well-preserved. On the contrary! Google announced (perma.cc link) on October 8, 2018 that it was shutting down G+ for "consumers". (I'd call myself a user, not a consumer, but I'm still covered.) I'll use this section of my wiki to track what I'm doing about this.
    • Note that Google is the same company that heroically hunted down, preserved, and reposted all the original Usenet postings. (These are now part of Google Groups.) But for its own platform, Google chose deletion over preservation. See my short open letter to Google (October 20, 2018) about this inconsistency, and asking it to minimize the damage of its decision.
    • Harvard is archiving my G+ and Twitter accounts to Archive-It. I'll post the URLs here soon.
    • Some of my G+ posts were saved to the Internet Archive. Naturally there will not be redirects from the original URLs to the IA copies. But if you have the original URL for one of my G+ posts, then just append it to this root URL, http://web.archive.org/web/*/, to get an IA copy of the same post, if there is one.
    • I saved nearly all (about 1,210) of my G+ to posts Conifer (then called WebRecorder), where they are well-preserved, OA, and searchable.
      • Here's the Conifer collection of those posts. Click on the "Browse All" tab to see the list. Click on the left "Timestamp" column to toggle between chronological order and reverse chronological order.
      • In the list view, the dates indicate when the posts were saved to Conifer, not when they were first posted. However, if you click through on a given post, you'll see the date of original posting.
      • If you happen to have the original URL for one of my dead G+ posts (for example, from an old email or tweet), you can enter it in the Conifer URL bar and find the Conifer copy.

PubPub blog (2020 - present)

Twitter (2009 - present)

Writings on OA (1992 - present)

How you can help

Some of these projects are crowd-sourced and you can help make them more accurate, comprehensive, and up to date.

  • In September 2007 Caroline Sutton and I launched the Societies and Open Access Research (SOAR) project to catalog OA journals published by scholarly societies. In September 2013 we added Amanda Page as a third co-author/co-editor. I don't list SOAR above because the catalog doesn't yet help much on the history of these journals, for example, by indicating when they launched or converted to OA. But SOAR is crowd-sourced, like OAD and OATP. Anyone who wants to unearth those dates and add them to the catalog would make it much more useful.