Sunday, May 12, 2013

The IEEE does not do Open Access

Summary: By the commonly-accepted definition of the term, IEEE journals offer real Open Access (OA) publishing options if and only if your funding body mandates Open Access publishing.


This time last year, I posted a survey of journals and Open Access in the field of remote sensing. As I have been being encouraged by my department to publish in the IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing (where I currently have a paper going through its second review stage), over the last year I have been trying to determine what, exactly, IEEE Publishing means when it claims to offer "open access".

What is Open Access (OA)?

As I mentioned in my previous post, most people who are interested in widening the general public's access to scientific literature understand "Fully Open Access" to mean compliance with the Budapest Open Access Initiative definition (BOAI):

Free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of... 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 subject of OA publication of research results is topic of quite a lot of public debate in the UK at the moment, due to the UK Research Councils (RCUK) issuing new guidelines and requirements on the topic. The new RCUK Policy on Open Access came into force on 1st April 2013, and contains a definition of OA.

RCUK defines Open Access as unrestricted, on-line access to peer-reviewed and published research papers. Specifically a user must be able to do the following free of any access charge:

  • Read published papers in an electronic format;
  • Search for and re-use the content of published papers both manually and using automated tools (such as those for text and data mining) provided that any such re-use is subject to full and proper attribution and does not infringe any copyrights to third-party material included in the paper.

Furthermore, RCUK clearly express a preference for publication using a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licence, and require such a licence to be used when RCUK funds are used to pay an Article Processing Charge (APC) for an OA paper. Specifically, they say that:

Crucially, the CC-BY licence removes any doubt or ambiguity as to what may be done with papers, and allows re-use without having to go back to the publisher to check conditions or ask for specific conditions.

As a researcher funded by EPSRC, I was of course very keen to determine whether the IEEE's "open access" publishing options comply with the new policy.

"Open access" at the IEEE

The IEEE claim to offer three options for OA publishing: hybrid journals, a new IEEE Access mega journal, and "fully OA" journals. One the bright side, the IEEE seems to treat all three the same way in terms of the general process, fees, etc., so I will not discuss the differences between them here.

Some aspects of the IEEE's approach to OA are quite clearly explained in the FAQ, and provide an interesting contrast with the the policies at unambiguously fully OA journals such as PLOS ONE. The IEEE charge an APC of $1750 per paper; PLOS ONE charges $1350. The IEEE requires copyright assignment; PLOS ONE allows authors to retain their copyrights. The IEEE's licencing of APC-paid OA articles is almost impossible to determine; PLOS ONE is unambiguously CC-BY.

But what is that licence? Exactly how open are "OA" articles published in IEEE journals? With reference to RCUK's definition of OA, the first point is clearly satisfied — users can read the paper free of charge on IEEE Xplore. Trying to pin the second point down has been quite a quest.

The IEEE allows authors to distribute a "post-print" (the accepted version of a manuscript, i.e. their final draft of a paper after peer review but before it goes through the IEEE's editing process and is prepared for printing). This can be placed on a personal website and/or uploaded to an institutional repository. At the University of Surrey, for example, papers can be placed on Surrey Research Insight. Unfortunately, this "Green OA" approach does not satisfy the RCUK's requirement to enable re-use; the licence is very explicit. As per the IEEE PSPB Operations Manual, the IEEE requires the following notice to be displayed with post-prints:

© 20xx IEEE. Personal use of this material is permitted. Permission from IEEE must be obtained for all other uses, in any current or future media, including reprinting/republishing this material for advertising or promotional purposes, creating new collective works, for resale or redistribution to servers or lists, or reuse of any copyrighted component of this work in other works.

With Green OA clearly ruled out as an option, what about when an APC is paid (also known as "Gold OA")? This is option preferred by RCUK. I initially tried to figure this out by e-mailing the IEEE intellectual property rights office, but I never received any reply. I also e-mailed the editor of TGRS, and this also elicited no response.

My last and most recent attempt involved e-mailing IEEE Xplore tech support, asking where on the website I could find licence information for a specific recent "open access" TGRS paper that I had downloaded.

I have been unsuccessfully attempting to determine the license under which "Open Access" journal articles from IEEE journals are available from IEEE Xplore.

For example, the following paper:

Zakhvatkina, N.Y.; Alexandrov, V.Y.; Johannessen, O.M.; Sandven, S.; Frolov, I.Y., "Classification of Sea Ice Types in ENVISAT Synthetic Aperture Radar Images," Geoscience and Remote Sensing, IEEE Transactions on , vol.51, no.5, pp.2587,2600, May 2013
doi: 10.1109/TGRS.2012.2212445

is allegedly an "open access" paper, but the IEEE Xplore web page gives no indication of whether it is actually being made available under a Budapest Open Access Initiative-compliant license (e.g. CC-BY), and an exploration of the pages linked from the its web page leaves me none the wiser.

Could you please improve the IEEE Xplore website to display article licensing information much more clearly, especially in the case of your "open access" products?

This then got passed on to the IEEE's "open access team" who then in turn attempted to pass it on to the IPR office to be ignored again. However, I now had an e-mail address to e-mail with a more specific request:

Thank you for forwarding this query on. Needless to say, the IEEE IPR have not responded to the question, just the same as when I contacted them directly a few months ago.

Surely, as the IEEE Open Access team, you and your colleagues must have some idea of what level of openness IEEE are aiming for with their open access initiatives, especially given that you've just launched a new "open" megajournal! Your competitor OA megajournals make their licensing information really easy to find, and I don't understand why IEEE Publishing seems to be having a big problem with this.

As an IEEE member the lack of clarity here is really quite concerning.

Finally, I received a moderately-illuminating reply.

I will pass on your feedback that OA copyright information needs to be easier to find in Xplore.

The IEEE continues to review legal instruments that may be used to authorize publication of open access articles. The OACF now in use is a specially modified version of the IEEE Copyright Form that allows users to freely access the authors’ content in Xplore, and it allows authors to post the final, published versions of their papers on their own and their employers’ websites. The OACF also allows IEEE to protect the content by giving IEEE the legal authority to resolve any complaints of abuse of the authors’ content, such as infringement or plagiarism.

Some funding agencies have begun to require their research authors to use specific publication licenses in place of copyright transfer if their grants are used to pay article processing charges (APCs). Two examples are the UK's Wellcome Trust and the Research Councils of the UK., both of which this month began to require authors to use the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). In cases like these, IEEE is willing to work with authors to help them comply with their funder requirements. If you have questions or concerns about the OACF, or are required to submit any publication document other than the OACF, please contact the Intellectual Property Rights Office at 732-562-3966 or at

The IEEE IPR office has additional information about the OACF, including an FAQ, on our web site at

From this e-mail, it is clear that paying an APC for the IEEE's "open access" publishing options normally provides very little real benefit over simply self-archiving the accepted version of the manuscript. Either way, tools such as Google Scholar will allow readers to find a free-to-read version of the paper; if you are using the IEEE journals LaTeX templates, this version will be almost indistinguishable from the final version as distributed in printed form.

Furthermore, the IEEE APC-supported "open access" publishing option is not Open Access, by either the BOAI or RCUK definitions of the term, because re-use is forbidden. Gold OA is clearly also not normally an option when publishing with the IEEE.

The only exception to this is if you have a mandate from a funding body that says your publications must be distributed under a certain licence, in which case you may be able to persuade the IEEE to provide "real" Gold OA: the ability for the public to read and re-use your research at no cost and with no restrictive licensing terms. This would apply, for example, if you were funded by RCUK; in that case you should not sign the IEEE Copyright Form, and should contact the IEEE IPR office before submitting your manuscript in order to argue it out with them.


The IEEE claims to offer "fully Open Access" publishing options to all of their authors. In fact, they offer no such thing. Open Access means the ability to both read and re-use the products of research, and the IEEE's "open access" options prohibit re-use.

Self-archiving is allowed by the IEEE, but only with a copyright statement that forbids re-use. Paying an enormous APC to make your paper "open access" merely allows people to read it for free on IEEE Xplore. True Gold OA is only available if your funding body mandates real Open Access.

For the majority of researchers (in industry or funded by bodies without OA mandates in place), the IEEE provides no Open Access publishing option at all. The half-hearted and incomplete "open access" options that the IEEE provides can only be interpreted as a cynical attempt to both dilute the BOAI definition and to extract vastly-inflated APCs from authors who fail to read the fine print.

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