Looking Back at the Budapest Open Access Initiative

The Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) “marked the beginning of the open access movement”. In 2002, its members coined and defined the term open access and outlined the principles of free accessibility and usability behind it. Stemming from a meeting of a diverse group of people interested in removing the barriers to accessing research literature, the Initiative is key to the history of open access.

Here, we’ll look at why the meeting occurred and what the declaration its members produced says. From this, we’ll reflect on its development and the support it has received as open access continues to grow.

The need for free online scholarship

Before 2002, open access was being practised by a few academic journals, but the term was not used. At this time, however, almost all journals ran subscription-based models. Prices began to rise much faster than inflation. The average price for a journal subscription increasing by 226% between 1986 and 2000. This is known as the ‘serials crisis’.

Libraries could not afford all the publications they wanted and had to choose within their budgets. This ultimately hampered research at institutions as researchers are driven by other researchers reading and citing their work.

The Internet was being increasingly utilised to make academic research free and accessible to all. Key examples include BioMed Central and the Open Archives Initiative.

The timing felt right for change.

Origins of the Budapest Open Access Initiative

The Open Society Institute (OSI) is a grant-making network founded and chaired by philanthropist and business magnate George Soros.

The OSI arranged a meeting to bring leaders who were exploring alternative publishing models together. The meeting would be on 1‒2 December 2001.

Meeting in Budapest

On a cold weekend in Hungary, there was a “small but lively meeting” in the capital city. The participants gathered with their varying points of view, academic disciplines, nationalities, and experience in publishing.

The aim was to see how they could “work together to achieve broader, deeper, and faster success” in evolving academic publishing. Success meant accelerating “progress in the international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the internet”.

They agreed change needed to occur on a “systematic level”, rather than on a “journal-by-journal basis”. However, this was ambitious: they were aiming to change an $8 billion industry.

Budapest Open Access Initiative: Strategy and goals

Importantly, the group had to define what it was they were pursuing and the fundamental principles behind it. Therefore, the definition could work as a “solid basis to bring other groups into the movement”.

The Budapest Open Access Initiative Declaration opens by describing how “an old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good”.

This is tactical positioning: the Initiative roots itself in the centuries-old academic tradition of knowledge production but pursues it by harnessing revolutionary technology. It embraces the new without severing from the old; rather, it “accelerates” the old with the new.

The idea of “acceleration” is key to this Declaration and early discussions of the Internet. It posits the potential of the Internet “as an agent of social change”, rapidly producing a specific vision of public good through academia. It would do so by “removing access barriers”.

Defining open access

The removal of barriers leads to the term that the Declaration coined: “open access”. Here’s their full definition of it:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these 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 only constraint involves giving authors full integrity for their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

As such, the Declaration paints the potential picture of a world where academic research is no longer trapped behind expensive subscription fees or difficult copyright licenses. Budget disparities between nations and between institutions can prevent those with lower funds accessing high-quality, cutting-edge research and put them at a disadvantage. Thus, open access benefits “those in transitional and developing countries who would otherwise have to do without the benefits of critical research findings”.

But what does this look like in practice?

How to achieve open access

The Declaration proposes two approaches to open access:

  • Self-archiving: This involves depositing research into a subject-based or institutional repository.
  • Open access journals: This refers to publishing in a fully open access scholarly journal.

The benefit of having these options is, if one is not available, scholars can often pursue the other. Ideally, both co-exist, and the open access journal articles are all searchable and accessible through large repositories.

Scepticism and support

The Budapest Open Access Initiative was met with “immense scepticism” and even “ridicule” from the traditional publishing sector. This suggested the Declaration was perceived as a challenge to the industry.

Despite this, in the following year, two other landmark statements built upon the BOAI:

Additionally, the BOAI declaration opened to the public. It has now received over 6500 individual and 1500 organisation signatures.

Furthermore, for its anniversaries, the BOAI released two additional statements to reaffirm its values and offer more policy recommendations.

Building on the original Budapest Open Access Initiative

The tenth anniversary statement confidently describes how “nothing from the last ten years has made the goal less attainable. On the contrary, OA is well-established and growing in every field”.

This led to policy recommendations for the new goal: “that within the next ten years, OA will become the default method for distributing new peer-reviewed research in every field and country”.

It’s fitting that, in 2020, open access outperformed subscription-based publishing.

The twentieth anniversary statement reaffirms the original statement and highlights the growth of open access in varying forms and the new challenges it faces. Building from this, the policy recommendations focus on developing infrastructure, improving incentives, reducing exclusion on economic grounds, and staying true to the original values of open access.

It concludes: “OA is not an end in itself, but a means to other ends, above all, to the equity, equality, usability, and sustainability of research.”

Open access at the forefront

Now, open access is being taught in universities, debated in parliaments, and embraced or opposed by publishers across the industry. A 2011 study highlights how, from 2000, the average growth rate for the number open access journals was 18%. Additionally, it notes how the number of open access articles, which are “overwhelmingly” more cited than traditional-model journal articles, exhibited a yearly growth rate of 30%, which was almost ten times that of journal articles in general.

If you want to learn more about the rapid growth of open access, see our article “Key Moments in Open Access”.

Arguably, the open access movement began with the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Or, at the very least, it was the catalyst that turned it from a series of separate impulses and practices into a unified push to revolutionize academia. Either way, it’s a key moment in the transition to a world where research is freely accessible to anyone, anywhere.