A Conversation with Peter Suber – Navigating the Complexities of Open Access Definitions

17 Oct

Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk with Peter Suber. If you have not heard the name then his website speaks volumes in regards to his interests and involvement in Open Access. The opening line on is website kind of says it all: “I am an independent policy strategist for open access to scientific and scholarly research literature. Most of my work consists of research, writing, consulting, and advocacy.”

I am NOT an Open Access expert. in fact, I can comment that I have found it difficult to navigate the issues. My experience is that when trying to build a community the best path forward is phone conversation when face-to-face is not available. I approached Peter with the following questions and discussion points.

1) Some clarity around Free versus Open access
2) Open Data ( )versus Creative Commons
3) How ChemSpider is trying to be “Open”
4) Are we allowed to say we are “Open” under our activities?

After a one hour phone conversation with Peter I admit to be much more educated and at ease with how ChemSpider is operating and how we fit into the Open Access and Open Data world. I am clear now with we are doing fine in our position and our intent despite the fact that we may have not yet posted all of OUR understandings of the definitions. There is one major outcome from this for me to execute on. I will be defining our POLICY around openness in the near future when there is a little more bandwidth to get it done. It is very clear that language and definitions are of hypercritical importance in this domain.

One major learning…reach out to talk with the experts. A voice to voice conversation and dialog is far more interactive, entertaining and informative than a web search for definitions. Thank you Peter!


About tony

Antony (Tony) J. Williams received his BSc in 1985 from the University of Liverpool (UK) and PhD in 1988 from the University of London (UK). His PhD research interests were in studying the effects of high pressure on molecular motions within lubricant related systems using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. He moved to Ottawa, Canada to work for the National Research Council performing fundamental research on the electron paramagnetic resonance of radicals trapped in single crystals. Following his postdoctoral position he became the NMR Facility Manager for Ottawa University. Tony joined the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York as their NMR Technology Leader. He led the laboratory to develop quality control across multiple spectroscopy labs and helped establish walk-up laboratories providing NMR, LC-MS and other forms of spectroscopy to hundreds of chemists across multiple sites. This included the delivery of spectroscopic data to the desktop, automated processing and his initial interests in computer-assisted structure elucidation (CASE) systems. He also worked with a team to develop the worlds’ first web-based LIMS system, WIMS, capable of allowing chemical structure searching and spectral display. With his developing cheminformatic skills and passion for data management he left corporate America to join a small start-up company working out of Toronto, Canada. He joined ACD/Labs as their NMR Product Manager and various roles, including Chief Science Officer, during his 10 years with the company. His responsibilities included managing over 50 products at one time prior to developing a product management team, managing sales, marketing, technical support and technical services. ACD/Labs was one of Canada’s Fast 50 Tech Companies, and Forbes Fast 500 companies in 2001. His primary passions during his tenure with ACD/Labs was the continued adoption of web-based technologies and developing automated structure verification and elucidation platforms. While at ACD/Labs he suggested the possibility of developing a public resource for chemists attempting to integrate internet available chemical data. He finally pursued this vision with some close friends as a hobby project in the evenings and the result was the ChemSpider database ( Even while running out of a basement on hand built servers the website developed a large community following that eventually culminated in the acquisition of the website by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) based in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Tony joined the organization, together with some of the other ChemSpider team, and became their Vice President of Strategic Development. At RSC he continued to develop cheminformatics tools, specifically ChemSpider, and was the technical lead for the chemistry aspects of the Open PHACTS project (, a project focused on the delivery of open data, open source and open systems to support the pharmaceutical sciences. He was also the technical lead for the UK National Chemical Database Service ( and the RSC lead for the PharmaSea project ( attempting to identify novel natural products from the ocean. He left RSC in 2015 to become a Computational Chemist in the National Center of Computational Toxicology at the Environmental Protection Agency where he is bringing his skills to bear working with a team on the delivery of a new software architecture for the management and delivery of data, algorithms and visualization tools. The “Chemistry Dashboard” was released on April 1st, no fooling, at, and provides access to over 700,000 chemicals, experimental and predicted properties and a developing link network to support the environmental sciences. Tony remains passionate about computer-assisted structure elucidation and verification approaches and continues to publish in this area. He is also passionate about teaching scientists to benefit from the developing array of social networking tools for scientists and is known as the ChemConnector on the networks. Over the years he has had adjunct roles at a number of institutions and presently enjoys working with scientists at both UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University. He is widely published with over 200 papers and book chapters and was the recipient of the Jim Gray Award for eScience in 2012. In 2016 he was awarded the North Carolina ACS Distinguished Speaker Award.

Posted by on October 17, 2007 in Community Building


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3 Responses to A Conversation with Peter Suber – Navigating the Complexities of Open Access Definitions

  1. Rufus Pollock

    November 7, 2007 at 5:07 am

    [I tried posting this as a comment a couple of weeks ago but it does not seem to have shown up so I am reposting]

    As one of the developers of the ‘Open Definition’ ( which provides a definition of the ‘Open Data’ (and open knowledge more generally) I was pleased to see your reference to it as one of the items to discuss with Peter. I believe I may also be able to provide some clarification.

    1. The Open Knowledge/Data definition is (like it says) a *definition*. It is not a license. In this respect it resembles the open source definition (on which it is modelled).

    2. Its aim is to lay out a set of simple principles that make it clear what we mean when we say a ‘work’ (be it a dataset of a sonnet) is ‘open’. Informally this involves providing freedom of access, reuse and redistribution to the work (or rather providing freedom of access under a license that permits these things). The full set of principles can be found in the definition.

    3. Like the open source definition it has a list of ‘conformant/compatible’ licenses at:

    4. This is unlike Creative Commons whose explicit aim is to provide licenses. While all of the CC licenses are more ‘liberal’ (or ‘open’ even) than traditional copyright not all of the licenses are ‘open’ in the sense of the Definition.

    5. This is not surprising — CC is about providing license choice and flexibility, not about providing a consistent set of licenses embodying a particular approach. In particular it is *not* the case that a particular CC license is ‘compatible’ with a given other CC license in the sense that one can intermix material made available under the different licenses. For example, any CC non-commercial license is incompatible with the CC Attribution-ShareAlike (by-sa) license.

    6. By contrast one would hope and expect that any license which is conformant with the Open Knowledge/Data Definition would be compatible with any such license — in the sense that one could combine two work’s both made available under open licenses together (and have the result be open). Again this is very similar to the situation with the Open Source Definition. This is important as one of the major benefits of an openness is to permit freedom of sharing and reuse in the open knowledge ‘commons’.

    7. Thus, in my opinion, the Definition is not a rival to Creative Commons but a complement which seeks to do something different. In particular the Definition does not develop licenses but CC does (many of which are conformant with the Definition). CC does not attempt to define a ‘standard’ but the Definition clearly does. By linking to a CC license you are saying: my stuff is available under this specific license. When you link to the Open Definition you are saying: my stuff meets this general standard.

    As an aside: I think this is where some people may get misled by the Creative Commons name since the set of CC licenses do not (necessarily) result in the creation of a “commons” — works made available under different CC licenses cannot necessarily be mixed together. (This is not a criticism of CC, by the way. At lease in terms of licenses, CC is about a wide choice. However it is noteworthy that recent CC project’s such as ccLearn have, I belive, explicitly focused on a particular (open) license — in ccLearn’s case CC Attribution).

    7. Coming, then to your final question: “Are we allowed to say we are ‘Open’ under our activities?” First, I should emphasize, that obviously no-one has a monopoly on the English language, and so, clearly, you could say whatever you want. However, here I presume you are asking with reference to the kind of standards such as the Open Definition that are out there. In terms of those standards, in my view, the simple answer here would be ‘No’. Specifically your current license is CC by-nc-sa which fails on item 8 of the Definition which requires “No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor” (including discrimination on the basis of commercial use).

    I hope this won’t discourage you from continuing your work and let me say that I think it is great that you have considered this issue so much. While I do think it is important that we keep the meaning of ‘open’ in these contexts clear (hence the Definition), I am also strong believer that there is room for many different approaches, both closed and open.


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