Open access - what is it really?

Hi! I have a long-going ‘conversation’ going on with developers of the Foldscope, trying to get them to share their latest developments.
In the end they even pushed me toward their ‘customer service’ rep, when I wanted to hear about lens and fluorescence developments, and ways to make use easier for citizen scientists…
Even though they published in PLOSOne, I believe not sharing the latest is contrary to the principles of real open access.
I know there are many diy microscopes out there, but think this one is fun for workshops and potentially for my genomic integrity project to open source methods of DNA damage detection, especially for the micronuclei method.
Here is some documentation of some of our workshops around the diy foldscope (old version) we have done in the past.

We also plan to do our DIY ‘Foldscopes’ at the LemanMake festival this year, hoping for for 2 workshops of 24 people each (one each day of the event)…
It will be a big event and be great for Hackuarium visibility, we hope.

Before then we hope to get the magnetic coupling to people’s phones sorted, at least! Encapsulation of lenses is also a priority. (We have one of the luxury Foldscope kits, as one of our members donated to their crowdfunding campaign, so know what they think is top of the line, although they don’t openly share.)

Looking forward to discussing this and more in SZ!!!



Hi Rachel

I’m going to respond to the question in your subject line, but not be very useful with how to encourage increased sharing! Maybe someone else can chip in who has had experience making the case to a company to share their designs (and the rights to use them).

The PLOS paper was open access but you’re right, Foldscope has never been open hardware and afaik no original design files for any version have been released (am I right about that?).

It’s also covered by a granted US patent and a pending application with the European patent office, plus there’s a separate granted US patent for manufacturing the lenses:
US20180003937A1: Optical Device
US9810892B2: Optical lens fabrication

They’re all owned by Stanford University. This may be part of a longer term strategy to make them open hardware but there is no indication anywhere of open licensing, patent pledging or an intent to drop the patent, which can be a strategic way to get things in to the public domain and discoverable as prior art if you can afford the initial filing.

Patents are geographically restricted so outside of Europe and the US there is nothing published that would restrict any sort of use (caveat: something may been filed but not published yet). Most European countries view patents as more or less restricted to exclusive rights for commercial use so usually for personal, research and non-commercial uses you’re fine (another caveat: I am not a lawyer and non-commercial is an unclear term). Unfortunately US patent law is very strict and forbids anyone from making, using or selling the invention, even when the use is strictly personal. The patent owners may not care about particular types of infringement so this may not present a problem to use of DIY scopes by citizen scientists in the US, but it doesn’t have the legal clarity of knowing something is open hardware.

In answer to your question as to what is open access, a frequent conversation I have with people is the difference between open access to papers, for which I use the Budapest Open Access Initiative definition (BOAI):

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 on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

and open hardware, for which I use the OSHWA definition:

Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it. Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.

My take on this is that you can publish an open access paper for which the data, software, hardware and any other research outputs that is describes are closed. That doesn’t stop the paper being open access but it does mean it isn’t embodying all of the aspects of open science/open research that it might do.

I always encourage people to be explicit with what they mean by ‘Open X’ or it gets very confusing! For example, Open Access is applied to far more than the BOAI-compliant levels of openness. A good resource for the spectrum of practices in access to journals is the PLOS ‘How Open Is It?’ guide.

Good luck with your discussions and the workshop!



I could not think of a better reply, thanks Jenny!
I have always had mixed feeling about this project. I met them few years ago in the Fab12 conference in Shenzhen and they were very reticent about speaking beyond the PLOS publication

Thanks so much for this very interesting feedback! The full back and forth with them - some so positive and other bits so horrid, like when the PI only finally responded after he thought I might out him in some way for all of this lack of open access… (& then the customer relations contact came forward!!) whew… With so much going on, I sort of dropped it. But, now, with this info, I have to ask: As we found our ‘diy’ foldscope design (an old one) online and just ran ahead and used it (sharing all the patterns etc too, of course), does that mean we are at the limit for patent infringement already??? I will try to make time to go into some of the texts (on hols in Sicily right now!!), but I guess our version is not ‘the invention’ patented (hopefully!) - and had no plans to try to reverse engineer their deluxe version selling now (for a good cause, in a way) for our upcoming workshops… So will try not to worry! Really looking forward to future conversations!! ciao for now, Rachel

yes, they want to do it all themselves, for profit, is my impression… some good guy quit, who was an early contact, I might add… anyway… will be fun to see how things follow through! (I have some worries, but hopefully the situation is not too bad)
looking forward to more conversations and making cool stuff work!

I actually backed the original Foldscope kickstarter campaign and so have a classroom kit which I used to run a workshop for students in Hong Kong as part of my Young Makers & ChangeMakers initiative. Happy to bring a couple along to GOSH Shenzhen if of interest:

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an intern working in our lab lab last summer also backed their kickstarter campaign, and she shared her ‘deluxe’ set from that, until I also got 4 more for some workshops I did in London. (The organiser, and two of the keenest to count their cheek cell micronuclei got to bring one home, and I also brought one back home to give a fresh one back to our colleague. :slight_smile:
However, our ‘old school’ version (found as a Foldscope design from 2015 in Oliver Boswell’s blog, which we acknowledge gratefully, whoever he may be!) was used for our original workshops and re-shared via a link found at the bottom of our wikipage on the Foldscopes Foldscope - Hackuarium… This is basically the same thing I plan(ned??) to use for my upcoming workshops at LemanMake at the end of September. My big question is still if using this is somehow infringement… Maybe I should make sure to differ from the deluxe one to avoid probs? call it ‘o-foldscope’ (for oldschool) ? Or could we really get in trouble even for using this old design? I still would like to know! (We already got the ball lenses, but I didn’t get a load of paper yet…) btw: looking forward to meeting people from this irl in Shezhen!original%20o-foldscope

Hi Rachel

I wouldn’t worry. In Europe you are extremely unlikely to get into trouble because a) the device isn’t patented in Switzerland (at least there is nothing published) and even if there is an unpublished application pending you are almost certainly fine as long as you don’t sell the microscopes because b) most European countries view patents as more or less restricted to exclusive rights for commercial use so usually for personal, research and non-commercial uses you couldn’t be (successfully) sued for infringement.

Someone else might have another take, but the above would be my understanding.

Incidentally, Foldscope is a trademark but again only registered and protected in the US as far as I can tell.


sounds very reassuring! thx, Jenny!