Over time, people (often administrators or regulatory agencies) try to control the tacking back-and forth, and especially, to standardize and make equivalent the ill-structured and well-structured aspects of the particular boundary object.

Susan Leigh Star, ‘This Is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept’, p. 614.

In my previous post on the Plan S consultation process I explored the function of policy consultations, arguing that they are not really an exercise in deliberative democracy but more about justifying the impacts of the policy instrument to certain powerful stakeholders. Having (rightly) been accused of cynicism in a few places, I’ve also been asked what the alternative might be. How is it possible to hold a consultation that fairly takes into account all relevant opinions?

Clearly the answer is that this is not possible. The very idea of open access arises out of conflict and antagonism between numerous points of view. Many of these antagonisms are irreconcilable and the search for common ground is misguided at best (and willful obfuscation at worst). For example, one of the significant motivations for OA is the business practices of multinational, for-profits like Elsevier, as the Cost of Knowledge Boycott demonstrates. How is it possible to promote a form of OA that appeases both Elsevier and those in opposition to Elsevier’s profit margin?

But understandings of open access — and publishing more generally — are not unified between academics themselves. This is where much-used phrases like ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ come in. Publishing means very different things to different groups and any policy-based approach to OA that isn’t sensitive to these differences will result in the imposition of one group’s understanding of publishing onto another’s. OA mandates are blunt instruments that can have a homogenising effect if they’re not sensitive to particular ways of working.

In an article published in 2017, I explored the idea of different conceptions of open access with respect to what Star and Griesemer term a ‘boundary object’, something with a nuanced understanding within a particular community that is flexible enough to be understood between communities also. OA is a good example of a boundary object because it has a general meaning of freely accessible research but a specific meaning within communities that reflects its highly subject nature. OA can have a variety of definitions, motivations and resonances that are incommensurate with one another, even though ‘accessible research’ is understandable across community boundaries.

This is why policy consultations result in quite an awkward list of disagreements between those with a variety of interests and working practices to protect. These groups really are talking at cross-purposes. There is no way of navigating these differences without excluding some at the expense of others. As reflected in the Star quote above, policymakers ‘standardise‘ the boundary object according to one particular perspective, which has real potential to nullify its community-specific features. Here, I argue, OA becomes less about collaboration and boundary object creation and more about interessement and stakeholder management (as per my previous post). And stakeholder management always benefits the stakeholders with the most power (commercial publishers in this case).

But this doesn’t mean that policy instruments cannot be used to stimulate good initiatives and progressive outcomes. Too often, organisations hide behind their objection to a policy so as to protect their prestige and avoid doing anything at all. Publishing is broken in many ways and it will require a variety of different experiments to help transform it. I therefore maintain that mandates are not a good idea and that OA policies should be used to stimulate scholar-, library- and university press-led approaches to OA that explore its radical potential to promote difference and collaboration for responsible and ethical forms of publishing.


Star, Susan Leigh. 2010. ‘This Is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept’. Science, Technology & Human Values 35 (5): 601–17. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243910377624.