Following on from my last post on academic freedom and statements of principle, I want to further clarify my thoughts on how academic freedom relates to open access mandates. Paradoxically, despite claiming that objections to open access mandates on the grounds of academic freedom are mere conservatism, it is likely that the coercive aspect of mandates is what perpetuates such objections.

Put simply, forcing someone to do something is not a particularly good way of encouraging engagement with the reasons for doing it. When people are asked to comply with a mandate, they are associating whatever they are being asked to do with a loss of freedom, rather than something they have decided to explore for themselves. This is especially true in the contemporary neoliberal university where the brutality of compliance and measurement are two of its defining features. For mandates tied to funding instruments like the REF, an exercise already loathed by academics in the UK, academics will associate OA with an instrument of assessment and compliance, rather than something with potential emancipatory benefits.

But OA does have potential emancipatory benefits. Mandates would be fine if ‘public access’ was the end point of this whole endeavour (and for many, no doubt, it is). However for me, if OA is anything at all, it is about experimentation and engagement with publishing practices based upon the gifting of one’s research. ‘Openness’ is one important aspect of this, but it is by no means the only aspect — so too is resisting the marketisation of publishing and higher education, fostering a greater sense of care for the publishing process (and for how scholarship is evaluated), improving researcher governance of publishing infrastructures, supporting underrepresented cultures of knowledge, and so on. Framed in this way, OA mandates are ineffective on their own in stimulating a culture of experimentation with the ways in which research is conducted, published and disseminated.

This does not mean that OA policies cannot stimulate such experimentation through funding grassroots projects and alternatives to commercial publishing — and they no doubt should do. But on their own, mandates seek compliance (alongside additional labour from library staff, universities and academics themselves) rather than engagement with OA as something interesting/exciting/liberating. This is why many researchers fall back on cries of ‘academic freedom’ when required to make their research freely available, even if such appeals are often used as excuses for maintaining the status quo. Academic freedom in the Global North may be a privilege for the already privileged, but forcing researchers to change their behaviour will only entrench this conservatism. Instead, advocates need to show how OA might nurture new positive and collective forms of ‘academic freedom’ for those without job security or access to the kinds of resources available only to those in wealthy universities.

Rather than telling academics that the case for OA has already been won (because it clearly hasn’t) and that they need to get on board with it, a better strategy of engagement is through non-discursive means. Groups such as the Radical Open Access Collective and initiatives such as the Open Library of Humanities and the New University Press landscape represent an alternative form of open access through their interventions and practices as much as their arguments. Policymakers would be wise to spend at least as much time and resources encouraging such alternative projects as they do mandating open access.