Open access is a movement constituted by conflict and disagreement rather than consensus and harmony. Given just how much disagreement there is about strategies, definitions, goals, etc., it is incredible that open access has successfully transformed the publishing landscape (and looks set to continue to do so). As OA increases in popularity and inevitability, more conflict arises between those from a range of disciplines and positions, and especially those encountering OA for the first time (often through coercive mandates).
Though often implicit, the root cause of many of these disagreements is politics: incompatible conceptions of how society should ultimately be organised for the greater good. I say
Last month Knowledge Unlatched announced its ‘Open Research Library’ — a
But some commentators appear confused as to what the fuss is all about. The management consultant Joseph J. Esposito describes the response to Knowledge Unlatched as an ‘internal contradiction’ with open access books, claiming KU
Esposito’s confusion illustrates his failure to understand the complexity of the OA movement. Just because some advocates for open access adopt a certain position, it does not mean that all of them do. There are many different positions working under the banner of ‘openness’ and it is overly simplistic to attribute the words and actions of a handful of people to those of an entire (disparate and conflicted) movement. As Tim Elfenbein points out on Twitter: ‘something more than market exchange regulated by contract is happening here’. In response, Marcel LaFlamme neatly argues, the Knowledge Unlatched problem illustrates the ‘tensions’ at the ‘liberal heart’ of the Creative Commons project:
Me too: well said, @timelfen. I’m no expert on the history of Creative Commons, but I think you could also argue that these tensions are at the liberal heart of the project: I’m free to do X, you’re free to do Y.— Marcel LaFlamme (@spinsterofutica) June 6, 2019
This is exactly correct. Creative Commons licenses have their origins in a liberal understanding of the world that prioritises individual freedom and private property over collective ownership and freedom (something I’ve previously written about). Putting aside the fact that the liberal response to bad behaviour may actually be public censure rather than contractual enforcement*, it is easy to see why there is a tension between a liberal, market-centric understanding of open access and those using OA as a way of exploring new and emancipatory forms of collectivity and organisation.
This is because open access is not a liberal project but instead reflects a range of political positions. Openness is thus what Ernesto Laclau would term a ‘floating signifier’ that can be co-opted for a number of political purposes and has no fixed meaning (something Janneke Adema notes in her thesis). The ‘floating’ aspect is the subject of many disagreements about the future of open access: e.g, what role should there be in OA for private companies? What licence is best to promote/inhibit reuse? What kinds of governance work best for open infrastructures? etc. etc. All of these are political questions that defy consensus.
But, as I have argued elsewhere, borrowing from Star and Griesemer, the open access movement is successful primarily because openness is also a boundary object, something that has a nuanced (political, disciplinary, ethical) meaning within a particular context but a general meaning between different contexts. This means that there is enough consensus that free access to research is broadly a good thing, despite the differences in the nuanced understandings of it, such that it has been adopted by governments, Silicon Valley startups, radical scholar-led publishers and many other dissimilar groups. Problems arise when commentators treat these groups as all pulling in the same direction, when in fact their differences are glaring.
In the case of Knowledge Unlatched, we see a commercial startup with
At some point there may have to be a split between different visions of open access and a recognition that we are using one particular term to mean many different things. It’s interesting to see the recent popularity of ‘the commons’ as a way of emphasising a different kind of open access provision (though one that is just as fraught with disagreement). As I discuss in my thesis, maybe ‘open access’ has run its course as a useful term for those seeking to encourage a ‘complex, agonistic, emancipatory ecosystem of OA projects based on a plurality of approaches’ (p. 196). I’d be interested to know whether readers feel we’re at that point right now.
* John Stuart Mill certainly approved in On Liberty of ‘moral coercion of public opinion’.
** The original title of this post was ‘Send in Laclau’ (a bad pun on ‘Send in the Clowns’), hence the image.