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 implicit because the movements for open culture have a tendency to appear overtly political, when their success is actually down to the fact that they elide a politics. But when the politics behind an open project are made explicit, disagreements and misunderstandings often occur (usually to frustrating ends). The recent Knowledge Unlatched debacle is a good example of the politics of open access in action.

Last month Knowledge Unlatched announced its ‘Open Research Library’ — a centralised platform for displaying CC-licensed books that KU hopes will ‘include all Open Access scholarly book content worldwide on one platform for user-friendly discovery’. As a for-profit organisation, Knowledge Unlatched has been met with criticism from a range of different individuals and organisations for its monopoly-seeking behaviour and for trying to pass off their proprietary platform as a collaborative, community-led initiative. This LSE Impact Blog post by Marcel Knöchelmann offers an overview of the issues and links to some of the responses. It is safe to say the affair has been a PR disaster for Knowledge Unlatched.

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 are being criticised for ‘doing exactly what the Open Access community said it should and could do’ by reusing CC BY content commercially. Others assert the relationship of OA with ‘the values of liberal democracy supporting transparent competition and innovation.’ ( These arguments imply that the open access ‘movement’ was founded upon more liberal, market-centric notions of competition, contracts and individual freedom, in opposition to the complaints against KU that emphasise collectivity and community norms.

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:

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 platformising intentions bumping up against a community of advocates who believe publishing infrastructure should be a collaborative, non-proprietary endeavour. Calling out this kind of behaviour is perfectly consistent with an open access movement that promotes a diversity of non-competitive approaches to infrastructure (which I believe should be encouraged). Yet there will always be a conflict with those who believe that market participation and competition are a better way of designing and maintaining shared publishing infrastructures. It is this conflict that I believe constitutes (rather than inhibits) the open access movement. The politics of open access are thus inescapable.

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.