If you’re at all interested in open access publishing, you probably know that it has a long and complicated history. There are disagreements and differences over strategies, tactics, politics, definitions, motivations, disciplinary approaches, business models and routes to OA. Many words have been spilled over the ‘mess’ that open access has become and the fact that the concept of open access itself has a number of different lineages. The OA ‘movement’ is not therefore a unified movement — nor has it ever been — but is a disparate collection of arguments and projects in favour of freely accessible research.

My research tries to identify and engage with this complexity by understanding the various motivations at play as OA increases in popularity. The European OA policy landscape, for example, looks quite different to the push for OA in Latin America, while commercial multinational publishers owe little in terms of motivation and practice to the presses that make up the Radical Open Access Collective. The key to understanding open access is as much about taking care of these differences and how they relate to one another as it is about understanding the minutiae of business models and licences.

Yet much scholarly communication commentary does still treat OA as if it is a transition from one system to another, eliding the complexities and antagonisms involved across all forms of academic publishing, let alone OA advocacy. This is the case in the recent post by the journalist Richard Poynder entitled ‘Open access: Could defeat be snatched from the jaws of victory?‘ In it, the author makes an interesting argument that the current OA landscape will not result in forms of OA that are either affordable or even necessarily open to all who want access. This is due to a mixture of factors including geopolitics, surveillance capitalism, and the ultimate naivety of (what Poynder consistently refers to as) ‘OA advocates’.

Putting aside the fact that the article covers a lot of ground without enough detail or development to substantiate its claims, my main criticism of the piece is that it fails to account for the complexity of the arguments, motivations and causes at play within open access, instead relying on a caricature of a homogenous ‘movement’ that began with and was ultimately settled by the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI). There are almost forty references in the piece to OA advocate(s), even though the term remains unclarified, leaving the reader with the feeling that OA is a well-defined, unified thing rather than the disparate mixture of understandings explored above. Take, for example, the following passage:

OA advocates insist that using liberal licences like CC BY is necessary in order to prevent publishers acquiring exclusive rights in the papers they publish –a practice, they say, that is inherent to the traditional publishing system and which allows publishers to privatise publicly funded research and then sell access to it back to the research community by means of ever more expensive subscriptions. Instead, they say, funders should require authors to retain copyright in their papers and insist that a CC BY licence is attached. Only in this way, they say, can publishers be prevented from appropriating research.


Who is actually arguing this? And is it reflective of OA ‘advocacy’ more generally? In order to show that ‘OA advocates insist that using liberal licences like CC BY is necessary’, one would expect at least a quotation from a self-defined OA advocate (which would not be hard to find). But even this would be wanting because there are numerous examples of OA practice and argumentation that do not rely on (or even care about) CC BY as the main definition. This is the case for innumerable OA journals, repositories and books that call themselves open access. Although CC BY may have once been the dominant licence of choice for people arguing in favour of open access from a particular political perspective, contemporary debates have moved on from strict definitions of OA towards a more pluralistic understanding.

So what Poynder may be arguing is that the dominant or hegemonic understandings of OA that have been taken up in the policy arena are those that rely on CC BY. Such an argument would require more evidence than what is presented in his piece, but it would at least be more convincing than the idea that non-specific ‘OA advocates’ are largely united in their aims.

Elsewhere we see a similar homogenised and unspecific understanding of ‘OA advocates’:

‘OA advocates failed to anticipate the unintended consequences of their advocacy’

‘OA advocates ought to be spend [sic] more time thinking about possible futures and with a broader perspective than who is going to pay APCs –something they have been very bad at doing to date.’

‘Above all, it was argued that one of the main beneficiaries of open access would be researchers in the Global South. OA advocates still maintain this.’

‘OA advocates have been celebrating an OA tipping point. But while we could indeed be approaching a tipping point it may not be the tipping point that OA advocates anticipate.’


Again, people who have shouted loudest may have been making these arguments, but a more accurate and complex understanding of OA would at least gesture to the pages and pages of literature on OA that have been critical of the neoliberalism, tech-solutionism, neo-colonialism, oversimplicity or other lazy thinking within open access. The important point here is that this critique exists within rather than outside the OA ‘movement’ — it is a key part of it. For example, one of Poynder’s main arguments is that ‘openness is by no means an unmitigated good’, which is of course true, but it is also a point that has been made countless times before by people writing in favour of open access (any critical analysis of OA will argue this, but you can take Stuart Lawson’s thesis or the work of Heather Morrison as starting points).

This issue is important because, I would argue, the dominant arguments in favour of OA actually look quite different from how they did even five years ago, and the BOAI definition that Poynder draws on so heavily is less relevant than it ever has been. Critiques of capitalism (surveillance or otherwise), issues relating to diversity and labour, and ownership of research infrastructures and data are all highly conspicuous in OA advocacy at the moment, and Poynder’s piece fails to account for these themes in any meaningful sense. When, for example, critical work by Peter Kraker and Leslie Chan is cited, they are not themselves labelled as ‘OA advocates’ (even though Leslie Chan is one of the original BOAI signatories) and so we have a continuous sense that critique of OA comes from outside OA itself. A richer understanding of the contemporary OA landscape would engage with this complexity rather than try to smooth over or ignore it.

So I would encourage anyone to question the term ‘OA advocates’ when they see it, as it’s often deployed to imply that all arguments in favour of OA are half-baked or uncritical, or that people haven’t considered such issues before. But good commentary can only exist when the complexity and difference inherent in OA is fully appreciated.