Notes on open access and COVID-19

As this feels like the first day in a while that I have enough concentration to write, I thought I’d take the opportunity to jot down some thoughts guided by the question: what on earth can the pandemic teach us about open access to knowledge?

I say this because I don’t have any idea just yet. This is because COVID-19 is so fast-moving (figuratively and literally) that it seems to shift the very moment you think you understand it. It is also because all of our anxiety levels are elevated and my brain feels a bit fuzzy, which also makes clarity of thought difficult. This is why I’m wholly sceptical of certainty right now and the grand pronouncements from anyone who claims to know the way forward for anything, let alone research access. In this post, I’ll simply try to articulate some of the complexities associated with the virus.

I am currently writing a book on the relationship between open access, care and the commons (with the University of Michigan Press). In it, I theorise the various ways in which open access might act as an intervention into the free market practices of the publishing industry, i.e., a way to move away from the commodification of knowledge through both policy and grassroots interventions that return control to scholarly communities and provide open access to knowledge. It seems to me that there might be some value in thinking of COVID-19 as a kind of viral intervention into the publishing industry.

With the rapid circulation of preprints and data, alongside the lifting of publisher paywalls on the virus, COVID-19 has intervened in the pace of science publishing. Much of this is predicated on openness and collaboration over the usual approach of competition and closure, as countless news articles and thinkpieces have shown already. Yet the virus has also changed the pace of publishing in fields that aren’t directly relevant to COVID-19 by reducing the speed of publication. Many journals in the humanities and social sciences have stopped processing papers, while others are telling authors to expect delays while we adjust to the new way of working. In the UK, with the REF being postponed, the virus is also impacting on cultures of productivity and assessment.

Furthermore, as classes move online, lecturers are looking for easier access to syllabus content outside of physical libraries. Some publishers have obliged by opening up their content through Proquest and associated databases, while others have made their textbooks freely available to read, temporarily at least. With this said, Cambridge University Press had to re-paywall their textbooks due to ‘reported misuse’, while other databases are so difficult to navigate such that accessing the newly unlocked content has been challenging (for me anyway). Though it may be easy for publishers to announce that they are removing paywalls on their content, actually accessing this content can prove a challenge.

So, like many other industries, publishing has been upended by the virus. COVID-19 has shown both the ease and the difficulty of open access, its necessity but also its contingency. As the lockdowns continue, I’ll be interested to see what happens to those publishers who removed paywalls from their content — when will the paywalls be re-erected and what will be the justification for that? This is the price of marketisation. Scholarly communities have largely ceded control over the governance of publishing to the market, meaning that publishers are still beholden to market principles when it comes to crisis management. This state of affairs is not particularly novel to academic publishing, but it should help us formulate a response.

So I’ll be tracking how the virus impacts (or contaminates) open access as it develops and will try to post notes here as I go.