This opinion piece interrogates the position that open access policies infringe academic freedom. Through an analysis of the objections to open access policies (specifically Plan S) that draw on academic freedom as their primary concern, the article illustrates the shortcomings of foregrounding a negative conception of academic freedom that primarily seeks to protect the fortunate few in stable academic employment within wealthy countries. Although Plan S contains many regressive and undesirable elements, the article makes a case for supporting its proposal for zero‐embargo repository‐based open access as the basis for a more positive form of academic freedom for scholars around the globe. Ultimately, open access publishing only makes sense within a project that seeks to nurture this positive conception of academic freedom by transforming higher education towards something more socially just and inclusive of knowledge producers and consumers worldwide.
The production and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is unquestionably good news and hopefully heralds the beginning of the end of the global pandemic. Much of this progress is down to the spirit of collaboration shown by scientists around the world in the race to beat the virus.
Yet the fact that the vaccine remains private intellectual property, despite being publicly funded, is illustrative of a major failure with R&D policy and its tendency to elevate the concerns of the market over those of the common good. Policymakers should instead turn to the commons as an alternative philosophy for governing scientific knowledge production.
Often positioned as a ‘third way’ between the market and the state, ideas of the commons relate to the self-governance and maintenance of shared resources in a way that foregrounds cooperation over competition and shared ownership over private property. Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for economics, devoted her career to the study of the commons and the ways in which collective action can deliver superior outcomes to private and competitive forms of enterprise. There are hundreds of successful examples of commons, from groundwater basins and irrigation systems, to online citizen science projects and community centres. Our own work on the Community-led Open Publishing Infrastructures for Monographs (COPIM) project also seeks to find ways of further embedding community collaboration within infrastructures and models for open access knowledge dissemination. All of these projects prioritise – in varying degrees – community collaboration and management of shared resources.
Importantly, the distinguishing feature of commons-based modes of production is their participatory and structured nature rather than the extent to which the resources they generate are freely shared with the public. So although a commons-based approach would ultimately lead to a commonly-owned or ‘People’s’ vaccine, it is more important to generate meaningful and numerous collaborative interactions to create the conditions for such vaccines to be publicly-accessible. This is because the commons refers to the self-organisation of labour as a mode of production, not a method of distributing resources, although it is exactly this self-organisation that would allow the vaccine to be distributed for the common good (as opposed to the interests of private enterprise).
Yet, instead of promoting collective action as a means of production, policymakers have been pre-occupied by openness in the form of open access or open data (see the European Plan S, for example). These concepts relate merely to the method of distributing intellectual resources, not the ways in which they are produced. Openness does little to combat the engrained competitiveness in scientific research, nor does it work against the control of knowledge production infrastructures by a handful of multinational companies. What’s needed is a policy for R&D that both prioritises cooperation in knowledge production and allows the infrastructures, workflows and results to be owned commonly rather than by individuals.
Reorienting R&D funding towards commons-based projects would not only prioritise meaningful collaborations, such as those that helped generate the vaccine, but would also ensure that vaccines and other intellectual property would be owned in common. This could, for example, allow all scientific publications and data to be freely available in perpetuity (because they cannot be enclosed), not commercially owned and made freely available only for the duration of the pandemic at the whims of publishers. For example, we would not have to rely on Elsevier to grant scientists temporary access to their Coronavirus Information Center, because we would already own the intellectual property on which it is based.
Simply put, policymakers should reorient their focus away from mere open access to the outputs of scientific research and instead nurture the commons across the research lifecycle. It would mean less of a winner-takes-all strategy to research funding – away from huge grants dictated by bogus ideas of ‘excellence’ – and more of one that encourages small, careful, collaborative research by and between diverse groups of scientists. This could be facilitated through basic research income, grant lotteries and other non-competitive methods, with the outputs from each grant owned in common by scientists across the globe.
Funders could also stimulate oversight and governance of the infrastructures for knowledge production as knowledge commons, i.e., those that are governed by the communities that use them rather than the market at large. This would allow researchers to decide how these infrastructures are designed and built upon, preventing acquisition of critical knowledge infrastructures and data by undesirable actors. We can stimulate common ownership in scientific research through data trusts, common patent pools and other democratic procedures for sharing resources.
The commons therefore offers a different frame – a third way – for the traditional R&D strategy that currently emphasises the public, the private, or the interplay between both. It prioritises self-organisation over state- and market-based forms, emphasising collaboration in an industry beholden to competition. As academic research is likely to take a hit in the post-pandemic economic slowdown, the commons would be a useful way of directing research to foreground process over brute outcomes, collaboration over competition.
Or as the economist Kate Raworth puts it, ‘if you ignore the commons, you’re ignoring one of the most vibrant spaces of the 21st century economy’.
On 22nd September I’ll be participating in a panel on funding and business mechanisms for equitable open access for the 2020 OASPA conference. I’ll be using the opportunity to discuss some of the projects I’m involved in – notably the Radical Open Access Collective and the Community-led Open Publishing Infrastructures for Monographs (COPIM) project – in order to highlight the different approaches to business models and sustainability that these projects may entail. In particular, drawing on my recent work with Janneke Adema, I will be discussing ‘scaling small’, an organisational philosophy that seeks to build resilience within scholarly publishing through mutual reliance and collaboration. Scaling small is an approach that preserves the locality and (biblio)diversity of approaches to publishing while encouraging presses to work together on shared technical, infrastructural and other publishing projects. Predicated on an ethic of care, in direct opposition to the cookie-cutter economies of scale preferred by the larger commercial publishers, scaling small intends to nurture cooperation (over competition) as a sustaining force for global scholarly communication. I’ll be discussing the opportunities and potential drawbacks of this approach for a more ethical and equitable ecosystem of open access scholarly publishing.
The panel is on Tuesday 22nd September at 5pm BST and will feature the following other participants:
Vivian Berghahn Berghahn Books, UK
Sharla Lair LYRASIS, USA
Alexia Hudson-Ward Oberlin College and Conservatory, USA
Chair: Charles Watkinson, University of Michigan, USA
Transformative agreements are an increasingly common way for universities and consortia to shift publisher business models towards open access. They do this through a prearranged payment that allows institutions to access subscription content while allowing future research to published in an openly accessible form. These deals are a way for publishers to continue to receive subscription income and boast about their open access content, while universities value them as a cost-neutral strategy for transitioning away from subscriptions towards open access (read Lisa Hinchliffe’s primer for an excellent summary of transformative agreements)
The UKRI open access consultation deadline is this Friday and we’re likely to see a flurry of responses leading up to it. One response to the consultation caught my eye today from the Friends of Coleridge, a society that ‘exists to foster interest in the life and works of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his circle’. I wanted to jot down a couple of thoughts on this because I think it represents something quite interesting about the way that open access is playing out within UK humanities organisations.
On February 26th, what feels like a lifetime ago now, the Los Angeles Times published a column with the headline ‘COVID-19 could kill the for-profit science publishing model. That would be a good thing’. Its author, Michael Hiltzik, argues that for-profit publishing is ‘under assault by universities and government agencies frustrated at being forced to pay for access to research they’ve funded in the first place.’ Hiltzik doesn’t really go into how open access confronts the for-profit model, and instead offers a somewhat crude summary of the importance of open science during the pandemic, including preprints, open collaboration, data sharing and open access to research.
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?
The term ‘predatory publisher’ reveals a limit of language – or rather it asks too much of language. It seeks a binary separation between ‘predatory’ and ‘non-predatory’ where no such separation can exist, ultimately illustrating more about the motivations and hidden biases about the accuser than the supposedly predatory journal at hand. We therefore need another way to conceptualise the practices that predatory publishing seeks to describe.
When the original BOAI declaration on open access was published, one of its stated aims was to ‘save money and expand the scope of dissemination at the same time’ through open access publishing. The web offered distribution costs that the authors claimed were ‘far lower’ than print publishing and so OA was seen at least in part as something that could ease library budgets ailing from above-inflation journal subscription prices, all while making research available to the public. Arguably, the BOAI statement was quite measured in its focus only on distribution costs (which clearly are cheaper in an online world); but despite this, many people claim that the cost of publishing more generally should be less in an open-access world. Some advocates have even tried to calculate how much an article should cost to publish.
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.