How open is Open Access?

I’m critical of both top-down and bottom-up, both policy-driven economic and grassroots agendas, for copyright and Open Access reform in publishing. While there are obvious benefits, these are inseparable from the drawbacks.

The grassroots or scholar-led Open Access movement rightly challenges the spiralling costs and price barriers put up by commercial journal publishers in particular, and the fact that they are draining library budgets while profiting from academic free labour (writing, reviewing). They are also turning, increasingly, to Open Access business models that charge those same authors, asking them to pay a substantial fee, to publish in journals they already subsidise.

A pay-to-say model of publishing [such as gold Open Access, where authors pay article processing charges] is not only exploitative but also dangerous, because it makes the ability to say contingent on the ability to pay. At this point we have to ask who is able to pay and who is not. What is the additional or hidden price, in terms of academic freedom?

Open Access policy has worryingly little to say about the diversity of the book, let alone of the voices, projects and subject areas that are allegedly made accessible. For me, both ends of the debate, from government to grassroots, conflate access and accessibility. Being able to read a piece of research because it is free and online doesn’t necessarily make it readable to non-academics. There are still decisions to be made, for example, about the level of difficulty and the use of specialist language. Whether or not all research should be accessible in this way, my point is that openness is not an end point: job done.

More than that, the claim that it is a public good is questionable when transparency (think about government) masks all sorts of opacities and when the words “public” and “good” are too often associated with “free” and “market”. Openness is designed for the public sector (or what’s left of it) on behalf of the private sector. Open means open to commercialisation. This, for me, is not ethical. Neither is it sustainable. The grants that are available to support author payment schemes (especially the block grants) are small to non-existent nationally, and even if the European Union has a pot of money—and indeed if we remain in the EU—I wonder how and whether that pot gets refilled.

So I don’t think the “author pays” model of publishing, a simplistic substitution of the “reader pays” model, has any place in the academy because it relies on a degree of financial support that governments may extend to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, but not to arts, humanities and social sciences. If we go for it, or to the extent that we have already gone for it, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot.

Openness is not all about processing charges, of course. It also means the removal of copyright restrictions (all rights reserved) but copyright restrictions mean different things for big commercial publishers, on the one hand, who have done all too well on them and for small independent or institutional ones, on the other—they may need them simply to survive. In our research project for CREATe, the centre for copyright reform, Professor Janis Jefferies and I have been asking not only how publishers will survive, but how writers will eat in a publishing environment dominated by Open Access and in a culture increasingly oriented to free online content.

Commons sense

Aggressive reforms are justified through common-sense statements about the need to give the public access to publicly funded research. Goldsmiths Press will attempt to do this by placing work in searchable archives and repositories that will, hopefully, one day link institutions and generate a diversity of research commons. Research commons would develop the theme of Creative Commons (the share alike scheme) but the antagonist in this case would be the commercial enterprises, such as Academia.edu, versus copyright per se. Academia.edu is not, as its name suggests, a university or a network of universities. It’s a for-profit company. With around 30 million registered users, it is popular with scholars and members of the public who
want to read their work, but it exists for its investors and feeds nothing back to its members and their institutions in terms of financial resources. Because of her work on developing a commons with the Modern Languages Association (MLA), Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate executive director at the MLA, knows it will be hard to compete with this sort of venture capital, and with what is also an extremely well-funded social networking site. But if anyone should be providing a viable, sustainable alternative to gated university libraries, surely it should be the universities?

DIY scholarly publishing (a form of self-publishing) has to include its own infrastructure. Building this will require investment and collaborative intervention more than common sense. Common sense, as we learn from reading Roland Barthes, is congealed and concealed ideology. That ideology turns openness into commercial enclosure; it opens culture and knowledge to industry and private investment. This is why the research audit for 2020 obliges academics to use a commercial licence.

We need to open out from Open Access, not just because “open” is closed, but because openness is not the universal good it claims to be. It not only further divides Google (not obliged to be open) from Goldsmiths (obliged to be open); it effectively feeds us to them.

Sarah Kember is professor of new technologies of communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, and director of newly launched Goldsmiths Press. This is an edited extract from her inaugural Professorial Lecture delivered recently at Goldsmiths.