Adema, J. (2014): “Open Access”, in: Critical Keywords for the Digital Humanities, available at: cdckeywords.leuphana.com/open_access
As a concept and practice, open access has always been heavily debated; by open access advocates, but also by the wider academic community as part of the debate over the future of scholarly communication. From an initial subversive proposal (Harnad), open access has increasingly turned into accepted practice, promoted by governments, institutions and businesses alike. However, while growing in popularity, the struggle over its specific implementation in publishing and scholarly communication is ongoing and perhaps even more urgent than ever.
Open access literature has been defined by Peter Suber, one of its greatest advocates, as “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions” (Suber 2012: p. 4). From the early 1990s onwards, the open access movement – although the term open access was not yet used then – grew out of an initiative established by academics, librarians, managers and administrators. Some of the first freely available online journals were launched by academics during that time, including Stevan Harnad’s Psycoloquy (1989), Surfaces by Jean-Claude Guèdon (1991) and Postmodern Culture by John Unsworth et al. (1990). Open Access was initiated and developed within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), where it focused mainly on what is now defined as the Green Road to open access. Here, authors self-archive their research works submitted for peer review (preprints) or their final peer-reviewed versions (post-prints) in central, subject or institutionally-based repositories. For instance, in 1991, Paul Ginsparg started the first free scientific archive for physicists online, arXiv.org, and in 1997, Pubmed Central was launched based on the life sciences and biomedical database MEDLINE. The other main (and complementary) route to open access, the Gold Road, focuses on publishing research works in open access journals, books or other types of literature (Guédon, 2004). For example, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), founded in 2000, is a non-profit open access scientific publisher aimed at creating a library of open access journals – such as PLoS Biology – that operate under an open content license.
Next to these different routes to open access, there are also different forms of open access. Making research more accessible by taking away price barriers is known as providing Gratis open access. If some or most permission or licensing barriers to a work are removed on top of that – making it more open and enabling its reuse for scholarly or commercial purposes – then Libre open access is provided. The main open access definitions, together known as the ‘BBB-definition’, were agreed upon in three seminal public statements based on meetings of the movement’s members in Budapest, Bethesda and Berlin. These definitions all combine Gratis and Libre open access, allowing both access and reuse of scholarly content as long as the author is properly attributed.
As the various forms and iterations of open access outlined above already exemplify, the open access movement has been divided in its views on what openness is and how we should go about achieving it. Nonetheless, it has been united in its mission to improve the conditions under which academic work can circulate. Even though new digital distribution formats and mechanisms increasingly offered opportunities to make research more widely accessible, open access advocates argued that the traditional publishing system was no longer able or willing to fulfil their communication needs. There was also the widespread feeling (also known as the taxpayers argument) that the public should not be paying twice for the same research: once to fund its conduct and then again to buy access to it from (commercial) publishers via libraries or institutional subscriptions. Open access can also be seen as a direct reaction against the ongoing commercialisation of research and the publishing industry. For instance, Harvie et al. have argued against the practices of so-called ‘feral’ publishers, targeting in particular the high profit margins and tax avoidance of Informa, which includes the Taylor & Francis and Routledge imprints (Harvie et al., 2012). Furthermore, as part of the ‘Academic Spring’, almost 15,000 academics up to now have signed the Cost of Knowledge boycott petition to protest against Elsevier’s business practices, objecting to its high journal subscriptions among other things.
For several decades, journal subscription prices have been rising far above their average cost, faster than inflation and faster than mostly declining library budgets. This has triggered a pricing crisis for scholarly research, firstly in what we now know as the serials crisis, and subsequently in the monograph crisis, which predominantly hit the humanities. As Suber has argued, a pricing crisis also means an access crisis, as libraries are no longer able to afford all the research academics need (2012: pp. 29-30). These adverse conditions also increasingly led to libraries decisions to cut spending on monographs to buy journals in STEM instead, despite their rising subscription costs. This drop in library demand for monographs has consequently led presses to produce smaller print runs and focus more on marketable titles. This has been detrimental for those (mostly early-career) researchers who depend on book publication for tenure and promotion. Partly in response to this ‘monograph crisis’, a rising number of scholarly-, library- and/or university-press initiatives are experimenting more directly with making monographs available in open access, including scholar-led presses such as Open Humanities Press, and presses established by or working with libraries, such as Athabasca University’s AU Press.
Genealogies of Openness
The history and rise of the idea of the ‘open’ that has influenced the development of the open access movement remains contested and indistinct. Open access can be seen as an offspring of the wider open source movement, but has also been influenced by longstanding practices and discourses of open science and open authorship. A lot of confusion exists about what openness is, what it means, and whether it is a goal in itself or a means to an end. Nathaniel Tkacz, for instance, in tracing the genealogy of openness back to Karl Popper’s work (among others), argues that in the current proliferation and fetishisation of openness as an inscrutable political ideal and goal in itself, it merely functions as the positive antidote to an empty binary; namely, closedness, the closed society, or closed politics. Openness has become an uncontested, but empty objective, in its inscrutability ready to be taken up by a variety of different groups all claiming it as their own, from Google to The Open Knowledge Foundation. Openness, based on this Popperian genealogy, is thus mainly seen as a reaction against closed systems and sources; obfuscating, as Tkacz states, the closures that openness also necessarily implies (Tkacz, 2012: pp. 386, 399).
Other genealogies focus more on the diverse motivations, as well as critiques, that have informed openness historically, including from within the open access movement. Here, the focus is on the complexity of openness itself, and the way it cannot simply serve as one side of an ‘open-closed’ binary, since it has always already been closely enmeshed with closedness as well as with its other proposed antagonists. For instance, Christopher Kelty has argued that in the open source movement, openness is not opposed to closedness, but to proprietary, which he argues, is a “complicated mesh of the technical, the legal and the commercial” (Kelty, 2008: p. 143). This entangled development of openness also comes to the fore in recent history of science studies. Pamela Long, for instance, has shown how historically openness developed in connection to ideas and practices of secrecy, authorship, and property rights alongside the establishment of print and the printed scholarly book in the West (Long, 2001). Historical research into the development of early modern natural philosophy shows a complex picture, nuancing the opposition between open science and secretive technology, seeing openness in science as intricate and enmeshed.
These alternative genealogies of openness also shed a different light on the Mertonian ideal of open science (communism) that has accompanied our narratives of modern research, where as part of its practical historical development, openness and secrecy can be seen to have co-developed in changing conditions of power, patronage, and technological development. Nonetheless, the specific context in which the open access movement developed – related to developments in (digital) technology, the existing cultures of knowledge and unfavourable economic and material conditions – requires us to take into account the influence of both this longstanding narrative on ‘open’ scholarship, as well as the day-to-day practicalities of entangled secrecy and power relations.
The meaning of openness as reflected within the terminology surrounding open access (green, gold, gratis, libre, etc.) continues to be a highly charged topic. For many advocates, the debate about the ‘true’ definition and ‘correct’ implementation of open access is of critical importance for the future of academia. The ongoing dispute over terminology is thus of a highly strategic character. For some, the free online availability of all scholarly research is the most important goal of open access; where for others, access is only the beginning or a means to an end (re-use, data-mining, experimentation, etc.). Stevan Harnad, however, argues that more expansive and disputed forms of open access that can potentially challenge the integrity of a work, such as Libre open access, are standing in the way of the mainstream acceptance of the project of universal access (Harnad, 2012b). On the other hand, mandating Green open access might ultimately mean the implementation of a watered-down version of open access, not allowing re-use rights nor fundamentally challenging or changing the present (commercial) publishing system. However, the current practical implementation of a variant of Gold open access in the UK does not seem to offer much solace either. In what has become known as The Finch Report (June 2012) – an independent study commissioned by the UK science minister David Willetts, examining how UK-funded research ?ndings can be made more accessible – recommendations have been made (which will inform the UK government’s open access policy) which include the further implementation of article processing charges for the open access publishing of journals. This recommendation can be seen to maintain and favour the system of communication as currently set up, protecting the interests of established stakeholders, mainly commercial publishers. For in this system, the publishers’ profits will be sustained via APCs, where in, for instance, Green open access, depositing of articles in repositories will not require any charge. Harnad has thus already called The Finch Report a case of ‘successful lobbying’ from the side of the publishing industry (Harnad, 2012a).
Sustainable Business Models
The search for the right definition of open access has increasingly turned into a quest for the ultimate sustainable open access business model, based on the idea that the print-based subscription model (especially in the humanities) is no longer sustainable, and that the (long-term) sustainability of open access still needs to prove itself. However, despite this criticism, one could also argue that the print-based model has never been sustainable and that specialised and book-based research in the humanities especially has never been marketable or self-sustaining and always relied on some form of additional funding (Adema, 2010).
Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval thus argue for the adaptation ofthe so-called Diamond (also known as platinum) model, a variant of the Gold open access model that does not charge any fee to authors or readers, nor to their institutions. In this model, Fuchs and Sandoval state, research is published in open access ‘without the commodity logic’, arguing that any form of for-profit open access will create new academic inequalities of access between the haves and have nots (Fuchs and Sandoval, 2013: p. 439). Here the focus is on the necessity of public funding, and on the idea that open access business models need to be subsidised. The sustainability or even profitability of scholarly publishing in general is questioned in this context, where the argument is that publishing costs should be an integral part of the costs of research.
The prospects of open access in many ways depend on how open access has been and is currently perceived. As becomes clear from above, openness can be seen as a floating signifier (Laclau, 2005: pp. 129-155), a concept without a fixed meaning, easily adopted by different political ideologies. For some, it is exactly this ‘openness’ of open access that becomes problematic. Where initially the open access and open source movements were heralded by progressive scholars and thinkers as a critique of the commodification of information and knowledge (Berry, 2008: p. 39), increasingly openness is seen as a concept and a practice that has and can be applied in various political contexts—most notably as part of a neoliberal rhetoric—and that can be connected to ideas of transparency and efficiency heralded by business and government. This has been related to the ‘openness’ of the concept and its multiplicity of adaptations (Eve, 2013; Tkacz, 2012). For instance, as part of neoliberal rhetoric, open access is seen as supporting a competitive economy by making the flow of information more efficient, transparent and cost-effective, and by making research more accessible to more people. This makes it easy for knowledge, as a form of capital, to be taken up by businesses for commercial re-use, stimulating economic innovation. In this way, the research process and its results can be efficiently monitored and can be better made accountable as measurable outputs (Adema, 2010; Hall, 2008; Houghton, 2009).
Nonetheless, As Gary Hall argues, there is nothing intrinsically political or democratic about open access (2008: p. 197). Motivations behind open access are very diverse, and motives that focus on democratic principles go hand in hand with neoliberal arguments concerning the benefits of open access for the knowledge economy. Indeed, open access, openness and open science have been theorised and practiced in radically different, alternative, critical and affirmative ways within academia, offering a potential counterweight to the predominance of neoliberal forms of open access as well as providing new ways of thinking about politics (Adema and Hall, 2013; Eve, 2013; Hall, 2008; Holmwood, 2013b).
Futures: Radical Open Access
Although it is the openness of the concept of open access that brings with it a risk of uncertainty towards its (future) adaptations, it can also be seen as that which provides its potential political power. For example, the contingent and contextual forms of what can be called radical open access focus on experimentation, and the exploration of new institutions and practices. This approach towards openness, exploring new formats and stimulating sharing and re-use, can be seen as a radical alternative to and critique of the business ethics underlying innovations in the knowledge economy, questioning the system of (commercial) academic publishing as it is currently set up. Forms of radical open access can also be seen to offer an affirmative engagement with open access by establishing practical and experimental (and in many cases also scholar-led) alternatives to the present publishing system. Media Commons and Media Commons Press are examples here of scholar-led initiatives experimenting with new forms of publishing and collaboration. For many of these initiatives, open access also forms the starting point for a wider critique and interrogation of our institutions, practices, notions of authorship, the book, and publication. For example, Open Humanities Press’s Living Books About Life series is open on a read/write basis for continuing collaborative processes of writing, editing, remixing and commenting, challenging the physical and conceptual limitations of the codex format and rethinking the book as an open, living and collaborative process.
The potential of radical open access thus lies in how it envisions open access as an ongoing critical project, embracing its own inconsistencies and battling with its own conceptions of openness. Following this vision, open access should be understood not as a homogeneous project striving to become a dominant model, nor as a concept with a pre-described meaning or ideology, but as a project with an unknown outcome engaged in a continuous series of critical struggles. And this is exactly why we cannot pin down ‘open’ (nor radical open access) as a concept, but why we need to leave it open, open to otherness and difference, and open to adapt to different circumstances.
Adema, J. (2010): Open Access Business Models for Books in the Humanities and Social Sciences: An Overview of Initiatives and Experiments (OAPEN Project Report), Amsterdam.
Adema, J. and Hall, G. (2013): ‘The Political Nature of the Book: On Artists’ Books and Radical Open Access’, in: New Formations 78 (1), pp. 138–156.
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Eve, M. P. (2013): ‘Open Access, “Neoliberalism”, “Impact” and the Privatisation of Knowledge’, Dr. Martin Paul Eve blog, 10 March, available at: https://www.martineve.com/2013/03/10/open-access-neoliberalism-impact-and-the-privatisation-of-knowledge/
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