Radical Open Access and The Politics of Publishing. A Genealogy of Affinities and Correlations


A bit belated (I will be uploading some talks I gave during the last months in the next few days), underneath the paper I gave at the Radical Open Access conference, which we hosted at Coventry University 15-16th of June. The videos from this event will be available soon, and I will announce them here too once they are ready.

In this talk I would like to provide you with a preliminary outline of various alternative genealogies of open access. Alternative in the sense that they establish historical connections and developments that draw less on a dichotomy of ‘open-closed’ or on a teleological movement from closed to open texts in a digital environment. Alternative also in that they provide a counter point to current tendencies to depoliticise open access and its history, where open access is increasingly being presented as a business model to enable the online access to scholarly texts; a model which, if it wants to be deemed sustainable, would be careful not to run against the grain of stakeholders’ needs.

Instead I want to problematise this history and connect open access to some earlier explorations of radical publishing, drawing out various movements, politics and ethics open access can also be related to, has evolved out of, shown affinities to or drawn influence from in some way. Through these associations I want to connect the politics of the book and publishing more directly to open access and to the open access movement—or, better said more directly than is being done at the moment. But I also want to closer align some important recent research from within media and cultural studies on digital media, book studies, and the politics of publishing with the ongoing ‘project’ of open access. From this position I want to explore how the specific materiality of open access publishing, with respect to its potential forms, systems of productions and alternative social relations, could be seen as a radical activity.

To bring some order into these disparate affinities and genealogies, I have structured this paper around 5 aspects or concepts, which you can see on the slide. Open access has been shaped by these concepts—and the discourses and relationships surrounding them—while at the same time expanding and problematizing them. Although I will discuss them as separate concepts here, they are very much connected.


Instead of theorizing openness in opposition to closedness, or open access as a movement and concept that sees science as intrinsically open and opposed to ‘closed forms of research’ for example, I would like to offer an alternative genealogy in which openness is integrally connected to and entangled with a different ‘antagonist’, namely, secrecy. Related to that, I would like to make some connections to recent research on openness in scientific communication, which can be seen to be more ambivalent and contextual in its coverage of the concept of openness than traditional histories of science have been up to now. For example, we can locate a straightforward association of science with openness in scholars such as Robert Merton and Derek de Solla Price, who argue that science is intrinsically open (to communicate findings the scientific norm of communism is seen as essential), where technology is regarded as intrinsically secret (to sell material trademarked objects). However, as historian of science Pamela Long argues, and I mainly draw on her excellent book ‘Openness, Secrecy, Authorship. Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance’ here, recent historical research into the development of early modern natural philosophy shows a far more complex and contextual picture, where these oppositions between secretive technology and open science are being nuanced and contextualized. Openness, including the development of open authorship and the journal system, is described here as intricate and enmeshed with secrecy. Instead of characterizing these historical developments in open science as ideological movements to do with democratic scholarly ideas and the public good, they are seen as integrally connected to issues of priority, patronage and ownership, where openness functions in a complicated network of alliances here, mixed up with authorship in relationships of power and secrecy.

Long further argues that these new, open traditions of authorship and scholarly communication developed at the same time that neoplatonic secrecy and magic and esoteric knowledge saw a rise in popularity. Part of the complexity of early modern science, Long argues, was exactly the co-existence of ‘diverse values of transmission, including both openness and secrecy, as well as evolving attitudes of ownership and priority’ (250). Long clearly complicates the opposition between openness and secrecy here, as well as the identification of science with openness. As she states: ‘until recently openness was taken to be characteristic of science, and there was very little reflection concerning whether scientific practices were actually open and, if they were, what that openness meant’ (4).

This co-development of openness and secrecy continues to resonate in scholarly communication of course, where it is clear that something can be open but at the same time undiscoverable in a sea of information overload in an online environment. For example, within scholarly communication this issue is further complicated by hierarchisation through impact factors, where, as part of our modern journal system ‘indexed’, high impact journals are the journals that will be bought by libraries and others mostly fall by the wayside. As Jean-Claude Guédon explains, openly available information does not mean one automatically becomes part of the ‘Great Conversation’ of science. If one wants to join this ‘Great Conversation’, simply publishing in a journal recognized as scientific is not enough; it has to be a journal included in the science citation index set of journals.


Access is of course one of the main topics where the history of scholarly communication, open access and radical publishing collide. The main concern within the open access movement, one could argue, has always been to extend access to scholarly information, to make it free and fairly available. John Willinsky’s access principle is crucial here: ‘a commitment to the value and quality of research carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of this work as far as possible, and ideally to all who are interested in it and all who might profit by it’ (xii).

However, within open access publishing, the focus has also mostly lied and is increasingly lying on creating access from a consumption/consumer point of view, and less on enabling access for researchers to the means of production and dissemination of knowledge, for example. What becomes clear from the history of radical publishing however, is that access as a concept can also be expanded to include access to the tools and instruments of production of scholarship. Here I would like to draw an analogy with artist book publishing, which is worked out further in the article ‘The Political Nature of the Book’, which I co-authored with Gary Hall for New Formations. In artist book publishing in the 60s and 70s the idea of the ‘democratic multiple’ was closely connected to independent publishing, which saw a surge during that period largely also due to developments in technology, mostly in mimeograph and offset printing.

Many artist-led and artist-controlled initiatives, such as Franklin Furnace, Printed Matter and Something Else Press in the US, were established during this period to provide a forum for artists excluded from the traditional institutions of the gallery and the museum. Artists’ books played a very important part in the rise of these independent art structures and publishing ventures, where for many artists such books embodied the ideal of being able to control all aspects of their work. The main goal of these independent (and often non-commercial) publisher-printer-artist collectives was to both make and provide access to experimental, innovative work (rather than to generate a profit), and to promote ephemeral art works, which were often ignored by mainstream, mostly market-orientated institutions. Many artists thus created their own publishing imprints or worked together with newly founded artists’ book publishers and printers, just as some academics are today challenging the increasingly profit-driven publishing industry by establishing not-for-profit, scholar-led, open access journals and presses; but also archives, blogs, wikis and free text-sharing networks of course.

Through its connection with the open source movement, the idea of access to scholarly research has been further expanded within open access publishing, extending it beyond access to the end-product to the source-code itself. In other words, access was extended from free to libre (read/write) access. However, here again the latter seems to be increasingly loosing out to the former. Look for example at Stevan Harnad’s insistence that ‘it’s time to stop letting the best get in the way of the better: Let’s forget about Libre and Gold OA until we have managed to mandate Green Gratis OA universally’. Relatively few open access publishers have shown interest in combining free, online access to research with a rigorous critical exploration of the form of the book itself, which, arguably, libre access could form a starting point too.


Untitled2 An important example of experimentation with the materiality of scholarly communication, with the politics of publishing and new forms of circulating research, is provided by the publishing practices of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). 

I especially draw here on Ted Striphas and Mark Hayward’s articleWorking Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Grey Literature.” As Striphas and Haywards show, the CCCS made use of new technological possibilities (again the mimeograph) to circulate their ideas, experimenting with new textual forms and exploring the relationship between different forms of writing and different forms of scholarly production. They examined processual research, the idea of a ‘finished piece of work’, and the boundaries between formal and informal publication (grey literature) through notions such as occasional and working papers.

UntitledWhere the latter turned into CCCS’s more formalised Cultural Studies journal Working Papers in Cultural Studies (1971), occasional papers were a series of intermittently released publications tracing research developments at the Centre. As Striphas and Hayward write, “What emerged was a way of talking about publication that never fully settled the relationship between the process of research, the formalisation of writing and the circulation of particular texts”.  

The Stencilled Occasional Papers were produced in-house as cheaply as possible on a mimeograph and either sold for between fifteen and fifty-five pence, or passed along informally. In this respect, as Hayward and Striphas argue, the CCCS showed a strong commitment to ‘the ethics of circulation’ in their publication practices. But, and this is important for ideas of politics and ethics of publishing too, publication as a mode of circulating multiple copies of text in production was very much also seen as central to the ‘work’ of cultural studies, where the circulation of research in progress was seen as an important part of intellectual practice. Here it becomes clear that way in which we circulate texts is directly related to both the kinds of knowledge and the social relations we produce for them.

Untitled4Nick Thoburn’s research should also be mentioned in this context, and his interest in discerning a politics of publishing and the book based on its materiality and forms of dissemination.

Thoburn explored this in specific with respect to political small-press pamphlets, analysing them as complex material objects and potential anti-commodities or ‘communist objects’. As Thoburn clearly shows through his research, the politics of these pamphlets resides not only in their content, but throughout their media forms as ephemeral mass-produced entities.

Untitled3Another example of a practice extending the possibilities of the circulation of scholarly research in a digital context, has been piracy via text-sharing networks or communities. The relationship between open access and piracy has always been a strained one, but it is apparent in some of the more radical interventions occurring today under the name of open access – including the Aaron Swartz-influenced ‘guerilla open access’.

Here as Gary and Joanna yesterday also already remarked, piracy can be seen as a testing, a trying out, of establishing new networks for the dissemination of scholarly texts, of challenging issues around intellectual copyright etc. But as I have argued before, there is a paradox in this kind of dissemination of research via pirate websites too, which relates to their precarity, which is something we already touched upon yesterday too. For it is hard to aggregate or network these platforms or communities, where, in order to survive they need to exist ‘under the radar’ to some extend, as when they become too big they run the risk of being shut down. This has of necessity created a situation in which these platforms are often obscure, hard-to-find, and they are sometimes invite-only member networks. In this respect it becomes obvious again how openness and secrecy can be entwined in specific digital forms of research circulation.


I would like to return to artists’ books again here, as for me they are also an important inspiration with respect to rethinking scholarly communication, starting with the book form itself. As explained before, book artists’ desire for independence from established institutions and for the wider availability of their works, resonated with the democratising and anti-institutional potential of the book as a medium.

But the book also offered artists a space in which to experiment with the materiality of the medium itself and with the practices that comprised it (from experiments with non-linearity to the exploration of different forms of authorship), and thus with the question of what constituted art and/or an art object. This reflexivity of the book with regard to its own nature is one of the key characteristics that make a book an artist’s book, and enable it to have political potential in that it can be, in Johanna Drucker’s term ‘rethought to serve new ends’. By experimenting in a similar open way with the idea and the concept of the scholarly book, but also with the materiality and the system of material production surrounding it—which includes our ideas of the material and materiality—we can ask important questions concerning authorship, the fixity of the text, quality, authority and responsibility; issues that lie at the basis of what scholarship is and what the functions of the university should be. Radical open access, as an affirmative and experimental practice, can therefore be seen as an effort towards the deconstruction of the object-formation and commodification of the book, which is maintained by the print-based institutions of material production as well as by our own repetitive and consolidating scholarly communication practices. It can be seen as a political and ethical effort to experiment with and re-perform these stabilisations.

Politics and Ethics

The 5th aspect is the one that has been given a lot of attention here already so I will be short, and this is to connect the project of open access to ongoing and historical struggles against academic capitalism and the neoliberalisation of the university and to the larger project of effecting change from critical and radical perspectives. And this very much also involves making connections with the affirmative praxis of social and political change that has been explored within cultural studies, critical media studies, feminist interventions and so on.

This necessarily also involves rethinking the ethics of scholarship, including the material conditions and relations of scholarly communication and publishing in the contemporary moment. More ethical interventions in scholarly communication might start with—but are not limited to—a critical involvement with the various relationships in academic publishing by, for example: exercising an ethics of care with respect to the various (human and non-human) agencies involved in the publication process; a focus on free labour and a concern with power and difference in academic life; experimenting with alternatives, such as new economic models and fair pricing policies to counter exploitative forms of publishing; exploring how we can open up the conventions of scholarly research (from formats to editing, reviewing, and revising) and all this whilst critically reflecting on the new potential closures we enact.


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Open Reflections is created by Janneke Adema



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