Thoughts on Open Access Panels

Strong supporters of Open Access come to their position by many roads. My views developed partly from my own background, going from a university with relatively limited access to books and resources in my area of research, then to one where it felt like my access had almost no limits, and finally to work at a university where access to books and resources in my area is still limited. They are also the product of my interactions with some amazing historians who do their work outside of universities and greatly depend, in their day to day work, on their local libraries and whatever materials they can find on the open web. When one presenter at a recent open access panel at the American Historical Association asked the important question, “To what problem is Open Access the answer?” the first answer that came to my mind was rather simple, “My problem, and the problem faced by people whose historical work I care about: access.”

Notice that this first somewhat selfish answer that popped into my head was not phrased as, “So that everyone in the world can read my obscure scholarship for free.” Of course, that is a perfectly legitimate answer, but a growing number of critical voices against open access may take the wording of this statement and insert it into a misleading binary composed of producers of research on one side and the “consumers” of a “free product” on the other. This, in turn, makes it relatively easy to perform a powerful inversion of debates on OA where strong proponents, including myself, have long argued that open access is primarily an attempt to address inequality. The inversion I have seen employed more and more often is to embrace the argument of inequality but conclude that open access is in fact a cause, and not a solution to inequality.

How did we get here? Here is a four step (with one step for bonus points) program to accomplish this inversion:

  1. Associate the open access movement as closely as possible with the idea of a business model that must confront a set of relatively fixed costs.

  2. Assert that the only reasonable business model that is compatible with high-quality scholarship is Gold Open Access, and imply that a) Gold OA will almost always take the form of a large monetary sum charged for article submissions and b) that individual scholars or budget-strapped departments will have to have to pay up or not get published. Scholars at elite schools will always be able to pour out a flood of scholarship submitted to high-impact journals thanks to departmental or grant funding while scholars elsewhere will have to count their pennies and make careful strategic decisions about where and what they submit for publication.

  3. Juxtapose the gross inequality and hardship created for scholars publishing in this new environment with the presumably minimal additional exposure of our work to an increased number of freeloading “consumers” as a result of open access.

  4. Bonus Points: Turn the discussion about predatory pricing of journal subscriptions and other online resources on its head by talking about the predatory practices and horrendous quality of a new breed of open access journal that is thriving in an author-pays environment.

Two quick notes on this: First, I suspect very few people, including those most sceptical, would be willing to reduce their own complex feelings about open access to an argument like this. When critics refer to the “confused idealists” in the open access movement, they speak with a sometimes patronizing but usually genuine sympathy, combined with a great deal of justified sensitivity to the unintended consequences of rapid transformations in an extremely fragile ecology of academic scholarship and publishing. Secondly, I don’t think the frightening scenario described above is impossible if the configuration of interests expressed by state OA mandates, funding agencies, publishers, and university administrations exclude the input of other important voices.

Which brings me directly to a few simple suggestions I want to end this post on:

  1. If you are thinking about putting together a panel on open access, the most critical question to ask is that of what voices you will include. On several recent panels I have attended on open access, I have watched librarians stand alone as strong supporters of OA. Librarians are often extremely well-prepared to make a nuanced case thanks to their intimate knowledge of the many different aspects of our publishing ecosystem, as well as the fact they are on the front lines in terms of serving their communities the access they want. But they need help. Whether you consider yourself a proponent or a cautionary voice in this debate, consider including someone who can speak for the scholars inside and outside our universities who already face a powerful inequality in terms of access, and who might share how even small OA initiatives have made a big difference in their work. Someone who recognizes that the producer/consumer binary is a flawed one not only because the existing inequality affects those of us who are doing research the most, but because OA makes it possible to considerably blur the lines of this division as part of a transformative process. Or consider including the voice of someone who has a strong understanding of the wide variety of possibilities there are out there for open access, even for very large-scale repositories, projects, and individual publications. Someone who looks at the four steps I listed above and rolled their eyes at the dozen or more serious shortcomings and misleading elements of the argument. Then, when there are well-articulated concerns raised by academic publishers, journal editors, and academic societies you are much more likely to get a well-informed debate on the options going forward.

  2. Finally, one small technical suggestion. If you are going to put together a panel on open access, consider asking that all participants read Peter Suber’s very succinct Open Access Overview. In fact, it is a great starting point for anyone who wants to participate in an informed debate on the challenges of open access in the world of scholarship.

In order to navigate the challenges of open access, it is imperative for us to have more candid discussions, but it is my hope that they don’t merely focus on obstacles and solutions to those obstacles, but highlight the transformative opportunities it presents, and highlight what has already been accomplished.

What has your experience been with open access panels, symposiums and talks going on around you? How do you think the conversation might have been improved?

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