Open Access and Its Enemies

I was thrilled to be invited to participate as a speaker in the University of North Texas Open Access Symposium 2013. It’s ongoing, and it’s being recorded; video of the presentations will be available soon. In the meantime, I’ve posted slides from my presentation on figshare.

I thought I’d add some thoughts here expounding on my presentation a bit and relating it to presentations given by my fellow panelists. I’m a proponent of open access, for several reasons. I think closed access, that is, encountering a pay wall when one goes to download a piece of research on is interested in reading, is unjust as well as inconvenient. The case for this claim can best be made with reference to two main points revolving around the question of intellectual property rights. Generally, in the case of closed access publications, authors are asked to sign away many, if not all, of their copy rights. Now, authors are free to negotiate terms with publishers, and we are free not to sign away our copy rights — but often the only choice with which we are left by many publishers is simply to take our work and publish it somewhere else.

Many otherwise ‘closed’ publishers will allow authors to retain all their copy rights for a fee (which varies from publisher to publisher) — this is known as the ‘author pays’ model of Gold OA (the latter term refers to OA publications in journals, as opposed to publications made OA via some sort of repository, which is known as Green OA). There is probably no better source for learning the terminology surrounding OA than Peter Suber’s website.

There is also the argument that when publicly funded research is published, the public should at least have free (gratis) access to the publication. Some publishers have argued against this on the grounds that they add value to the research by running the peer review process and formatting and archiving the article. They do perform these services, which do cost money (though peer review itself is done for free by academics). So, they argue that simply giving away their labor is unjust. If it is unjust to have the public pay again and unjust to ask publishers to give away the results of their labors, then, many argue, the ‘author pays’ model of OA makes the most sense. This, of course, ignores the fact of the free labor of academics in conducting peer review. (The labor of actually writing articles is arguably covered as part of an author’s base salary.) But even if authors are already paid to write the articles, it doesn’t follow that it’s just to ask them to pay again to have the articles made freely available once they are published.

Publishers, including Sage, are experimenting with different versions of the ‘author pays’ model of Gold OA. Jim Gilden was another member of my panel. He discussed Sage’s foray into OA, some of their innovations (including the interesting idea of having article-level editors who run the peer review process for individual articles, rather than for the journal as a whole), and some of the difficulties they have encountered. Among those difficulties is some sort of prejudice among potential authors — and members of promotion and tenure committees — against OA journals. This surprised me a little, but perhaps it should not have. One of the themes of my own talk is that ‘we’ academics are included among the enemies of open access. Our prejudice against OA publications is one indicator of this fact.

The other member of our panel was Jeffrey Beall, best known for Beall’s List of Predatory Open Access Publishers. Jeffrey talked about his list, including how and why it got started. That story is pretty simple: he started getting spam emails from publishers that didn’t quite feel right; as a cataloger, he did what came naturally and started keeping track; thus, Beall’s List. Things got more complicated after that. Many publishers appearing on Beall’s list are none too happy about it. Some have even threatened to sue Jeffrey — one for the sum of $1 billion! There are other, less publicized, sources of friction Jeffrey has encountered. He’s not too popular with his own university’s external/community relations folks. And he’s subject to a negative portrayal by many advocates of open access, who don’t appreciate the negative attention Beall’s list draws to the open access movement.

Criticism of Beall from publishers on his list is to be expected. In fact, it was serendipitous that I wrapped up the panel and ended my presentation with the slide of CSID’s list of ‘56 indicators of impact‘ — a list that includes negative indicators, such as provoking lawsuits. Jeffrey serves as a very good example of the sort of thing we are getting at with our list. The most important fact is that he has a narrative to account for why getting sued for $1 billion actually indicates that he’s having an impact. Unless a publisher were worried that Beall’s list would hurt their business, why would they threaten to sue?

Jeffrey and Jim were both excellent panel-mates for another reason. All three of us are not exactly full-fledged members of the open access enthusiasts club. Beall can’t be included, since his list can be interpreted as portraying not only specific publishers, but also the whole OA movement, in a negative light. Gilden can’t be included, since, well, he works for a for-profit-publisher. Those folks tend to be seen as more or less evil by many of the members of the OA crowd. (It was interesting to me to see the folks at Mendeley trying to — and having to — defend themselves on Twitter after Mendeley was bought by Elsevier, the evilist of all evil publishers.) And I? Well, as I said at the beginning of this post, I am an advocate of open access. But I am not an uncritical advocate, and I argue that a greater critical spirit needs to be embraced by many OA enthusiasts.

This was, in essence, the point of my talk. The text parts are pretty clear, I think. So let me focus here mostly on the images, and especially on the ‘Images of Impact’ slides. First, I explained how I derived my title from Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. This seemed fitting not only because of the play on words, but also because I have come to see much of the struggle surrounding open access in terms of different conceptions of liberty or freedom. Popper’s emphasis on individual liberty was something I wanted to expand on, and I also linked it with Isaiah Berlin’s account of positive and negative conceptions of liberty. I also think Popper has an ambiguous relation to Neoliberalism. Popper was an original member of the Mont Pèlerin thought collective that many credit with the development and dissemination of Neoliberalism.

That Popper’s relation to Neoliberalism is unclear is an important point — and it’s another reason I chose him to introduce my talk. Part of what I wanted to suggest was that much of the open access movement is susceptible to being subsumed under a neoliberal agenda. After all, both use similar vocabularies — references to openness, to crowds, and to efficiency abound in both movements.

I didn’t really dwell on this point for long, though, in deference to the Symposium’s keynote speaker’s views on ‘neoliberalism‘. At the same time, I did want at least to reference Neoliberalism as one thing members of the open access movement need to be more aware of. I’m worried there’s something like a dogmatic enthusiasm that’s creeping into the OA crowd. Many of the reactions from within the OA enthusiast club against Jeffrey Beall (or against Mendeley) seem to me to betray an uncritical (and I mean un-self-critical) attitude. Similarly, I think it would be better for OA enthusiasts to examine carefully and to think critically about OA mandates and policies being considered now. Most, I fear, only think in terms like ‘any movement in the direction of more open access is good’. I just don’t believe that. In fact, I think it’s dangerous to think that way.

Sorry — on to my images of impact. I love altmetrics. I think that’s where you find many of the brightest advocates of open access. I also think the development of altmetrics is one of the areas most fraught with peril. After all, given the penchant of neoliberals for measurement-for-management-for-efficiency that goes by the name of ‘accountability’, it’s not difficult to see how numbers in general, and altmetrics in particular, might be co-opted by someone who wanted to do away with peer review and the protection that provides to the scholarly community. Talk of open, transparent, accountable government sounds great. But come on, folks, let’s please think about what that means. That drones are part of that plan ought to give us all pause. Altmetrics are the drones of the OA movement.

This is by no means to say that altmetrics are bad. I love altmetrics. I have said publicly that I think every journal should employ some form of article level metrics. They’re amazing. But they are also ripe for abuse — by publishers, by governments, and by academic administrators, among others. I just want altmetrics developers to recognize that possibility and to give it careful thought.

The development of altmetrics is not simply a technical issue. Nor are technologies morally or politically neutral. I suggested that we consider altmetrics (and perhaps OA in general) as a sociotechnical imaginary. I think the concept fits well here, especially linked to the idea of OA as a movement that entails an idea of positive freedom. There is a vision of the good associated with OA. Technology is supposed to help us along the road to achieving that good. Government policies are being enacted that may help. But we need to think critically about all of this rather than rushing forward in a burst of enthusiasm.

The great danger of positive freedom is that it can lead to coercion and even totalitarianism. The question is whether we can place a governor on our enthusiasm and limit our pursuit if positive freedom in a way that still allows for autonomy. I refer to Philip Petitt‘s notion of non-domination as potentially useful in this context. I also suggest that narrative can play a governing role. I do think we need some sort of localized (not totalizing) metanarrative about the relationship between the university and society (this is what I referred to in my talk in terms of a ‘republic of knowledge’). But narrative must also serve the role of de-totalizing in another sense. Narratives should be tied to articles and accompany article level metrics. We need to put the ‘account’ back into accountability, rather than simply focusing on the idea of counting.

So, to sum it all up: OA is good, but not an unqualified good; altmetrics are great, but they need to be accompanied by narratives. The end.

3 thoughts on “Open Access and Its Enemies

  1. Pingback: Developing indicators of the impact of scholarly communication is a massive technical challenge – but it’s also much simpler than that | Impact of Social Sciences | jbrittholbrook

  2. Pingback: Open Access and Its Enemies, Redux | jbrittholbrook

  3. Pingback: What’s ‘unethical’ about Plan S? | jbrittholbrook

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