On Academic Freedom and Responsibility

Today, Stephen Curry published a piece on his blog on “Academic freedom and responsibility: why Plan S is not unethical,” and I want to offer a response to some of his arguments here.

The first thing to say is that I think Curry and I agree on quite a few points. We especially agree that to speak of academic freedom means we should also to speak of academic responsibility. For six years (2012-2018), I was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. I fully support the AAAS Statement on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, which the Committee co-authored:

Scientific freedom and scientific responsibility are essential to the advancement of human knowledge for the benefit of all. Scientific freedom is the freedom to engage in scientific inquiry, pursue and apply knowledge, and communicate openly. This freedom is inextricably linked to and must be exercised in accordance with scientific responsibility. Scientific responsibility is the duty to conduct and apply science with integrity, in the interest of humanity, in a spirit of stewardship for the environment, and with respect for human rights.

In particular, the Statement clearly expresses the key point that freedom and responsibility are inextricably linked, such that freedom must be exercised in accordance with responsibility. The same applies to academic freedom more generally. I am very much opposed to the idea that, under the rubric of academic freedom, anything goes!

Another point of agreement with Curry is that Plan S presents an opportunity for us to discuss our academic freedom and responsibility.  I thank him for not simply dismissing concerns about academic freedom and for engaging in conversation! I only wish more of our fellow academics would be so willing to engage.

I think we also agree that the main point of disagreement between us is how best to balance our academic freedom and academic responsibility. I think it would be fair to say that, prima facie, I favor limiting academic freedom less than Curry does; or, perhaps, that he favors a more restrictive scope for academic freedom than I do; or maybe that he would draw the line between freedom and responsibility differently from how I would. So, the locus of the discussion is here.

Now, to turn to the details of Curry’s post. Based on conversations on Twitter today, I don’t think it’s necessary to spend too much time on this first point; but we can always revisit it, if I’m wrong. Curry’s initial argument against the academic freedom arguments made by my colleagues and me is that they rest on shaky foundations. In particular, Curry hones in on the claim that the freedom to publish in venues of our choice is fundamental to academic freedom, writing:

If we are to properly debate the question of whether choice of publication venue is a “basic tenet” of academic freedom, we need an evidence base of some sort.

Noting that we failed to provide a citation for this claim, Curry seeks evidence in various statements on academic freedom. He finds some evidence in a publisher’s statement, but then notes that a publisher has a vested interest. He finds no evidence in the Wikipedia entry on academic freedom. He finds some evidence in the AAUP 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom, which calls for “full freedom in research and in the publication of results;” but he argues that this call is vague and does not specifically mention freedom of venue in which to publish. (As for the bit about “pecuniary return,” I’m pretty sure that applies to patents or to publications that might produce royalties — so, if I do some research to make money, not if I get a grant, from which I don’t profit financially.) Curry then proceeds to search for evidence in a 1997 UNESCO statement on academic freedom that says: “Higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice.” Curry then goes on to examine the UNESCO document more fully and concludes (his emphasis):

The preamble and principles put a clear emphasis on academic freedom as a freedom from undue political interference in the questions that academics may ask and write about, and it is this concern that seems uppermost in their minds when they write about the freedom to publish.

This is important, since the discussion today on Twitter between Curry and Richard Poynder turned on precisely whether UNESCO had a negative view of academic freedom (freedom from interference, as Curry argued) or a positive view (freedom to publish in venue of choice, as Poynder argued). I discuss this distinction between negative and positive views on academic freedom in greater detail here; but I think this difference underlies a lot of the disagreements about the topic.

The bottom line of Curry’s attempts to find “evidence” for the claim that the right to choose where to publish is fundamental to academic freedom is that he could not find any that would provide unequivocal support. For that reason, he concludes that the claim rests on shaky foundations.

My response may sound odd, since it is a claim I was a party to that is under attack. But I hold that, even if all the sources Curry explored agreed explicitly with the claim that choice of publication venue is vital to academic freedom, that would not provide unequivocal support for the claim. UNESCO’s recommendations don’t have the force of international law; AAUP cannot impose its definition on anyone; Wikipedia is good, but it’s not that good; and, yes, the publishers have a vested interest.

However, that these organizations don’t provide unequivocal support for the claim doesn’t show that the claim rests on shaky foundations; these sources were never meant to serve as foundations for the claim. As I said in an earlier post,

Academic freedom would be a thing — an ethical thing — even if there were no laws about it.

So, the first point of disagreement between Curry and me concerns what would constitute evidence for the claim that choice of venue of publication is fundamental to academic freedom.  I think the fact that academics normally expect to be able to choose the venue of publication for their research supports the claim that choice of venue is a fundamental aspect of academic freedom better than any of these definitions examined by Curry (even had they provided unequivocal statements in favor of choice of venue). Michael J. Barany tweeted something today that I haven’t had a chance to read, yet, that may force me to reexamine this claim:

Until I do read it, though, I think that the academic norms with which I’m familiar with regard to venue of publication support the claim that being able to submit a manuscript to the venue of your choice is a normal expectation for an academic. Moreover, I think that academic norms provide at least prima facie support for  claims about academic freedom in general. Can academic norms be questioned? Of course! I’ve argued for years now that academics receiving public funding for their research have a duty to the public to try to ensure that their research will have broader societal impacts. For quite a while, academics wanted to insist they didn’t have such a duty. So, my approach was to try to engage academics in a discussion on the topic. This, I take it, is also the approach Curry is taking with regard to Plan S.

So, based on my knowledge (which is, of course, limited) of academic norms, I would say academics have the following expectations that all fall under the rubric of academic freedom:

  • Subject to the needs of the department, and provided I don’t veer wildly off course or just keep repeating the same things every class, I get to teach what I want.
  • I get to pick my own research topics, I get to pick my own research approach, I get to write what I want to write, how I want to write it, and submit it where I want for publication.
  • I get to have political opinions and state them publicly, as long as I make clear I am not speaking on behalf of my employer.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s one I think most academics would look at and say, yeah, that’s about right.

Note that the list already includes some limitations that would also fall under academic responsibility (to the department and to the university). I think there are others, including:

  • I should conduct all of my research and teaching with integrity and respect for others.
  • I should (at a bare minimum) follow all the tenets of what’s known as Responsible Conduct of Research (no plagiarism, falsification, fabrication, etc.).
  • I should put as much effort into teaching as I do into research, trying to integrate them whenever possible.
  • I should try to mentor junior colleagues.
  • I should exhibit collegiality with all my colleagues.
  • I should participate in creating a culture that precludes racial, gender, and sexual harassment.
  • I should try to ensure that my research and teaching have (positive) broader impacts on society.
  • I should help students who want to have positive broader impacts on society.
  • I should try to engage members of society, rather than staying cloistered in my university.

I expect less agreement on this list of responsibilities. But I do agree with Curry that discussing our freedoms and responsibilities is a really good way to continue the discussion.

9 thoughts on “On Academic Freedom and Responsibility

  1. Thanks for writing this – intriguing and interesting.

    The passage that I think is central to our divergence of opinion is this:

    “…I hold that, even if all the sources Curry explored agreed explicitly with the claim that choice of publication venue is vital to academic freedom, that would not provide unequivocal support for the claim. UNESCO’s recommendations don’t have the force of international law; AAUP cannot impose its definition on anyone; Wikipedia is good, but it’s not that good; and, yes, the publishers have a vested interest.

    However, that these organizations don’t provide unequivocal support for the claim doesn’t show that the claim rests on shaky foundations; these sources were never meant to serve as foundations for the claim.”

    Which is followed by:

    “I think the fact that academics normally expect to be able to choose the venue of publication for their research supports the claim that choice of venue is a fundamental aspect of academic freedom better than any of these definitions examined by Curry (even had they provided unequivocal statements in favor of choice of venue).”

    I agree that most academics would assume (as I have done all my professional life – which predates OA) that they should be able to choose the venue of publication for their work. But I also think that (as I have done all my professional life) most academics have never really thought about academic freedom. That is why, when I was prompted to do so, in part by your piece co-authored with Kamerlin, I felt I needed to find some documentary sources that spoke about the subject. I was not looking for hard evidence or laws as such, but statements about academic freedom that would express what the norms were when they were written. I wanted to get a more rounded sense of “what academics normally expect” than from simply asking a couple of colleagues along the corridor what they thought.

    You say “these sources were never meant to serve as foundations for the claim” but are they not regarded as authoritative statements about academic freedom? If they pretend to have no authority (as opposed to force in law), what did the AAUP or UNESCO think they were doing? Surely these documents are addressed to the academic community?

    All that said, I think it is important that academics have a say and a choice in where they publish. That sentiment is also expressed in the preamble to Plan S. Whether you believe it to be genuinely meant is up to you and I accept that interpretation of the document is made more difficult by the lack of clarity around some key issues (e.g. licensing) – and some of the more trenchant language. But it seems clear to me that the Plan is not about being dictatorial about where people can publish. There is an explicit intent to ensure a diversity of outlets and platforms that are of high quality. How that plays out in practice of course remains to be seen, but it should retain a spectrum of choices of publishing venue.

    Finally, there is still also the question about how far funders can put reasonable constraints on how people publish, which lies at the disputed boundary between freedom and responsibility (and which was touched on in the discussion under my blogpost about requirements to deposit data (see http://occamstypewriter.org/scurry/2018/10/01/academic-freedom-and-responsibility-why-plan-s-is-not-unethical/#comment-35472). Given that Plan S clearly articulates a desire to maximise accessibility, and therefore audiences, for the research that they fund – as opposed, hypothetically, to dictating “you shall publish in this or that subscription journal” – is that really wholly objectionable? I can’t find it in myself to feel that it is.

    There is more to say – and perhaps I have not even said what I wanted to say clearly enough, But it’s late and I’m tired. Thanks again for the discussion – more food for thought.

    • Thanks, Stephen. Honestly, I think you and I are very, very close in our positions. When I said these sources were never meant to serve as foundations for the claim that Plan S impinged on academic freedom, I wasn’t suggesting anything one way or the other about how the authors of those sources intended their pronouncements. I meant that *I* never intended them to be foundational to my claims about academic freedom.

      This may be a disciplinary difference. We philosophers are, after all, monsters of pride, capable of suggesting that we ourselves should grapple with such notions as academic freedom and arrive at our own conclusions. What I meant to say was that these sources were not the source of support for my claims about academic freedom. So, what AAUP and UNESCO thought they were doing is — dare I say it — mostly irrelevant to this discussion. We academics are talking now about what we think now, given the new situation of scholarly publishing. We can appeal to these sources to get the conversation going, but we shouldn’t, I suggest, use them to bring discussion to a close. That’s not what I think you are doing, by the way. Again, I believe we are very close in our thinking.

      As for maximizing accessibility — I think the details of how we do that, and I agree we should, in principle do it, are absolutely a topic we should discuss further. For instance, I’m far from convinced that publishing something under a CC-BY license makes it accessible in the relevant ways. Arguably, writing in a way that non-specialists can understand and publishing in a gratis venue (whether Gold or Green) would provide more accessibility than publishing in technical language under a CC-BY license. So, there’s lots to be said here!

      Thank you again for engaging in this discussion. I really do appreciate it!

      • Thanks for the further response Britt. I feel the documents do have merit in this discussion because they capture some of what some academics think about how academic freedom is defined or what it entails. But I also agree that we agree on a lot and am also interested in getting more into the discussion of what claims on academics are reasonable now – and, of course, whether they are congruent with Plan S. A lot, it seems to me, will depend on how diverse the publishing landscape is once the implementation details of plan S are worked out because presumably this will have a decisive impact on how publishers respond.

        I am in favour of author choice but also feel the weight of my public duty as the recipient of funding. I would not want a blanket ban that forces academics into one super-mega open access journal. I’m not even (as some are) against having commercial publishers operating in this space. But I come back again to the fact that it seems reasonable to me for funders to insist that I find some way to make my work open access and feel that, optimally, access should be as early as possible i.e. on publication. I feel this is particularly important in matters of public interest.

        The question then becomes, should what I feel comfortable with be applied to all scholars in receipt of similar funding? My sense is it’s not good enough to simply rely on individuals to decide for themselves whether open access matters to them if they are in receipt of funds to support their work. As a community we should be systematic about this.

        I’m also going to quibble with your suggestion that: “Arguably, writing in a way that non-specialists can understand and publishing in a gratis venue (whether Gold or Green) would provide more accessibility than publishing in technical language under a CC-BY license.” Yes, there is great value in producing digests of research or scholarship that are written in more accessible terms (in part that’s why I started blogging – to fulfil that public duty), but not every paper will be ‘translated’ in this way and I think we should be careful not to underestimate the sophistication of segments of the publics that are out there. Various advocacy, campaign and citizen science groups have shown that you don’t have to be a scholar or a scientist to be able to read – or contribute to – the corpus of academic work.

        • I agree with almost everything you wrote. I’m not at all suggesting that some non-academics aren’t equipped to read technical articles. But I suspect the vast majority are not. So, how should we define ‘more accessible’? Most of your points also focus on mandating libre OA — which I am actually in favor of and think doesn’t necessarily violate academic freedom (if it’s a Green OA mandate). But what about the license question? This is one where there are some rather large disciplinary differences that militate against a “standard” approach to everything. Or, if you really want to mandate CC-BY — just to be as-open-as-possible — at least allow a waiver option. According to Peter Suber, only around 5% faculty opt out of mandates at Harvard (and MIT, if I recall correctly). Then, it’s compatible with academic freedom.

  2. Excellent piece Britt. I fully agree with all points, including all bullet points in both lists at the bottom. I would expect that for most researchers in natural sciences it will be very difficult to disagree with any of your statements on academic freedom.

  3. Pingback: On Open Access, Academic Freedom, and Science Policy — A Reply to Suber | jbrittholbrook

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