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.