On Open Access, Academic Freedom, and Science Policy — A Reply to Suber

I have argued that Plan S, if we were to take the 10 principles as currently written as policy, would impinge on academic freedom. It’s interesting who dismisses this claim out of hand and who actually responds to my argument, even if they disagree with me. I think Peter Suber is a member of the latter camp, even if his responses have not been as long and involved as my exchanges with Stephen Curry.

In what follows, I try to reconstruct Suber’s position on academic freedom and Open Access (OA), to go a bit further in my various attempts at defining academic freedom, and to argue more fully, pace Suber, that Plan S does impinge on academic freedom.

This reply struck me as odd, given Suber’s position on whether university OA mandates impinge on academic freedom:

6) Open access mandates infringe academic freedom

This is true for gold open access but not for green. But if you believe that all open access is gold, then this myth follows as a lemma. Because only about one-third of peer-reviewed journals are open access, requiring researchers to submit new work to open access journals would severely limit their freedom to submit work to the journals of their choice. By contrast, green open access is compatible with publishing in non-open access journals, which means that green open access mandates can respect author freedom to publish where they please. That is why literally all university open access mandates are green, not gold. It’s also why the green/gold distinction is significant, not fussy, and why myths suppressing recognition of green open access are harmful, not merely false.

To be clear, Suber is arguing that the claim that OA mandates infringe academic freedom is a myth. The myth would hold as reality, for Suber, only if such policies mandated publication in Gold (journal) venues. Insofar as such policies mandate Green OA (depositing some version of a published work in an institutional repository), they “respect author freedom to publish where they please.” I think it’s safe to say that Suber — at least the Suber of five years ago — held that author freedom to publish where they please is an aspect of academic freedom.

Since Plan S does restrict options for authors regarding where they publish, it seems like Suber ought to conclude that Plan S impinges on academic freedom. But he doesn’t; so, there must be more to the story.

It’s possible Suber changed his mind that freedom to choose their publication venue is part of academic freedom. I don’t think this is the case, though. Here’s more of our Twitter exchange:

So, the relevant principles to which Suber referred me a week ago are as follows:

2.  Universities should not limit the freedom of faculty to submit their work to the journals of their choice.

2.1.  If it weren’t for Principle 2, universities could require faculty to submit their articles to OA journals rather than deposit them in an OA repository (a gold OA mandate rather than a green OA mandate).  But there aren’t yet enough OA journals; there aren’t yet first-rate OA journals in every research niche; and even one day when there are, a university policy to rule out submission to a journal based solely on its business model would needlessly limit faculty freedom.  Not even the urgent need for OA justifies that kind of restriction, as long as we can achieve OA through OA repositories.  That’s why all university and funder OA mandates focus on green OA (through OA repositories) rather than gold OA (through OA journals).

But of course OA journals still deserve support.  See Principle 3.

2.2.  If annotation 2.1 doesn’t stand on its own, it may be because it presupposes another premise.  As I put it elsewhere:  “The purpose of the campaign for OA is the constructive one of providing OA to a larger and larger body of literature, not the destructive one of putting non-OA journals or publishers out of business. The consequences may or may not overlap (this is contingent), but the purposes do not overlap.”

2.3.  If it weren’t for Principle 2, universities could require faculty to deposit some version of their peer-reviewed journal articles in the IR, for OA, with or without an embargo, and faculty would have to avoid journals that did not allow OA archiving on those terms.  But that would needlessly limit faculty freedom to submit to the journals of their choice.  To respect faculty freedom, universities must allow exemptions (waivers, opt-outs) for faculty submitting to journals that do not allow OA archiving on the university’s terms.  However, when enough universities adopt OA mandates, then all journals would have to accommodate them, and therefore the first type of policy (no opt-outs) would no longer limit faculty freedom or violate Principle 2.  But until we approach that point, Principle 2 requires the second type of policy (with opt-outs).  Moreover, allowing an opt-out on OA is compatible with not allowing an opt-out on IR deposits themselves.  See the Appendix for more detail.

2.4.  The strategy to require OA archiving, and to require researchers to avoid publishers that will not allow it, was pioneered by the Wellcome Trust.  The WT’s example has been followed by some other funding agencies, most notably the UK Medical Research Council and the US National Institutes of Health.  Because I support these policies, as well as annotation 2.3, I should therefore point out that Principle 2 is designed for universities, not funding agencies.  Funding agencies are essentially charities, spending money on research because it is in the public interest.  They have an interest in making that research as useful and widely available as possible, and virtually no competing interests.  Universities have the same charitable purpose but many competing interests, such as nurturing researchers more than research projects, nurturing them over their entire careers, and erecting bulwarks of policy and custom to protect academic freedom.

2.5.  If we hasten the day when all or most journals allow postprint archiving, then we hasten the day when universities could adopt no-opt-out OA policies (as opposed to both no-opt-out deposit policies and opt-out OA policies) without violating Principle 2.  One way to do that is for universities to demand the right for postprint archiving when negotiating licensing terms for subscription or renewal.  OhioLink publicly committed itself to this strategy in 2006, the only library consortium I know to do so.  (OhioLink is a consortium of 86 academic libraries in Ohio representing more than 600,000 faculty, students, and staff.)  Several major universities are also trying this strategy, but so far without a public announcement.  Public or private, I recommend that all universities do what they can to negotiate better terms for their authors, not just better terms for their readers.

I included all of the annotations of principle 2, since I think all are relevant to this discussion. But one thing is clear: the Peter Suber of 10 years ago (author of the principles), 5 years ago (the mythbuster), and one week ago (on Twitter) agree that restricting a researcher’s choice of publication venue would impinge on academic freedom.

So, why would Plan S not impinge on academic freedom, according to Suber? There are actually two answers. One is contained in 2.4, above: “Principle 2 is designed for universities, not funding agencies.” I will get into the details of Suber’s argument for separating universities and funding agencies in a moment. But the bottom line is that Suber here allows funding agencies to adopt policies that would, were those policies adopted by universities, impinge on academic freedom.

Second, Suber holds that although the freedom to choose venue of publication should not be restricted by university policies on pain of impinging on academic freedom, freedom to choose venue of publication is not all there is to academic freedom.

So, although Plan S impinges on researchers’ free choice of publication venue, it does not infringe on what Suber calls the heart of academic freedom: to pursue the truth in teaching and research free from reprisals other than disagreement among academic peers.

I agreed with Suber on Twitter that, if we limit academic freedom to this “heart” definition, then Plan S does not impinge upon it. But what is the argument for limiting our definition of academic freedom in this way? Or does Suber want to say that Plan S infringes on academic freedom, but only at the margins (not the heart)? If the former, I still want to see an argument. If the latter, then why should universities be restricted from infringing on the ‘marginal’ freedom of researchers to choose the venue where they submit manuscripts for publication?

Suber offers a few reasons for thinking that his Principle 2 should apply to universities but not to funding agencies. The first is the claim that, “Funding agencies are essentially charities, spending money on research because it is in the public interest.” Because they are charities, Suber holds, “They have an interest in making that research as useful and widely available as possible, and virtually no competing interests.” Universities, on the other hand, “have the same charitable purpose but many competing interests, such as nurturing researchers more than research projects, nurturing them over their entire careers, and erecting bulwarks of policy and custom to protect academic freedom.” This is a really interesting comparison; but I’m not convinced.

I’m especially not convinced that universities and funding agencies have the same goals, but that the university has ‘competing interests’ that call into question its commitment to those goals. Maybe the idea here is that universities are more invested in individual researchers and therefore need to erect barriers against societal interference? So, perhaps Suber holds that funding agencies are freer to pursue the goal of benefiting society, since agencies don’t have to worry as much about individual researchers? Although I grant that funding agencies and universities play different roles in knowledge production, I don’t think it’s quite right to suggest that they both charitably aimed at the public good, but that universities also have to prioritize the special interests of their faculty, which sometimes gets in the way of their charitable aims.

But let’s run with the idea for a moment and suppose that, where funding agencies are charitable organizations, universities are philanthropic organizations. The difference is that charities provide somewhat more immediate — and one-off — relief for particular individuals suffering from particular problems, while philanthropic organizations take a longer view and try to address underlying issues and attend to systemic causes of problems. Where charities offer tactical interventions to alleviate instances of suffering (providing food or clothing, say, like the Salvation Army), philanthropic organizations are strategic, aiming to eliminate suffering from a particular cause tout court (ending poverty, like the Gates Foundation).

On this interpretation, funding agencies provide grants to benefit individual researchers or research teams, but universities nurture the research enterprise as a whole.

As intriguing as such a comparison might be, it breaks down in various ways. First, charitable organizations don’t give their charity in the expectation of an immediate return on their investment. They might give you food to alleviate your hunger; but they don’t then turn around and say, OK, now that you’ve had your breakfast, what are you going to do for society? Funding agencies do, however, often ask researchers for returns on their investment. I think that’s justified. But that’s because public research funding agencies are not charities. There’s a real difference between the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Distribution Programs and its National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The latter funds research on food, while the former distributes food. Since it’s obvious that public money used for research might be used for other purposes, there is a necessity for public funding agencies to make a case for their benefits to society (aka ‘broader impacts’). I agree that OA policies should be part of that case; but not in ways that hinder rather than empower researchers.

Second, it’s far from clear that funding agencies don’t also try to nurture researchers, sometimes over their whole careers, and that they don’t try to erect “bulwarks of policy and custom” to protect academic freedom. Many researchers experience continuous, career-long support for their research. Agencies even try to nurture early career researchers in their efforts to establish themselves. And there is no greater bulwark of policy than the process of peer review of grant proposals (Holbrook 2017, Baldwin 2018).

I grant that there is a difference in the roles played by funding agencies and universities; but the difference between them is not one that supports the idea that funding agencies can infringe on academic freedom in ways universities cannot (Suber’s principle 2.4). If anything, funding agencies have to be more careful than universities about infringing on academic freedom.

Here I want to invoke something that Robert Post said, and which I think is vital to this conversation: “The most basic point about academic freedom is that I, as a professor, can only be judged by my peers.” This claim expresses the same intuition underlying my earlier appeals to academic norms as key to academic freedom, since it’s about us academics giving ourselves the law (it’s a matter of autonomy). Existing academic norms support the idea that academics should be able to choose the venues to which they submit manuscripts for publication.

For me, this is  the key difference between university OA policies and funder mandates. The former — like the policy at Harvard — have been voted on by the faculty. Insofar as it comes from the funders, rather than being voted on by the faculty at universities, Plan S would be an ‘outside’ imposition. If waivers to university policies are essential in order for the university to avoid infringing on academic freedom, they are even more necessary in the case of funding agency OA mandates. Suber’s Principle 2 should apply to funding agencies, as well.

4 thoughts on “On Open Access, Academic Freedom, and Science Policy — A Reply to Suber

  1. Hi Britt: I appreciate your detailed response. And I’m sorry that I don’t have a full and recent statement of my position for you to use, build on, or push off against. Hence, I also appreciate your patient attempt to reconstruct one. Lack of time is the only reason why I haven’t published something essay-length on OA policies and academic freedom. (My time for essay-length writing ended about five years ago.) Unfortunately it’s also the reason why I won’t be able to fill the gap soon. But it doesn’t stop me from noting my appreciation for your care and fairness. I do hope that I can find time to write up a fuller statement of my position, including a response to your criticism.

  2. Another key element in the Harvard policy is the fact that it allows any author to get a waiver upon request. This makes all the difference in the world when it comes to academic freedom, obviously.

    • Exactly! This is why a simple solution for this particular objection to the way Plan S is written would be to allow waivers upon request from the universal CC BY (or equivalent) license. Waivers would allow self-determination on the level of the individual researcher, which would preserve her or his autonomy.

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