If you take the red pill, Plan S will show you the way to academic freedom

As readers of this blog and a few people on Twitter know, I’ve been talking a lot recently about academic freedom, especially as it relates to Plan S. In case anyone wants to explore the blog or things I’ve published, they’ll see three things: 1) I generally argue against the idea that Open Access (OA) mandates infringe upon academic freedom; 2) I am generally in favor of OA, especially insofar as it empowers researchers to have positive impacts on society; and 3) I have some specific issues about the way Plan S is formulated. I make distinctions between Plan S and other OA mandates and don’t think that being critical of certain aspects of Plan S means that I’m anti-OA. It doesn’t even mean I’m anti-Plan S. It means I have some specific concerns about how Plan S might impact academic freedom.

In the past couple of months, I’ve had nice exchanges on the topic with Rebecca Lawrence, Stephen Curry, Martin Eve, Peter Suber, and others. Along with Lynn Kamerlin, Stephen and I published a correspondence piece in Nature arguing that discussions of academic freedom are vital, ongoing, and ought not to be dismissed as stifling debate surrounding Plan S.

Indeed, the Fair Open Access Alliance Board recently penned a set of recommendations on Plan S that included the following:

We recommend formulating a detailed statement on how the demands of Plan S interact with legal and cultural norms of academic freedom to select a publication venue. Laws and customs vary enormously around the world. In the UK, for instance, there is no legal statute that confers an explicit right of researchers to select publication venue, but in the States this is more thoroughly encoded, since, academic freedom explicitly extends to choosing the publication venue under the 1940 AAUP declaration. In Germany, authors have a constitutional right to publish where they want.

This is not to suggest that the FOAA Board agrees that Plan S infringes on academic freedom.

As we have said before, academic freedom does not extend to burying one’s research behind a paywall. To paraphrase a well-known dictum: your academic freedom to publish wherever you want ends where my right to freely access your research starts.

But it is to suggest that, despite the fact that they tend to think that Plan S does not infringe upon academic freedom, they nevertheless recommend working out in detail how Plan S impacts academic freedom. Academic freedom is a serious, non-trivial issue whether you think Plan S infringes upon it or not.

Unfortunately, too many OA advocates are too dismissive of any discussion of academic freedom. In what follows, I’m going to examine a thread on Twitter from today that I saw when Micah Vandegrift tweeted about it.

I know Micah and we’ve been tweeting back and forth on the question of academic freedom. So, I replied; but I also looked at the thread by Jason Hoyt. I don’t know Jason. After reading Hoyt’s thread, I intended to ignore it and simply continue my discussion with Micah. I still plan to continue that discussion. However, Hoyt’s thread came up again today in a context that made it unavoidable for me to discuss.

For those who don’t know, David Sweeney (along with John-Arne Røttingen) has taken on the task of composing the implementation language — drafting the actual policy — that will be based on the Plan S principles. Given that I think the most serious problems with Plan S are those surrounding its impact on academic freedom, and given that I think issues surrounding academic freedom are generally growing in importance in today’s political climate, what Sweeney thinks about academic freedom is too important to ignore.

Let me preface this discussion with the following caveat. What follows is not a personal attack. I do not know Jason Hoyt, and I have no reason to attack him personally. I am, however, going to attack the argument he put forward in his thread.

Hoyt’s thread is more involved than other dismissals of discussing academic freedom in connection with Plan S; but it also jives with many other tweets I’ve seen from OA advocates who aren’t as inclined to think critically about OA and academic freedom as the folks already mentioned, above. In order to attack Hoyt’s argument, I’ll try my best to reconstruct it in the strongest possible form; then, I’ll show why it fails.

To put my critique of Hoyt’s argument in a nutshell, the thread employs more pseudoreasoning than actual argumentation. It unfairly represents the position of those it is arguing against (that’s a strawman); it attacks its opponents, rather than arguing against their claims (that’s an ad hominem);  and it ends in a way that preempts any criticism of the thread (this sophistic-ated move doesn’t have a name with which I’m familiar).

Let’s begin at the end, with this sophistic-ated move.

These are the penultimate and final tweets in the thread. Focusing on the final tweet, it impugns those who would pick out the weakest points of Hoyt’s argument to attack as “weaker-minded critics,” who “won’t volunteer their Conflicts of Interest.” We’re warned to “keep that in mind” in order to inoculate  Hoyt’s argument against attack. Holbrook thinks Hoyt’s argument is weak? Holbrook must be weak-minded. I wonder what Holbrook is hiding? It’s a sort of preemptive ad hominem that I’ve dubbed a ‘sophistic-ated’ move, because it’s reminiscent of the — rationally illegitimate — moves Plato describes the Sophists making against Socrates.

Since it appears Hoyt thinks the weakest part of his argument is his extended metaphor comparing our academic freedom to that of a frog in a pot of water being brought slowly to a boil,

I won’t spend any time attacking it. (Who wants to embrace a charge of being weak-minded, after all?)

As we’ve seen, Hoyt begins the thread by calling the argument that Plan S infringes on academic freedom a red herring. In order to substantiate that claim, Hoyt would have to examine the actual argument and show that the truth of the premises is irrelevant to the truth of the conclusion. He doesn’t do either. He just asserts that the academic freedom argument is a red herring.

He then proceeds to make some assertions about academic freedom.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true that we misunderstand academic freedom. Let’s assume it’s true that it was invented “decades ago” and now has taken on a new meaning very different from “being in control.” We think we have academic freedom, he suggests, but we are mistaken. The academic freedom of old has been reduced to the illusion of control.

He continues, suggesting that the academic freedom that doesn’t exist is merely a manipulative ploy.

The illusion of academic freedom — perhaps that’s why Hoyt keeps putting ‘Academic Freedom’ in scare quotes — is being used by a minority to defeat the emerging new normal of OA.

There’s an extended frog-in-water interlude, followed by this:

The meaning of academic freedom — now without scare quotes, so maybe a non-illusory version? probably just a typo — can change. Sometimes, in order for old (now illusory, presumably) norms to change, we need an outside agent (because frog).

Enter Plan S to save us!

Plan S cannot single-handedly restore academic freedom to its true glory, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Trying hard to offer a charitable reading here, I think Hoyt’s claim is that the illusion of academic freedom is propping up the current monopoly of “subscription paywall” journals. From the previous tweet, though, Plan S will help us recover actual academic freedom, I guess by breaking this illusion-supported monopoly?

OK, good — it seems I was following. So, far from impinging on academic freedom as the illusionistas would have us believe, Plan S is actually our only hope for restoring academic freedom to its original glory.

Embrace Plan S, because it’s your only hope of regaining your freedom from the illusionistas!

Now to attempt to reconstruct the argument in its strongest possible form. When Hoyt claims that the academic freedom argument against Plan S is a red herring, he doesn’t actually mean that he’s examined the argument and found its premises irrelevant to the conclusion that Plan S impinges on academic freedom. What he means is that those making the argument are trying to fool us with a false notion of academic freedom. Opponents of Plan S are telling us they’re protecting our academic freedom, but they are lying. In reality they are keeping us trapped in a monopoly of subscription journals. Plan S can’t be impinging on academic freedom, because Plan S is trying to kill the monopoly of subscription journals and open up space for new OA entrants to provide the reality, rather than the illusion, of academic freedom.

Notice that I left out the final tweet in my reconstruction of Hoyt’s argument. That’s because it’s really a low blow that has no place in a good faith argument. Imagine if I were to suggest here that anything that Hoyt or anyone who defends his argument says is a clear indication that they are merely publishing populists who want to destroy scientific institutions and profit from the resulting confusion. It’s not fair play to employ such a preemptive attack on critics.

Unfortunately, even the strongest possible reconstruction of Hoyt’s argument utilizes both the strawman and ad hominem attacks.  It’s a strawman because it presents its opponents as arguing Plan S impinges on academic freedom only to fool us into supporting the status quo monopoly of subscription publishers. That’s simply not what I or anyone else I’ve seen making the academic freedom argument about Plan S is saying.  It’s an ad hominem, as well, since — even leaving out the preemptive attack at the end — it impugns our motives. Hoyt’s thread suggests that anyone arguing against Plan S on academic freedom grounds is a liar.

There’s plenty of room for rational disagreement on the issue of Plan S and its impacts on academic freedom. Unfortunately, there’s also a plethora of tweets that echo the tone of Hoyt’s thread. Some advocates of Plan S have simply dismissed the academic freedom argument as ‘baloney’. Saying it doesn’t make it so. Arguments are needed. I and others have presented some arguments that Plan S, as written, has the potential to infringe on academic freedom. I invite anyone to offer an argument in response. I’m very happy to engage. But those merely offering disdain and dismissal should reconsider.

I am currently waiting to see the implementation language that Sweeney and Røttingen are crafting. Since it will be made available for public consultation, we’ll all have the opportunity to examine the draft policy and offer our input. I hope that people realize that we might disagree; but there’s a way to do that respectfully and without resorting to misrepresenting others and personal attacks.

I expect that Sweeney and Røttingen and others charged with finalizing the implementation of Plan S will listen to input from a wide variety of perspectives. No doubt, they are already aware that some have their own prejudices already built in to their positions. Many established subscription publishers may resist the implementation of Plan S. Many emerging OA publishers may embrace it. Researchers views are likely to vary pretty widely. I hope the implementers of Plan S are able to take these different perspectives into account and to distinguish carefully between rational arguments and pseudoreasoning attacks. If we work together in good faith, we can attempt to craft a policy that actually empowers researchers and society to engage in open knowledge practices for the benefit of all.


5 thoughts on “If you take the red pill, Plan S will show you the way to academic freedom

    • I think Martin and I agree on quite a bit. I hyperlinked this piece above and would have included it as one of the links in the Nature correspondence had it come out in time. Although Martin is only one of the members of the FOAA Board, I see his jottings post as something like an expansion on the reasoning behind their recommendation to come up with a well-reasoned position about how Plan S will impact academic freedom. (My reply to Peter Suber, also a member of the FOAA Board, is also relevant here: https://jbrittholbrook.com/2018/10/12/on-open-access-academic-freedom-and-science-policy-a-reply-to-suber/).

      Martin and I agree that Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty is important for understanding different attitudes toward academic freedom. I still need to read more of Martin’s work on this to say more. I just found out that he wrote on the topic, and he linked to some of my work on the same issue in his jottings post. You’ll forgive me for thinking like an academic and seeing a possible paper coming out of this. I do think, though, that he and I might be able to get together — haven’t proposed this to him, yet, though — and come up with a policy brief that lays out clearly and succinctly what the issue is with positive/negative liberty and academic freedom.

      To respond quickly to his numbered jottings:

      1. Agree that academic freedom means different things in different contexts (a point made by the FOAA Board, as well). This complicates things for policies like Plan S, since it means that it will impact academic freedom differently in different contexts. One option would be to make Plan S implementation variable by country, so that it adapts to each country’s norms/laws. Another option would be to take the most expansive definition of academic freedom and make sure Plan S doesn’t infringe on it. I think both are safe routes, but they lack creativity. A more interesting option would be to figure out whether Plan S could be used to enhance academic freedom. If one were to take that route, it would make sense to develop a concomitant notion of academic responsibility that would serve to balance an expanded notion of academic freedom. I think this could be done by emphasizing a ‘positive liberty’ interpretation of academic freedom as including responsibilities to the public, while also allowing some ‘negative liberty’ restrictions on government power to infringe (individual waivers, for instance). The model for something like this is the US Constitution. I don’t mean anything so complicated for academic freedom/responsibility; but the Constitution combines a document largely based on positive liberty with the Bill of Rights, which can be interpreted as satisfying demands of negative liberty.

      2. I think this one is a bit of a distraction. No one is seriously defending the idea that academic freedom means I get to do whatever I want and everyone else must comply with my wishes. Anyone who thinks that’s what academic freedom means should reconsider, since they are doing a disservice to serious discussions of academic freedom. Had a nice exchange on Twitter related to this yesterday (https://twitter.com/pennyb/status/1059907269289238529).

      3. In asking “What is academic freedom for?” Martin is asking a question that expresses the positive liberty position well. It’s sort of the canonical question of positive liberty. This is really what I want to explore further and think makes great sense for considering Plan S implementation. The mirror canonical question for a negative liberty position would be something like, “What does academic freedom allow?” Note that these are not necessarily opposed. One could allow (as in the US Bill of Rights) freedom of speech, then ask what freedom of speech is for.

      4. I think this is a bit of a digression back to point 2. I don’t find the argument that academic freedom allows ‘whatever I want’, and so I don’t find Martin’s attempt at a charitable reconstruction of that position all that compelling. Martin doesn’t find it compelling, either. It makes me want to ask the positive liberty question: What is scholarly publishing for? I do hope we are careful, though, in thinking about this in the context of Plan S. Although Plan S is a policy about publishing, its ramifications for academics extend far beyond publishing. Publishing is a part of academia that’s connected to so many other things we do that it can’t be neatly carved off such that policies for publishing won’t affect everything. But if we have a discussion about what academic publishing is for, it could tie in well with a discussion about what academic freedom is for.

      5. Yes, freedom to read is important. It’s important not only for other academics (who have academic freedom), but also for non-academics (who, by definition, don’t have academic freedom, although they should, may, and do have all sorts of other freedoms). Martin addresses only the former, fellow academics, suggesting that my freedom to publish comes into conflict with his freedom to read when I publish behind a paywall. I think this is sort of right and sort of wrong, but for the sake of brevity, my own view is that I would like all of my research to be made immediately available for everyone — including academics and non-academics — to read (gratis OA). I’m ok with policies that mandate this, even, as long as academics who object to it (on negative liberty grounds) are given the ability to opt out. I believe that only something on the order of 5% of academics opt out of institutional mandates that allow waivers, which means that such an approach ends up with 95% of scholarship being free to read. I personally have issues with requiring a CC BY license (libre OA), because I want to be able to choose which of my publications should be open for reuse in certain ways, especially translations. The simple solution is to mandate the CC BY license, but then allow individuals to opt out and choose from a suite of other CC options. This is parallel to the waiver policy for gratis OA policies. If it also resulted in 95% of funded research being free to reuse (libre), I would think that cOAlition S funders would be happy. It would also satisfy those of us with academic freedom concerns about license mandates.

    • I would be interested to have David Sweeney’s views on academic freedom, including whether Plan S does or does not have implications for it, particularly in light of Wellcome’s updated OA policy. By not seeking to ban the use of hybrid OA, I assume Wellcome has acknowledged that forbidding it, as currently envisaged with Plan S, would infringe academic freedom.

  1. Well I’m in the UK so The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 Clause 8c (which just repeats the 1998 Act) is where I am. I’m interested in Britt’s view of whether it is truly satisfactory for any group (academics in this case, but it could be others) to assert its own freedoms without testing them in a democratic context.

    So I’m very happy for groups to sign up to the AAUP declaration and then be bound to it, but if you don’t sign up I don’t see that it carries any weight. In the context of this discussion it is only relevant if funders sign up to it.

    I also think that trying to define academic freedom more precisely leads to problems. So the UCU statement (‘freedom in carrying out research without commercial or political interference’) may be a view which academics hold but you cannot assert that and also seek and accept funding which comes with commercial strings. That’s an issue for the academic, not for the commercial funder.

    In regard to Wellcome I’m afraid that I don’t accept your assumption Richard. In my view Wellcome, as a private organisation, has issued a strong mandate and, in principle, it is for those seeking grant funds to decide whether they accept that mandate before accepting funds. Britt wants ‘to be able to choose which of my publications should be open for reuse in certain ways, especially translations’ which is absolutely fine but, as far as I can see, means that he has to not accept Wellcome funding if he wants to maintain that position.

    Sorry but this is a personal position. Please make no assumptions about what cOAlition S may say on the subject.


  2. Thanks, David, for your comments. I agree with many of them. Were I to pursue funding from Wellcome, I’d either have to work something out with them in advance if I wanted a different arrangement or accept their terms. I also agree that it makes a difference that they’re a private charity, rather than a state-run funding agency. I suspect that if Wellcome got very many requests for waivers of their CC BY policy, they’d probably start granting one (not wanting to alienate too many researchers); but I could be wrong about that.

    I also agree with you that trying to define academic freedom too precisely can lead to problems, not the least of which is that it begins to sound overly prescriptive. Nevertheless, I do think it makes sense to link accounts of freedom with accounts of responsibility; and academic freedom is no exception to that. This is a way to split the difference between overly specific and overly vague descriptions, since the descriptions of freedoms and responsibilities play off one another and serve as something to guide our judgment.

    Before I tackle your question about whether I really believe it’s “truly satisfactory for any group (academics in this case, but it could be others) to assert its own freedoms without testing them in a democratic context,” I have a couple of questions of clarification. First, have I said something already that makes you believe my answer to this question would be ‘yes’? In other words, are you interpreting something I’ve said to imply an affirmative answer? Second, I’m curious what you mean about the notion of ‘testing’ ones freedoms in a democratic context. If you mean, for instance, whether I think academic freedom should be up for a yes/no public vote, I’m very willing to answer ‘no’. If the US voted to outlaw academic freedom, I would fight against it. But if you mean something else, let me know — especially if it’s an interpretation of something I said.

    In general, though, I think the degree of academic freedom a state supports is a fairly good indicator of the health of that state.

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