Revolution stalled? Open Access, Scholarship and the State

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The story goes something like this. Back in the pre-lapsarian days of the Coalition Government, the then Universities Minister David Willetts took a holiday. As his poolside literature, he spurned A La Recherche du Temps Perdu or four volumes of The Collected Letters of Samuel Becket and other such staples of TLS Hints for Summer Reading, and took instead a work by the American economic historian Joel Mokyr entitled The Enlightened Economy.

Published by Yale University Press in 2009 and subtitled An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850, this work argued that ‘we cannot understand the Industrial Revolution without recognising the importance of the intellectual sea changes of Britain’s Age of Enlightenment’. Willetts noticed the importance Mokyr attached to ideas as the steam of British industrialisation, and wondered, following representations from interested scientific bodies and research agencies, whether emergent Open Access publishing protocols might replicate the institutional impact of the Dissenting Academies and help generate similar steam for innovation in the UK two centuries later.

The fact that, as then presented, Open Access might also save British universities significant cash sums was another powerful argument in its favour. Willetts was conscious of the battles of a decade ago, when the Department of Education took on the Department of Trade and Industry over the rising costs and sustained high profitability of scientific journals, and lost. He assembled a number of distinguished persons under the Chairmanship of Dame Janet Finch to consider the issues arising, and report.

The Finch Report

Finch recommended that the UK pursue “a clear policy direction” towards Open Access in its gold form in order to more effectively disseminate research, benefitting researchers, readers, libraries, taxpayers, the entrepreneurial world, and publishers. Ever since – and perhaps particularly for its most trenchant supporters within the UK – this very rough equation of ‘Open Access’ with ‘government policy’ has been both the best, and the worst, thing that could have happened, and not just because of the innate and admirable contrariness of most research faculty.

Like so many reformations and revolutions, an initial moment of genuine popular insurgence was adapted and transformed by the instruments of the state for its own, often rather different purposes. Meanwhile, the uneven spread of a powerful and subversive set of ideas has been accompanied by increasing sectarianism and division amongst the insurgents. As the pace of conversion amongst the academy has declined, the need for compulsion from above has grown.

The Finch Report rapidly prompted protests, with sections of the arts and humanities community taking strongly oppositional positions, not necessarily to Open Access itself (although some did), but to the particular forms in which public policy was emerging. In particular, the proposed imposition of article-based publishing models that might be appropriate for biomedical science but whose suitability for the very different research and funding environment of the book-driven humanities was, to put it mildly, questionable. The way in which Open Access protocols were adopted and then promulgated by powerful funding bodies like The Wellcome Trust, RCUK, and indeed HEFCE itself only magnified these tensions, and gave rise to a whole new and expensive university industry of research protocol compliance.

These peculiarly British aspects of the development and implementation of Open Access protocols have only exacerbated further what still seems to me the structural confusion at the heart of the Open Access implementation challenge. Does the existing subscription journal model, in which publishers and learned societies enjoy levels of sustained profitability that could reasonably be described as excessive, need redress? Is Open Access, and its perceived capacity to liberate the ever-expanding research findings and scientific data of the world, the best mechanism to disrupt the existing structures of commercial power and to retain any surplus value arising within the global networks of scholarly communication?

These two issues, so often yoked together, are not the same. The largest subscription publisher in the world, Elsevier, is also now the largest Open Access publisher in the world. In many ways, Open Access has always been just another business model, as opposed to a liberating crusade. The levels of profitable extraction, especially within the sciences, remain just as they were.

Tackling the global juggernauts

As such, the politics of Open Access are confused and fragmented. One fundamental and unassailable challenge for the British state and its research agencies is that scholarly publishing is not (ever) something that can be understood, monitored or managed within a solely national context. Yet the only truly global actors in contemporary networks of scholarly communication are either techno-giants like Google, or the major academic publishing corporations, of which Elsevier is only the most visible. The network that extends out from the individual researcher, through a lab or department, to a university and thence a national funding agency only encounters a global institution at the point of publication.

This imbalance continues to be a determinant one, and endless academic calls over the past decade to ‘take back control’ of the scholarly communication system invariably fail to recognise it. Such protests almost always assume the primacy of western scientific interests, and often betray very little knowledge of the huge stake these giant commercial actors have in research communications in India and China, and of the changing balance of research outputs as between West and East.

Another intrinsic aspect of this globalised publisher landscape is, of course, the globalised readership. It’s precisely this globalised readership which has always undermined the ‘taxpayer pays, therefore the taxpayer should have access’ arguments for Open Access, and especially for a major exporter of knowledge like the UK. Self-evidently, the large majority of readers of most UK-originated research are not, themselves, UK taxpayers.

Recent developments for Open Access

The announcement last week of an agreement between Elsevier and Jisc has been understandably overlooked due to other global developments. Nonetheless, within the intense, indeed febrile world of scholarly communication, there has been a splenetic social media reaction to the news that JISC Collections and ‘the worst publisher in the world’ (which Elsevier palpably isn’t) have done a deal.

This Jisc deal follows an equivalent national settlement with Elsevier in the Netherlands, where the most overtly pro-Open Access state in the western world eventually hammered out an agreement with one of its largest and most important corporations and employers. Dutch leadership on Open Access issues within the European Commission has been vocal and powerful.

One of the more significant and as yet under-explored implications of Brexit will be the impact on Open Access developments within both the UK and amongst the remaining 27 member states. For both publishers and researchers, the implications of Brexit for Intellectual Property (IP) regimes are profound. Whether the British IP regime will plough a distinctive furrow between America and the Europe (with its strongly French, author-centric impulses) is one of the single most important and as yet unanswered questions for all British universities as they contemplate the post-Brexit world.

A fortnight ago the ninth Open Access Week was celebrated around the world, including numerous venues in the UK. The tone was, in many cases, celebratory and positive. Contrary to so many assumptions of five years ago, there has not been a mass conversion amongst research faculty to Open Access publishing models, other than when grant funding protocols have demanded it. The majority of hearts and minds have not yet been won, particularly within the humanities and social sciences.

The reasons for this extend far beyond this article. Other issues and other debates, not least around the prevalence of commercial repository platforms like Academia.edu, have arisen, and the scholarly communication conversation has moved away from a focus on secondary content towards an emphasis on primary research data. Again, this has only confirmed to many in the text-driven humanities and soft social sciences how little the sector appears to care for their interests. Books, particularly printed books, remain massively important to these communities; a (very) inconvenient truth indeed.

So we still await our post-revolutionary settlement and a sustainable model for scholarly communications that a consensus of global stakeholders can happily live with. Whatever the final outcome, it will not simply be decided by government ministers any more than it will be  by academic debates on social media.

1 thoughts on “Revolution stalled? Open Access, Scholarship and the State”

  1. CB says:

    There are many other issues at play here. I outline many of them in this piece: http://insights.uksg.org/article/10.1629/uksg.292/ (open access)

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