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Open Access Debates (1): A critique of the elitist aspects of Open Access in general

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
17th December 2012


This is probably the greatest tragedy, Open Access does not by default produce Open products.

Excerpted from Peter Murray-Rust:

“Open Access is not universal – it looks inward to Universities (and Research Institutions). In OA week the categories for membership are:

“click here if you’re a: RESEARCH FUNDER | RESEARCHER/FACULTY MEMBER | ADMINISTRATOR | PUBLISHER | STUDENT | LIBRARIAN”

There is no space for “citizen” in OA. Indeed, some in the OA movement emphasize this. Stevan Harnad has said that the purpose of OA is for “researchers to publish to researchers” and that ordinary people won’t understand scholarly papers. I take a strong and public stance against this – the success of Galaxy Zoo has shown how citizens can become as expert as many practitioners. In my new area of phylogenetic trees I would feel confident that anyone with a University education (and many without) would have little difficulty understanding much of the literature and many could become involved in the calculations. For me, Open Access has little point unless it reaches out to the citizenry and I see very little evidence of this (please correct me).

There is, in fact, very little role for the individual. Most of the infrastructure has been built by university libraries without involving anyone outside (regrettably, since university repositories are poor compared to other tools in the Open movements). There is little sense of community. The main events are organised round library practice and funders – which doesn’t map onto other Opens. Researchers have little involvement in the process – the mainstream vision is that their university will mandate them to do certain things and they will comply or be sacked. This might be effective (although no signs yet), but it is not an “Open” attitude.

Decisions are made in the following ways:

An oligarchy, represented in the BOAI processes and Enabling Open Scholarship (EOS). EOS is a closed society that releases briefing papers and has a members ship of 50 EUR per year and have to be formally approved by the committee (I have represented to several members of EOS that I don’t find this inclusive and I can’t see any value in my joining – it’s primarily for university administrators and librarians). * Library organizations (e.g. SPARC) * Organizations of OA publishers (e.g. OASPA)

Now there are many successful and valuable organizations that operate on these principles, but they don’t use the word “Open”.

So is discussion “Open”? Unfortunately not very. There is no mailing list with both large volume of contributions and effective freedom to present a range of views. Probably the highest volume list for citizens (as opposed to librarians) is GOAL and here differences of opinion are unwelcome. Again that’s a hard statement, but the reality is that if you post anything that does not support Green Open Access then Stevan Harnad and the Harnadites will publicly shout you down. I have been denigrated on more than one occasion by members of the OA oligarchy (Look at the archive if you need proof). It’s probably fair to say that this attitude has effective killed Open discussion in OA. Jan Velterop and I are probably the only people prepared to challenge opinions: most others walk away.

Because of this lack of discussion it isn’t clear to me what the goals and philosophy of OA are. I suspect that different practitioners have many different views, including:

A means to reach out to citizenry beyond academia, especially for publicly funded research. This should be the top reason IMO but there is little effective practice.

A means to reduce journal prices. This is (one of) Harnad’s arguments. We concentrate on making everything Green and when we have achieved this the publishers will have to reduce their prices. This seems most unlikely to me – any publisher losing revenue will fight this.

A way of reusing scholarly output. This is ONLY possible if the output is labelled as CC-BY. There’s about 5-10 percent of this. Again this is high on my list and the only reason Ross Mounce and I can do research into phylogenetic trees.

A way of changing scholarship. I see no evidence at all for this in the OA community. In fact OA is holding back innovation in new methods of scholarship as it emphasizes the conventional role of the “final manuscript” and the “publisher”. Green OA relies (in practice) in having publishers and so legitimizes them

And finally is the product “Open”? The BOAI declaration is, in Cameron Neylon’s words, “clear, direct, and precise:” To remind you:

“By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

This is in the tradition of Stallman’s software freedoms, The Open Knowledge Definition and all the other examples I have quoted. Free to use, re-use and redistribute for any lawful purpose. For manuscripts it is cleanly achieved by adding a visible CC-BY licence. But unfortunately many people, including the mainstream OA community and many publishers use “(fully) Open Access” to mean just about anything. Very few of us challenge this. So the result is that much current “OA” is so badly defined that it adds little value. There have been attempts to formalize this, but they have all ended in messy (and to me unacceptable) compromise. In all other Open communities “libre” has a clear meaning – freedom as in speech. In OA it means almost nothing. Unfortunately anyone trying to get tighter approaches is shouted down. So, and this is probably the greatest tragedy, Open Access does not by default produce Open products.”

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One Response to “Open Access Debates (1): A critique of the elitist aspects of Open Access in general”

  1. Stevan Harnad Says:

    OPEN ACCESS MEANS ACCESSIBLE TO ALL

    1. Yes, most peer-reviewed research is written primarily by researchers for researchers, to be used, applied and built upon, in further research, to the benefit of the tax-paying public that funds the research.

    2. But making peer-reviewed research Open Access (OA) means making it freely accessible online to everyone — not just the researchers for whom it is primarily written, but anyone who is interested in accessing reading and using it.

    3. Fields vary in how much of their research is interesting and comprehensible to the public.

    4. The reason the peer-to-peer nature of basic research needs to be stressed in the case of OA is that whereas there may be a wider user-base than just researchers in some research fields, the providers of the research we are trying to make OA are researchers. Hence a strong and realistic reason is needed to induce them to make their research OA (and to induce their institutions and funders to mandate — require — them to make their research OA).

    5. That strong, realistic reason, for most research, is certainly not a burning need and desire on the part of the tax-paying public to read that research; to imagine otherwise (in the majority cases — and we have to consider the majority of cases if we hope to provide all researchers to provide OA) is just fantasy, or ideology.

    6. Besides, as mentioned, if you succeed in inducing researchers to make their research OA (and to induce their institutions and funders to mandate — require — them to make their research OA) then the research is accessible to all interested users, not just researchers.

    So my advice would be to set aside ideology and misplaced concerns about “elitism,” and focus on pragmatics and strategy, so as to get the content in question freely accessible online, to one and all.

    And as much CC-BY as users need and authors want to provide will come too, after we have universal OA (free online access). To over-reach for CC-BY now, instead of grasping the free-online access that is already within reach now (if researchers provide it, and their institutions and funders mandate it) is to forego the already accessible (and urgent, and already long overdue) Better for the still inaccessible Best. Ideology again blocking pragmatic, and progress…

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