Open access: The universal norm?

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For me, this year’s Open Access Week will consist of a great deal of medical treatment. I have just been diagnosed with a severe kidney problem – BK virus nephropathy – which is causing my renal function to deteriorate. The treatment is likely to be tricky as I am immunocompromised from secondary immunodeficiency. The stakes are also very high if the proposed treatment does not work, as my kidney function has decreased from 95% to 24% in a relatively short time.

Such a situation, while personally troubling, highlights the importance of open access medical research. I have been blessed to easily be able to get access to much high-quality, open medical research on this condition. Patients are most empowered when they have as much information as possible about their illnesses and I feel fortunate that open access in the medical disciplines has come this far. But, of course, there is still a road to travel. I will probably become a case study since there is not much information on this condition in a non-transplant patient. But this case study might not end up being open access research. As one of my friends put it, there’s “nothing like the warm glow of knowing your health problems have contributed to a paywalled PDF”.

This year’s Open Access Week is themed around climate justice and sustainability. At this point in time, there are scarcely more critical areas for research and science, although I feel pessimistic about humanity’s ability to avert the climate crisis. Unfortunately, these are also areas where gross quantities of misinformation circulate online. The “debate” has been mired in a form of information warfare, where the scientific consensus is pulled apart and made to appear fractured, even when the vast majority of researchers and scientists do not doubt the truth of human-induced global warming.

What is the role of open access in such a system? Well, one of the problems is that, without open access here, you end up with a world in which all the misinformation is freely available to view… and all the truth is locked behind a paywall. For those seeking to “do their own research”, the ease of access to untruth can only do damage.

That said, there is an interesting supposition behind such reasoning: namely, that the mere availability of information will lead people to understand and believe in the truth. I am unsure that this is strictly true. It is nice to think that ensuring that high-quality research, published openly, will lead to a more educated, reasoning, and politically engaged population. But it doesn’t seem to be enough. Even as we open more research on climate change, we appear day by day to be losing the political battle to achieve our carbon reduction targets.

In this context, the Open Climate Campaign has been launched, funded by the Open Society Foundations and Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. Perhaps most importantly, their campaign is multi-pronged. It is far from a simple “if everything is open access, then the world will be fixed” but instead recognises that open access is just one part of the puzzle. Access to knowledge matters. But it is also what we do with that openly accessible knowledge that will make the true difference.

I have been asked to close with some remarks on “the future of open-access publishing”. I think, as I always have, that we will eventually catch up with the power of the internet to disseminate information in ways that were not previously possible. That is, I think that open access will become the universal norm, both for journal articles and for academic books (although the latter remains trickier).

But what I hope is that we find less damaging economic models than the article and book processing charges that have come to dominate. So-called “diamond” open access models, such as those that the team and I have pioneered at the Open Library of Humanities, offer equitable routes to open publishing and appear popular with academic libraries and academics. But such models are endangered by the continued dominance of massive commercial players and their transformative agreements, which threaten to consume entire library budgets in one fell swoop. 

On the one hand, I continue to feel personally opposed to the Big Business model of academic publishing in which large corporations extract massive profits and restrict the free and open flow of research. On the other hand, I am concerned by some of the austerity logics that come out of the open access movement and that devalue all publisher labour. As I wrote at the close of Open Access and the Humanities, almost a decade ago now: “Publishers perform necessary labour that must be compensated and any new system of dissemination, such as open access, will require an entity to perform this labour, even if that labour takes a different form at different levels of compensation”. Striking the right balance here through equitable economic models is the terrain on which the future battle of open access will be fought.

Professor Martin Paul Eve, Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London