Many of us join causes and movements at different times in our lives, if only because we like to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, and because most of us have a healthy desire to improve the world. Unfortunately, movements often fail to achieve their objectives, or their objectives are significantly watered down – or lost sight of – along the way. Sometimes they fail completely.
When their movement hits a roadblock, advocates will respond in a variety of ways: “True believers” tend to carry on regardless, continuing to repeat their favoured mantras ad nauseam. Some will give up and move on to the next worthy cause. Others will take stock, seek to understand the problem, and try to find another way forward.
Jutta Haider, an associate professor in Information Studies at Lund University, would appear to be in the third category. Initially a proponent of open access, Haider subsequently “turned into a sceptic”. This was not, she says, because she no longer sees merit in making the scientific literature freely available, but because the term open access “has gained meanings and tied itself to areas in science, science policy-making, and the societal and economic development of society that I find deeply problematic.”
Above all, she says, she worries that open access has become “a business model, an indicator for performance measurement, tied to notions of development purely imagined as economic growth and so on.”
Haider believes the turning point came in 2012, when the UK’s Finch Report was published. From that moment “open access became gold OA, and gold OA became APC OA.” In other words, pay-to-publish.
The implications of this have been significant, she says, not least because it has allowed legacy publishers to appropriate the movement, and by doing so to continue to control and make excessive profits from scholarly communication.
Open access has also been co-opted by governments and university managers, says Haider, to facilitate “the growing incursions of neoliberal control management into university governance and research policy, and the ongoing privatisation of research infrastructures.”
She also believes that in being moulded to fit other agendas in this way, open access has enabled long-standing and intractable problems in science and scholarly communication to be migrated to the digital world, including science’s Western-bias, and what she describes as its “idealised story of how science progresses and of the role of the scholarly journal article (conference paper, published record)”.
Most significantly, by putting a price on the scholarly paper APC OA has “marketised” science communication in a very direct and negative way.
In short, the triumph of APC OA means that rather than create a fairer and more equitable system of scholarly communication (as advocates promised) open access will leave many disadvantaged and disenfranchised, especially researchers in the Global South. Indeed, for them the situation is likely to worsen rather than improve, since contributing to science will increasingly require having the wherewithal to pay to have your work published, which is difficult if not impossible for many in the developing world. “I cannot fathom how a shift to APC open access becoming the dominant model will work to not further deepen the inequalities with production and contribution to the literature”, says Haider.
Pay-to-publish gold OA has also seen the emergence of so-called predatory publishing. This has amplified the problems of trust in scholarly communication, and many believe those in the Global South are more vulnerable to the predators.
All very disheartening
Those who joined the open access movement in the expectation that it would create a more cost-effective, equitable and efficient research environment will find this is all very disheartening.
However, given the larger political and economic environment in which the research community is inevitably located, says Haider, it is not surprising. “Unless you change the entire economic system and society, there are really not so many options.”
She adds, “Even if the scholarly article were not directly marketised, it would still be part of a system of science that operates within the conditions set by capitalist market economics.”
Nevertheless, Haider believes there are ways of mitigating the worst excesses of this marketisation. “If you [have to] act within the political and economic climate that we have, then community-based crowd-funding models seem to offer solutions that would at least enable you to not have to sell out completely to interests that are not the ones you seek to promote.”
She adds: “[N]ot all business interests automatically work in opposition to morality, equality and fairness. Those working with these large moral imperatives to promote open access, I assume, believe that they are not only mutually compatible, but they are even supportive of each other, in the right circumstances.”
But in order for the movement to move forward in a more benign direction, she suggests, it is important to acknowledge what has happened to open access, and to discuss the issues openly and honestly, especially now that the debate is widening out to encompass open science. “What I hope for is an honest debate on open science, a debate which does not replicate the naivety of the early open access debates, and one where the term is not embraced regardless of who else fills it with whatever meaning they favour, even to the point where it runs counter to making science open in any kind of meaningful way.”
Please read the Q&A with Jutta Haider for a detailed discussion of these issues. It can be accessed here.
For those who prefer paper, a print version of this interview is available here.