16 February 2017

The Uses of Open Access

It is increasingly clear that the university is undergoing rapid change in higher education systems right across the globe. This is partly due to the forces of digital technology, partly due to neoliberal restructuring of the higher education sector by governments, and partly due to a shift in student demographics, expectations and new consumerist orientation. However, there is an additional pressure on universities, and an illogical one at that, which is the claim that they do not contribute to the public good through their practices of publication. This claim has more recently come from open access (OA) advocates, but also increasingly from governments that seek to use university research as a stimulus to economic growth. This claim is without foundation and unhistorical but it is a claim that is being made with greater stridency and is being taken up by research funders and university managements as an accurate state of affairs that they seek to remedy through new policies and practices related to academic publication.

In this article I want to start to explore some of the major themes that I think need to be addressed in the current push towards open access but also how it serves as a useful exemplar of the range of "innovations" being forced on the university sector. With such a large subject I can only gesture to some of the key issues here, but my aim is to start to unpick some of the more concerning claims of open access advocates and question why their interests, their governments and university management are too often oriented in the same direction. I want to suggest that this is not accidental, and actually reflects an underlying desire to "disrupt" the academy which will have dire implications for academic labour, thought and freedom if it is not contested. Whilst it is clear some open access advocates believe that their work will contribute to and further the public good, without an urgent critique of the rapidity and acceleration of these practices, the university, as it has been historically constituted through the independent work of scholars, will be undermined and the modern university as we have come to understand it may be transformed into a very different kind of institution.

Within this new complex landscape of the university, there is has been the remarkable take up and acceleration of the notion of Open Access (OA). Open Access is the use of copyright licenses to make textual materials available to others for use and reuse through a mechanism similar to that which was created by the Free Software Foundation as the GNU Public Licence (GPL) and later through the activities of the open access movement and the Creative Commons organisation. The FLOSS (Free Libre and Open Source Software) movement and the Creative Commons have been important in generating new ways of thinking about copyright, but also in generating spaces for the construction of new technologies and cultural remixes, particularly the GNU GPL licence and the Creative Commons Share-Alike licence (Berry 2008). Nonetheless, these new forms of production around copyright licenses have not been free of politics, and often carry with them cyberlibertarian notions about how knowledge should be treated, how society should be structured, and the status of the individual in a digital age (see Berry 2008). These links between the ways of thinking shared between open source and open access raise particular concerns. As Golumbia has cautioned, "in general, it is the fervor for OA... especially as expressed in the idea that OA should be mandated at either the institutional or governmental level... [that] seems far more informed by destructive intent and ideology toward certain existing institutions and practices than its most strident advocates appear to recognize, even as they openly recommend that destruction" (Golumbia 2016: 76).

However, it is important to note at this point that I agree with Golumbia that,
this does not mean that OA is uniformly a bad idea: it is not. In many ways it is, very clearly, a good idea. In particular, versions of voluntary “green” OA, where researchers may or may not deposit copies of their works wherever and under whatever conditions they choose, and the voluntary creation of OA journals when not accompanied by pressure, institutional or social, to refrain from publishing in non-OA journals, strike me as welcome... But it is a good idea that has been taken far beyond the weight that the arguments for it can bear, and frequently fails to take into account matters that must be of fundamental concern to any left politics. Further, it is a good idea that is surrounded by a host of ideas that are nowhere near as good, and that fit too easily into the general rightist attack on higher education, especially in the humanities, that operates worldwide today (Golumbia 2016: 76).
To examine these issues, first I want to briefly explore the new political economic reality that has been facing the university in the late 20th and early 21st century. Indeed, we have seen these changes mapped out in a number of important recent publications about the UK and USA university systems (see for example, Collini 2012, 2017; Holmwood 2011; Readings 1996). Under this new regime, it is argued that the student is cast as consumer, and the academic is recast as an academic entrepreneur who must constantly seek to make "impact" through activities that lead to an outcome that can be quantified (Biswas and Kirchherr 2016). Finlayson and Hayward (2012) have argued that in changing the university, "four different rationales have been put forward by successive administrations or their appointed advisors for these reforms: 1. Expansion, 2. Efficiency, 3. Economic accountability – i.e. value for money, 4. Political accountability – i.e. democratisation or widening participation".  These are demonstrated most clearly in the notion of "impact". Stefan Collini, for example, describes how in the REF (Research Excellence Framework) consultation document 37 different “impact indicators” are outlined for assessing the university sector, most of which serve to promote economic or utilitarian interests,
nearly all of these refer to “creating new businesses”, “commercialising new products or processes”, attracting “R&D investment from global business”, informing “public policy-making” or improving “public services”, improving “patient care or health outcomes”, and improving “social welfare, social cohesion or national security” (a particularly bizarre grouping). Only five of the bullet points are grouped under the heading “Cultural enrichment”. These include such things as “increased levels of public engagement with science and research (for example, as measured by surveys)” and “changes to public attitudes to science (for example, as measured by surveys)”. The final bullet point is headed “Other quality of life benefits”: in this case, uniquely, no examples are provided. The one line under this heading simply says “Please suggest what might also be included in this list” (quoted in Finlayson and Hayward 2012).
Indeed, more recently Collini (2017) has described the events leading up to the emergence of what has come to be called the "impact agenda", the idea that research should be shown to be socially beneficial and economically useful, as a moment when Gordon Brown was at the Treasury being lobbied by businesses who sought to change the incentives of the universities towards short-term, preferably commercial, impact-led innovation. By being added to the research assessment process of the REF, many have argued that these have led to large shifts for the way in which the university understands itself as an institution.

Similarly, in the "2003 White Paper and the 2007 Annual Review of the Science and Innovation Investment Framework that, in spite of one or two passing remarks about the value of education, the Government’s overriding concern is to harness and increase the economic impact of research... All the government reviews, papers and reports in the period are about how to make Higher Education serve the needs of the knowledge economy" (Finlayson and Hayward 2012). These kinds of claims and arguments are often related to the notion of the emergence of an information society, usually understood as a shift in Western economies from the production of goods to the production of innovation (see Berry 2008: 4). This is related to a similar notion of a knowledge-based economy which is built on the condition that there is knowledge, information and data freely flowing around that economy, and is structured in such a way as to allow exchange, aggregation, reuse and transformation, preferably with minimal forms of friction. As Greenspan argued in 1996,
the world of 1948 was vastly different from the world of 1996. The American economy, more then than now, was viewed as the ultimate in technology and productivity in virtually all fields of economic endeavor [sic]. The quintessential model of industrial might in those days was the array of vast, smoke-encased integrated steel mills in the Pittsburgh district and on the shores of Lake Michigan. Output was things, big physical things. Virtually unimaginable a half-century ago was the extent to which concepts and ideas would substitute for physical resources and human brawn in the production of goods and services (Alan Greenspan, quoted in Perelman 2003).
Clive Humby has described a kind of process where "data is the new oil... Data is just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value" (Palmer 2006). Or as Wired put it, "like oil, for those who see data’s fundamental value and learn to extract and use it there will be huge rewards. We’re in a digital economy where data is more valuable than ever. It’s the key to the smooth functionality of everything from the government to local companies. Without it, progress would halt" (Toonders 2014). So this extractive metaphor, which is rich in illustrative description but which is limited for describing the process of creating, maintaining and using research, has nonetheless served to inspire governmental policy in numerous ways. For example, Meglena Kuneva, European Consumer Commissioner at the European Commission, has described personal data as "the new oil of the internet and the new currency of the digital world" (Kuneva 2009). Indeed, Hinssen 2012 uses the notion that "information is the new oil" and that we should be "drilling new sources of innovation". Innovation in this sense, usually means changing or creating more effective processes, products and ideas for commercial exploitation. Naturally, the next step has been to connect the notion of data (or "open data" as it has been termed) to this extractive metaphor. Indeed, the Office for National Statistics (a producer of data sets) has argued that "if data is the new oil, Open Data is the oil that fuels society and we need all hands at the pump" (Davidson 2016). What makes data into open data, is that it is free of intellectual property restrictions that prevent it from being used by others by publishing constraints. Open data, like open access publications and open source before them, relies on copyright licenses to grant the user the right to dice up and remix the textual or other digital materials in ways that can create new forms of innovative products.

In this sense, the knowledge economy is built on a contradictory set of principles, property rights to control intellectual products and processes (including digital rights management), and a mechanism to promote the "free" or "open" circulation of data and information. This contradiction is resolved if one understand them as not mutually antagonistic to each other, but rather as differing spheres or layers of the knowledge economy. With free data and information at the bottom, waiting to be exploited by entrepreneurs, and a thriving ecosystem of corporations living on top of this land. Indeed, within the academic literature and in governmental publications there is a tacit notion that the government, government-funded research and historical cultural materials (usually out-of-copyright but not digitised and sitting in archives) should become the freely available knowledge in a form that can be "mined" by the private sector in order to create economic growth. But to fully realise this vision requires that much more of the information and knowledge generated by, for example, universities and archives, will need to be opened up for innovation. This opening up, quite literally means providing in a digital form their materials without the kinds of copyright protections that have historically provided the stimulus for research publication, and which would be handed over to the private sector gratis.

One of the most influential descriptions of the workings of innovation has been the notion of "disruptive innovation" a term developed by Christensen (1997) and which describes a process by "which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors" (Christensen 2017). This notion of disruptive innovation is now very much part of silicon valley ideology, and has become part of a discourse that has led calls for "disruption" in other sectors of the economy, from taxis, hotel, deliveries and education. Disruption theory has been connected with new ways of doing things that disturb, interrupt or cause to be restructure what is perceived to be a "closed" way of doing things, whether that through unionisation, monopoly or oligopoly behaviour, public sector or educational. Indeed, in regard to the possible disruption of the university sector, the Economist was keen to argue that technology "innovation is eliminating those constraints [of existing universities]... and bringing sweeping change to higher education" (Economist 2014). What is striking is how this notion of disruptive innovation is increasingly being mobilised in relation to the university, from government, industry and also from university management itself. But also how, often uncritically, many open access advocates are echoing the need for a disruptive innovation of university publication practices.

This is an example of a how disruptive innovation in relation to the university sector has created the conditions under which university research outputs have been re-articulated as "not open". There has subsequently been an attempt to argue that they must be "opened up" and as such they would be a resource which can be made available to others to contribute to innovation and economic growth. One of the most important examples is the Finch report of 2012, commissioned by the UK Government. This report drew on many of these themes where it made an explicit link between economic growth and the access to and use of publicly funded research. It argued, "most people outside the HE sector and large research-intensive companies - in public services, in the voluntary sector, in business and the professions, and members of the public at large - have yet to see the benefits that the online environment could bring in providing access to research and its results". These innovations, it argues, are prevented because of "barriers to access – particularly when the research is publicly-funded – [and] are increasingly unacceptable in an online world: for such barriers restrict the innovation, growth and other benefits which can flow from research" (Finch 2012).

The "barriers to access" the report counter-intuitively identifies, are practices of publishing research in the public sphere in a form which has been enormously successful in transforming our societies over the last 350 years. Indeed, it is as if universities had, by publishing materials over this period, been actively seeking to create a closed system, rather than, as was actually the case, contributing to Enlightenment notions of a Republic of Letters and open science. As Golumbia (2016: 77) has observed, there is a real problem with open access advocates' arguments that "what we have until the last decade or two called 'publication' somehow restricts access to information, rather than making [that] information more available". These claims are not made more believable by the OA habit of picking one or two major journal publishers who have especially problematic practices of publication pricing strategies. This partial representation of the wider landscape of publishing and the use of selective, and often very emotive, cases to argue that all academic publication is against the public good, is damaging to academia as a whole as well as unsubstantiated. This aspect of proselytising of the virtues of open access without any concerns for its potential dangers is very reminiscent of the intense augmentation that has taken place with the FLOSS movement where similar zealotry has been observed (see Berry 2008).

Open access advocates often claim an alignment between open access and democratisation, participation and the public good, but to me this is only part of the story about why open access is now being promoted by government. Indeed, if one was under any confusion about why open access might be useful, Finch has helpfully laid this out,
support for open access publication should be accompanied by policies to minimise restrictions on the rights of use and re-use, especially for non-commercial purposes, and on the ability to use the latest tools and services to organise and manipulate text and other content
[government should seek to] extend the range of open access and hybrid journals, with minimal if any restrictions on rights of use and re-use for non-commercial purposes; and ensure that the metadata relating makes clear articles are accessible on open access terms.
It goes without saying that these moves seek to ensure that "innovative" products can be refined from research outputs that have no restrictions on their extraction, use, and exploitation. Finch also uncritically argues that universities should fund, in combination with research councils and government, research that could later be used free of restrictions by commercial users, without themselves contributing back into this open access repository. In effect, Finch is arguing for greater public subsidy for the private sector's use of university research outputs. Indeed, the range of information from universities that Finch saw as available for exploitation includes "research publications...reports, working papers and other grey literature, as well as theses and dissertations... publications and associated research data" (Finch 2012).[1] Not only is Finch generalising the case for open access to all forms of output from university and related research institutions, she is also eager to assume that students' MA dissertations and PhD theses are also fair game for commercial exploitation, without consideration of the ethical or legal implications of mining student work without their permission or consent.

Open Access is too often presented as an unquestioned good, especially by its more zealous advocates (see Golumbia 2016). In this short article I have sought to contribute to work that problematises this notion and places it within its specific historical location. By drawing links between government policies that have sought to reorient the university from its historical mission related to research and understanding to that of economic growth and impact, one begins to see a new alignment of power and knowledge. Open access appears at a time when digital technologies are changing the contours of the dissemination of knowledge and information and are also challenging the publishing industry with new means of publication. Indeed, OA cannot be understood without seeing it within this wider historical constellation, and consequently its advocates' attempts to depoliticise it by placing it within a moral category, that is, as an obvious good, is extremely concerning and needs urgent critique. Open access raises important questions about how publications can better reach publics and audiences, but by exaggerating its advantages and dismissing its disadvantages, it becomes ideological and therefore unreflexive about its uses in the current restructuring of the university and knowledge in the 21st century.



Notes

[1] Finch argued further and completely bizarrely that "we therefore expect market competition to intensify, and that universities and funders should be able to use their power as purchasers to bear down on the costs to them both of APCs and of subscriptions" (Finch 2012). The idea that a smaller number of academic purchasers would drive down prices by paying for production rather than consumption of research publications was presented with no evidence except for the self-evidence of the claim. 

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