Open access is no more than academic consumerism. It neither democratises knowledge production nor communication

The Open Access movement should be seen for what it is – nothing more but nothing less than a consumerist revolt, academic style. No one in this revolt is calling for what is sometimes called ‘extended peer review’ (whereby relevant non-academic stakeholders operate as knowledge gatekeepers), let alone the abandonment of science’s normal technicality. In fact, the moral suasiveness of a journalist like the Guardian’s George Monbiot rests on his support of BOTH science’s normal authorising procedures AND the free distribution of their fruits. In short, it’s all about making research cheaper to access by those who already possess the skills to do so but are held back by such ‘artificial’ barriers as publishers’ paywalls.

Nothing in this dispute bears on questions concerning how one might democratise knowledge production itself (e.g. how research credit might be distributed across students, informants, etc.; how one might select research topics that people find worthwhile; how impact across many audiences might be made a desideratum for securing a research grant).

Certainly there is no reason to believe that science communication/engagement is served by an open access policy to commercial scientific publications, if the target body of knowledge remains encoded as it has for the last 100 years. I take it that this is the message that Alice Bell is trying to send, perhaps too politely.


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7 replies »

  1. Actually, I think that the question of who ought to count as a peer is THE question surrounding open access (http://cas-csid.cas.unt.edu/?p=2816), as well as the introduction of impact criteria into the peer review of grant proposals. Both are signs of the growing demand for accountability on the part of the public. Researchers will no longer be given free reign to determine what counts as valuable research on their own (academic, disciplinary) terms.

    Focusing on the business/consumer/producer angle of this distracts us from this fundamental point. If academics want to maintain a sense of autonomy, then they ought to own impact requirements (http://scienceprogress.org/2012/03/owning-the-national-science-foundation%E2%80%99s-broader-impacts-criterion/). The point is not, however, simply to attempt to protect the Academy from “outside” interference. Instead, the point is the begin to find ways to respond to the demand for greater accountability in ways that also enrich the idea of academic autonomy. Open access could be part of that new sense of autonomy — but, paradoxically, perhaps, only if academics will take seriously their accountability to society. This means that those thinking about open access policy ought also to take seriously the question of who ought to count as a peer. Likewise, they should think about who the audience for research papers will be under the rubric of open access.

    • I think that there is more than a consumers’ revolt in the open access movement. What we all know today that we are preferring a low-quality mode of dissemination of information (slow, biased, run by cartels of disputable authorities) to a high-quality one. Nobody wants the elimination of peer-review, but the way in which peer-review is done today, especially for journals of humanities and social sciences, is just less efficient than many ways that are technically available now (like: early sharing of drafts and collaborative peer-reviewing). Look at the interesting post of Richard Price on the price we pay to old practices of filtering science: http://techcrunch.com/2012/04/29/the-future-of-science/

      Actually, I think we all know tacitly that we need a change, that the way in which academic work is done now is too sub-optimal to survive in the long run, but, of course, a lot of reflexion is still needed on alternative modes of peer-review and publishing that will assure in the future the same stability of content and editorial quality that is still assured by journals these days and that we terribly fear to loose (I like this blog and I like mine, but really don’t know if tomorrow they will be still there: my blog at http://www.gloriaoriggi.blogspot.com is owned by a private company and may disappear overnight…..)

  2. This article is flat-out wrong: there are plenty of applications of academic research outside of academia, and plenty of people keen to use that research. For just a few examples of non-academics keen to access research, see http://whoneedsaccess.org/ — fossil preparators who need research to avoid damaging specimens, parents of children with rare medical syndromes who have more time to invest in learning than their physicians do, teachers wanting to bring up-to-date knowledge to their students, small business founders needing research for the consultancy reports they sell, and many more.

    Steve Fuller is correct that this is an aspect of open access that certainly needs more publicity. But to suggest it’s been ignored communicates nothing more sinister than a lack of reading around the subject.

  3. I can’t see the connection of Peer Review to Open Access. One can continue the traditional methods of PR, but use the OA commercial model.

    On the point of “encoded” knowledge, that is largely due to the fact that unless submitted papers are full of jargon, they will not be taken seriously by the peers in the “club”. Try submitting a Physics paper with no equations, even if these are not needed. I have seen many examples of equations needlessly inserted in to make a paper look more serious.

    So we need Open Access, and more papers more accessible to the non-specialist.

  4. Hi Steve, I find this piece interesting because you’re putting Open Access and Open Science (OS) side by side, pointing out aspirations they seem to have in common and (unless I misunderstood) what they don’t have in common yet. The Open Access movement is indeed eager to clarify that OA only describes scientific literature that is 1/Peer reviewed, 2/Digital, 3/Available online, 4/For free. To me, the question is: will Open Science – defined as 1/Open, public, collaborative research 2/Relying on a completely different conception of scientific validation 3/Relying on publisher-driven, Institutional and/or social dissemination – will help Open Access achieve its two main goals: greater access to reliable scientific literature. I definitely believe that with the right infrastructures, with open source reputation models (on top of H Index and citation counts), and with innovative credit attribution, OS will indeed take science and access to science to a completely different level.

  5. Try checking out Merton’s CUDOS criteria ….it contains some useful ideas

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