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Open Access: How it is transforming itself and the worlds of research

Elena Šimukovič, University of Vienna and Leiden UniversityElena Šimukovič is doctoral candidate in Science and Technology Studies at University of Vienna and guest researcher at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University.

A casual observer of latest research news might be wondering about an avalanche-like tide of “open” initiatives. Open science, #opendata, open educational resources or #openinnovation are just a few of prominent examples. Among them, #openaccess to scientific publications claims particular gains to most members of societies, which – as regular taxpayers – are co-financing large portion of publicly-funded research. But what does this idea exactly entail and how has it come to define much of current science policy debates? Is it indeed one of those ideas and practices that transform science and research?

It is easy to convince one’s counterpart that scientific knowledge resulting from publicly-funded research projects should be made available for the public. Be it for the purpose of idle curiosity or searching for specific clues one has a special interest in. Yet currently those members of the public are bound to use the physical or electronic gateways of academic libraries or to pay a substantial amount of money for displaying a research work on their screens (e.g. 30-40 EUR for a single journal article).

The problem of high costs associated with access to academic literature is not new, though. In early 2000s, the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) called for free and unrestricted online availability of this literature in order to “accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich”. The only acceptable barrier should then be that inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.

Nowadays, these demands are ardently reflected in a series of roadmaps and action plans by various research organisations and funding agencies as well as their umbrella associations. Interestingly enough, since access barriers have been discovered as a topic of interest by politicians and science policy-makers, the focus has also shifted from facilitating more just and equitable intellectual conversation as anticipated in the original BOAI declaration. Rather, the emphasis is increasingly being put at strengthening national or regional competitiveness by lending additional visibility to scientific publications from domestic institutions. This shift is particularly remarkable in policy documents like the Amsterdam Call for Action on Open Science, issued during the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union in spring 2016. Here open access and open science have become a vehicle for economic growth and cross-country competition and are now marketed as a means “[f]or Europe to remain at the forefront and to ensure sustainable growth in the future”.

In a way, by gaining popularity and due to a universal appeal of “openness”, open access has become a victim of its own success. Part of the problem lies in the particular implementation model that is being promoted by large-scale initiatives aiming for a major transformation in the workings of academic publishing such as OA2020. By redirecting the “cash flows” in their budgets, academic libraries are now requested to move from the conventional journal subscription model towards covering so-called Article Processing Charges (APCs) for their own authors. That means, in their ideal case, that all of the world’s scientific publications would be accessible for free, making the old-day need to subscribe to selected journals obsolete itself. However, heading to the full open access utopia via this route also means that the entry barrier is shifted from “pay-to-read” towards “pay-to-say” principle. The range of APCs requested by publishing companies, often about 2.000-3.000 EUR for making a single journal article available for everyone, might then become a new powerful filtering mechanism for deciding whose voices are to be heard in the intellectual exchange. Unfortunately and contrary to the BOAI hopes, this would rather reinforce the inequalities between research worlds and promote knowledge dissemination in one direction only, namely from “rich” to the “poor”.

However, several scholar-led initiatives and author collectives are trying to counter this mainstream discourse and to establish alternative understandings of open access as a concept and practice. For instance, the Radical Open Access Collective (ROAC) was formed in 2015 by a group of academics and non-profit publishers in social sciences and humanities in order to build commons-based open access publishing infrastructures. By adhering to “the ethics of care” – which is also the main theme of its upcoming conference in June 2018 – ROAC relies on mutual support and shared resources within community. The Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network (OCSDNet) is another example of researcher-practitioner teams drawing our attention to largely neglected issues such as diverse or situated forms of openness and cognitive justice, and looking for ways how research can actually improve our well-being. Finally, a collection of critical essays has been recently published in the anthology “Open Divide? Critical Studies on Open Access”. With a special focus on the situation in the Global South, it calls for a reassessment of open access development trajectories and its unintended consequences and is hoped to facilitate a more fundamental conversation about the underlying issues of governance and control in dissemination of research.