reply to Stephen Curry on Debating Open Access

this is a comment in reply to “Debating Open Access” on the blog of Stephen Curry, UK physicist and Guardian columnist, following upon a twitter chat. The comment hasn’t appeared, probably because approval required, and Stephen is away, so meanwhile I’m posting it here. 

In your essay in the British Academy Debating Open Access collection, you say “Everyone has a grasp of the basic concept [of open access] but…no one has yet figured out [implementation].” Similarly, I’ve often heard the view that OA is something fairly set, toward which we are making an inevitable transition.

Having followed these issues for many years, and thinking especially but not exclusively from a humanities, non-science-specific viewpoint, I’ve come to the view that actually basic concepts aren’t grasped or settled, and it’s not just details of implementation or transition.

I see a science (particularly biomedical science)-rooted advocacy community which has interpreted and focused the Open Access movement — and to degrees, broader open-culture / Creative Commons movements — around its own interests and concepts, and often claims to own or at least define it. Other interpretations, voices, and communities have been marginalized by asserting they are just misunderstanding or ignorance or reaction, or too late to the discussion, or resisting the inevitable. Which they may be in part, but by no means solely; nor is misunderstanding absent from the dominant science-based OA advocacy.

Without attempting a new OA Theory of Everything, I’ll just give some examples which suggest how unsettled basic ideas of OA are:

1) We hear “public funding” frequently cited as the basis for Open Access. However, this is in no way part of original formulations of OA, e.g. the Budapest Open Access Initiative declaration, which gives as rationale scholars’ typical willingness to and self-interest in sharing all or parts of their work..

2) All the principles of open access to knowledge, particularly public-funded research, logically apply to all “intellectual property”. Yet the Open Access movement so far, as well as Creative Commons and the Open Knowledge Foundation’s “Open Definition,” have specifically excluded patent IP, i.e. inventions. Patent IP is a key driver of investment and motivation in STEM fields, and partly explains the much different economic/funding situation in STEM compared to HSS. Ignoring patent IP is logically inconsistent and obscures a key piece of economic context. Also (see point 4. it creates a contradiction in which STEM’s high-value IP is owned (patented/licensed), while HSS’s is not).

3) It’s not clear that economic conditions, even in public-sector academia, support scholars being expected or able to give away all work w/out direct compensation. BOAI does not assume this, and if we look at the makeup of academic labor we see that large portions of it are adjunct, economically marginal workers for whom this makes little sense. Further, assuming that scholars have institutional support leaves out all scholars not formally part of the academy.

4) It’s not clear that scientific knowledge (factual, non ©) can be equated to humanistic (expressive, interpretive) knowledge. For STEM-based OA, expression (“literature”) is just a carrier for factual information, the possible basis of invention. It’s natural to see the carrier as non-ownable, like information, and want it to be as free and fluid as possible, to maximize opportunities for discovery and invention, which are high-value (and patentable). However, often in HSS, the expression (“literature”) IS the high-value output, from which the research may earn any future gain e.g. by licensing, compilation, book sales.

To summarize, I think present Open Access debates are not just about details of implementation or transition, but reveal fundamental open issues about the nature and purpose of scholarship, and the economic structure of academia/scholarly work. I’m glad to see the British Academy, in the compilation to which you contributed, surfacing these complex issues, in the face of a STEM-driven OA advocacy movement inclined to consider OA a closed case.

Tim McCormick
@tmccormick Palo Alto, CA, USA