Bear with me; this story will become relevant within a few paragraphs.

About 40 years ago, in my mid-teens, I got very interested in animal rights. While I was doing some research on the topic in my high school library, I came across a book titled Animal Liberation, written by a young philosopher named Peter Singer. He came from the utilitarian school—a philosophical position that argues, more or less, that the morality of an action is determined by whether it creates more utility (benefit, pleasure, well-being) in the world than a different action would. So starting from the assumption that animals have the same moral standing as humans (to disagree, in his view, is to be guilty of speciesism), and applying utilitarian thinking to human-animal interactions, Singer concluded that, for example, eating meat is morally indefensible in humans because although it creates utility for the human in the form of culinary pleasure, it causes pain to the animal and deprives the animal of life, thus creating a massive imbalance in utility. The same kind of imbalance is created when we use animals to test the safety of cosmetics, when we wear animal skins as a marker of wealth and status, etc., and therefore all such exploitation of animals is morally indefensible.

At age 14, I found Singer’s arguments pretty compelling, and I saw no reason to question his basic assumption that humans and animals have the same moral standing. My thinking has evolved since then, but Singer’s arguments and the utilitarian position generally have stuck in my mind. And since then, as I’ve explored utilitarianism a bit more, I’ve been especially struck by another of its implications: that although the common-sense morality most of us apply in our daily lives leads us to feel that we each owe a special moral duty to our family and friends, utilitarianism tends to disagree. A strict utilitarian might argue that it’s immoral to give material support to a family member if the same support would create greater utility for a stranger. (So, by this logic, giving my son $5 to buy ice cream would be immoral if I have the option of using the $5 to feed a starving stranger instead. From utilitarianism you could even argue that feeding my child his third meal of the day is immoral when I could give that food to a child from another family who hasn’t eaten at all that day.)

It’s basic questions like these — how can we do the most good, and where do our most fundamental moral obligations lie? — that keep coming back to my mind as I wrestle with various issues related to scholarly communication.

Network of business concept.


Here’s what has raised these questions for me again recently: our library regularly gets invited to contribute financially to programs that will make content freely available to the world. Sometimes (for example, with programs such as Knowledge Unlatched or SCOAP3) we’ve been asked to contribute to a program that will directly underwrite making current or future publications available on an open access (OA) basis; other times (for example, with consortial transformative agreements) we’ve been invited to pay more for a journal package in order to allow our institutional authors to publish in those journals on an OA basis. In the former case, we’re being asked to make a financial sacrifice for the good of the wider world; the latter case is similar, though arguably in that case our increased outlay would create a direct benefit to our institutional authors as well (to the degree that they do, in fact, want to make their work OA; in reality, of course, some care about that more than others do).

The argument in favor of these arrangements is usually based on a clearly (if implicitly) utilitarian position: creating utility for the whole world is morally superior to creating utility primarily for members of the immediate campus community.

What I think is interesting, though, is that you can also imagine utilitarian arguments against arrangements like these.

For example, from a utilitarian perspective you could argue that using a relatively large amount of campus money to make a relatively small amount of university-produced content OA will not necessarily create more global utility than using that money for another purpose. After all, the money could also be used to support scholarships for students from underrepresented groups, or to bolster the programs of our crisis center. Can we be confident that these uses would do less good in the world than would be done by making some of the articles of some of our authors freely available?

The argument in favor of these arrangements is usually based on a clearly utilitarian position: creating utility for the whole world is morally superior to creating utility primarily for my community.

From the same perspective you could even argue that our university might create more utility in the world by giving its researchers more access to content than it would by providing them less content, while making some of their research outputs freely available to all. At an institution like mine, which supports a major cancer research center, any reduction in the amount of money spent to ensure access to oncology journals could have a greater negative impact than leaving researchers’ published articles behind paywalls would. (Please note that I’m not asserting this would actually be the effect; I’m only saying it could, and that this is an argument one could make from a utilitarian position.)


Of course, if you don’t embrace utilitarianism you could come up with different arguments against making local financial sacrifices in support of OA initiatives. One might reasonably believe that the campus has a moral obligation to use its resources for the primary purpose of meeting campus needs, and that creating utility in the rest of the world should be a secondary (or even lower) priority. The utilitarian assumption that our global moral obligations have the same weight as our local ones is just that — an assumption — and isn’t logically compelled.

The organizational context of an academic library creates even more moral complexity, because unlike a parent deciding whether and how much to feed his child, the library isn’t spending its own money; it’s spending money that was vouchsafed to it by a host institution, for the purpose of meeting institutional needs and priorities that may or may not include furthering an OA agenda. This means that the feeding-my-kid scenario is a bad metaphor for my situation in the library. A better metaphor would be taking $5 from the till at my workplace and giving it to a hungry and homeless person. Sure, the homeless person may well need the $5 more than my employer does — but it’s not my money to give. (Though I guess a strict utilitarian might argue that stealing money from my employer can be morally justified if I use the money to create more utility than would have been created by leaving the money in my employer’s hands.)


But then there are the strictly strategic questions. Suppose you and I fully agree that my library has a moral obligation to use more of its money to promote change in the scholarly communication ecosystem and less of it to support the immediate local needs of my institution’s students and faculty. Let’s say we’re not only confident it’s the best course of action, but also absolutely certain that our position is morally required. But what if my campus administration — which is the entity that will decide whether and to what extent my library continues to receive funding — disagrees? And let’s say that despite that disagreement, I go ahead and use those institutional funds in the way that I believe is right, confident in my moral position. Suppose I do this for a year or two or three, until my campus administrators start asking me questions about how the university’s money is being spent. Once those questions are answered, how confident can I be that my library will continue receiving the funding it has received in the past? And how much utility will my library be able to create — whether locally or globally — if its funding gets redirected to campus organizations whose spending is more tightly aligned with university priorities? Again, to be clear: this isn’t a moral argument, but a strategic one. You and I may be morally correct in our position — and acting on that correctness may radically undermine our ability to create utility for anyone, local or global.

In the library world, we don’t usually talk in strictly philosophical terms about the organizational and budgetary decisions we make. (I’m not saying no one ever does; I’m saying it’s not what we routinely do.) But this is one of the many professional and organizational contexts in which philosophy really does matter. It matters how we think about what’s right and wrong, and about what makes sense and what doesn’t; it matters what our foundational moral assumptions are, because regardless of whether we consciously think about them in those terms, those considerations and assumptions are going to shape the decisions we make when allocating scarce resources and setting organizational policy. And the decisions we make in academic libraries about policy and resource allocation are going to have both direct and indirect impacts on the daily lives of real people.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


15 Thoughts on "Utility, Morality, Strategy, and Scholarly Communication"

Faculty at Iowa State have been largely supportive of our library’s move towards supporting open access. For example, the faculty senate endorsed our negotiating principles that prioritize open access. Our faculty senate has also passed their own resolution in support of open access. It probably helps that we are a land-grant and our mission specifically mentions sharing the knowledge we create to make Iowa and the world a better place. So it is less any individual librarian’s moral view driving our decisions than this broader consensus and mission. And when other libraries are also supporting open access, and more content overall is becoming freely available, it isn’t clear to me that investments in open access means not supporting immediate local needs.

It’s certainly true that if supporting and promoting open access programs and solutions is a priority for the host institution, then using institutional funds to underwrite those programs and solutions brings the library into good strategic alignment with its host. What’s more difficult is when these are priorities for the library, but not for the library’s host institution.

But what if libraries are wrong in assuming that supporting OA is the morally correct decision? Does OA help make content more accessible in the short term? Of course. But what if the long-term impacts on the knowledge system are negative? What if championing this strategy with such unwavering and unquestioning force leads to a rise in fake journals and copyright abuse, or makes the publishing models of some knowledge societies extinct (as well as cuts support to the knowledge producers they serve), or makes the conversation about OA pros and cons so toxic that any dissent is deemed heretical? What if libraries have accepted OA as an unvarnished, unmitigated good when an alternative moral, strategic, or utilitarian approach (or legal-fiduciary, business, etc. approach) might be to look critically at what this model means for all inhabitants of the knowledge ecosystem and adapt OA accordingly instead of adopt it at face value? OA support can be morally ambiguous in this respect. Supporters can claim they are doing this to support access for those without access (and stand on moral principles about how knowledge should be free), but they can do this with full intent to disrupt the knowledge production system, without regard for the consequences (or with the mindset that as long as their house stays in order, the broader consequences are immaterial). Full disclosure: I’m a big supporter of OA and an open future and have devoted years of my life (and will devote years to come) to figuring out how to get there from here. But for entities like libraries that sit at the crossroads of knowledge production and dissemination and are such critical gatekeepers of knowledge, I believe the only morally defensible position is to see the knowledge system the same way 14 year-old Rick Anderson saw animal rights: respecting the rights and needs of all inhabitants of the knowledge ecosystem is imperative. This means giving money to KU and SCOAP, but it also means helping the cancer center come up with boots-on-the-ground solutions to data warehousing, and helping UNESCO come up with global solutions to better journal access. Interestingly (to me anyway), it does not mean giving money to efforts that lobby for fundamentalist, exclusionary solutions to the future of open. Give that money instead to PKP, LOCKSS, COS, or other groups whose actions help enrich the entire knowledge ecosystem (and by extension, help the library perform its function).

The moral questions are the toughest ones, because you can’t answer them without appealing to subjective values and beliefs. This brings us back to the eternal problem of the logical chasm between “is” and “should,” which has bedeviled moral philosophers for thousands of years.

Thank you, Rick! Here is how I think about it – feedback solicited.

An academic library is beholden to get the best content for their readers. Like getting the best oncology journals for cancer researchers, not getting sub-standard oncology journals. (I am not going to try to define best or sub-standard here.)

I see getting the best content as creating utility for the institution, which in turn creates utility for the world. This also satisfies the library’s moral obligations to the institution and the world. In both of these sentences, I am classifying institution and world as large groups, not individuals.

Once an academic library checks off the utilitarian and moral obligation boxes with the best content, how we strategically put this into practice is this century’s question. It is here an academic library should start considering OA options. If an academic library can serve the readers in their institution by financially supporting the best OA content…and concurrently serve all readers in the world at the same time, this is the priority. I define the best OA content as content an academic library would buy regardless of its OA status. Since a library would buy it regardless, the library is still a good steward of their budget. Examples of this are Knowledge Unlatched and SCOAP3.

Whether non-OA content or OA content, an academic library’s holdings bring utility to the institution, and the world. Within this construct, some individuals support the institution by using the best content for teaching and research. Then it is up to the individual to facilitate their success by publishing. If a library/institution sets aside money to pay APCs, then the library/institution is the arbiter of an individual’s success. Being the arbiter of an individual’s success, suddenly concentrates the library’s utilitarian and moral obligations to one individual. This concentration cannot be sustained over time, nor maybe in the present. Can you imagine the utility fallout for an individual not covered (the simplest reason being the institution not having enough APC money), the individual’s acknowledged moral superiority, and the legal ramifications of appeal, grievance, and trial?

All this said, if an academic library can serve the readers in their institution by financially supporting the best OA content…and concurrently serve all readers in the world at the same time, this is the priority. I am still searching for a way to serve an institution’s authors within a large group construct. Let me know when you come up with one :).

How we try to answer these questions is also important, though, is it not? Some analyst/philosophers, for instance, have noted how open movements in general have been susceptible to a kind of fascist dynamic that preaches a rejection of capitalism, dissent as betrayal, and the need for the masses to rise against oppression. It’s curious that movements trying to make the world more transparent and accountable would themselves become less transparent and accountable. They’re a microcosm of what we’ve seen throughout history, when people (say, in late 18th century France) become so overrun with passion in their pursuit of liberty and equality that they trample liberty and equality. So, how we pursue our more just world matters—not just the solutions we choose, but how we treat the world around us in this pursuit.

How we talk about these issues absolutely does matter. I’ve been arguing for years that we need to keep open minds about scholcomm reform, and recognize that smart, well-informed people of good will can come to a variety of conclusions both about what’s right and about what makes the most sense. Demonization and thought-policing are never helpful, no matter what side of the issue they come from.

Where does the “free rider” issue factor into these deliberations? If you suspect that it is likely that someone else will foot the bill for the service (e.g., arXiv, Subscribe to Open models), then are you better off spending that money elsewhere or should you feel obligated to contribute to something that your patrons are likely to be using?

Those are really good questions, and they go to the “local vs. global” issue. Like I said above, a dollar I spend on a subscription is a dollar I can’t use to underwrite an APC, or contribute to the arXiv. When I have to make a choice like that, I’m choosing (among other things) between focusing on local and immediate needs and focusing on global and long-term ones. But I also may be taking a position on which of those postures I think will do the most good to the most people. So, I might decline to support the arXiv because I don’t feel I can afford to, in light of pressing local needs, or (more mercenarily) just because I’m happy to be a free rider on its services. Or I might decline because I don’t think the arXiv does a lot of good and isn’t worth my money. (For the record: my library does support the arXiv.)

Very nice framing, Rick; very nice. It’s worth noting that these three dimensions–utility, morality, strategy–rarely, if ever, operate in isolation from the others, but, rather, almost always in concert with each other.

Excellent ‘big picture’ post that has universal applications. I’ll go so far as to say the proper mix of all three is the Holy Grail of successful human coexistence.

Our library is heavily promoting open textbooks for usage online in the fall. Without institutional and Funder support these would not be available for faculty teaching in the fall. OA has also influenced the research community and publishers to make all Covid content openly available. Even newspapers are making Covid news stories open. This pandemic may be the best argument we have to convince administrators of the value of supporting open access.

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