It’s been almost two years since Richard Poynder published his in-depth assessment of the current state of affairs in the open access movement. Has that been enough time for us to further evaluate his critique and analysis? Does anything look different now than it did then?
A week ago [18 November 2019], Richard Poynder, a well-known and widely respected observer of the scholarly communication ecosystem whose blog Open and Shut? is generally considered a must-read source on the topic, published an extensive commentary on the current state and future prospects of both open access (OA) and the open access movement. Titled “Open Access: Could Defeat Be Snatched from the Jaws of Victory?,” it is an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of the future of scholarly communication.
Before I proceed to summarize and respond to some of the points he makes in this wide-ranging and frankly magisterial document, I should point out that the distinction I’ve made above — that between OA itself and the OA movement — is important. Both the constellation of OA publishing models and the global social movement that seeks to promote them are complex and multifaceted, and the strengths and weaknesses of one are not necessarily commensurable with those of the other. The importance of this distinction frequently becomes obvious both in Poynder’s paper and, I hope, in my response here.
Two Fundamental Points
As I understand it, Poynder is making two fundamental points in his analysis, each of which is summed up conveniently in a sentence that can be quoted directly:
We have re-discovered the truth that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Providing free content and services inevitably requires some form of revenue from somewhere.
Interestingly, this is not actually a controversial statement; when the issue of inevitable costs is raised with OA advocates, the response is usually irritable impatience: “Of course OA isn’t free; we get that.” But according to Poynder, in the early years of the movement, “OA advocates gave little or no thought to how the free online content and services they were demanding would be funded.” He provides a number of examples of early advocacy rhetoric that exposes this lack of consideration for the problem of cost allocation, or that suggest a fatal naïveté as to the real costs of providing publishing services — a naïveté that continues to be demonstrated whenever someone characterizes the work of publishers as “taking content for free and selling it back to us at an enormous profit.” Serious open publishing initiatives from arXiv to PLOS to Knowledge Unlatched have clearly shown the fundamental unseriousness of such characterizations; systems always look simpler and cheaper from the outside than they do from the inside, and scholarly publishing is no exception to that rule.
Poynder’s second fundamental point is the one on which he spends the bulk of his time, and it is also by far the more controversial:
We have learned that openness is by no means an unmitigated good.
This is the statement that will likely be met with the most consternation by many in the OA and open scholarship movements. But Poynder supports his assertion extensively, evoking, among other concerns, the issue of what has come to be called “surveillance capitalism” — a phenomenon that thrives (and can only thrive) in an environment of free and open information sharing. As Poynder points out, “the Internet’s foundational ethos of free sharing led web companies to devise business models that are now seen as both deceptive and predatory.”
To be clear, he’s not talking about predatory/deceptive journals here; he’s talking about Facebook and Google, which operate on models under which “the user has become the product.” Of course, it’s important to point out that the “user as product” phenomenon has existed for as long as there have been newspapers and magazines — not to mention free TV broadcasting — which relied on a business model that lured consumers with artificially cheap access to content, thus corralling their eyes on behalf of advertisers whose payments underwrote the bulk of the publishing or broadcasting costs. The major difference between “surveillance capitalism” as it exists now and as it existed in the print-and-broadcast era is one of both scale and effectiveness: in the networked online era, harvesting useful data about information consumers is much, much easier and more efficient than it ever was before — thanks entirely to the radical openness of the Internet.
Unintended Consequences and Unexpected Outcomes
In broader terms, though, when Poynder says that “openness is by no means an unmitigated good,” he is referring both to the inevitable emergence of unintended consequences, some of which will necessarily be negative, and the inevitable failure of some intended consequences to be realized. Among the outcomes that he believes OA advocates have failed to anticipate are these:
- The fact that an open and online world creates new tasks and costs in addition to obviating old tasks and costs.
- The ability of legacy publishers to adapt to the new environment in ways that would “allow them to maintain their power and… to increase it.”
- The reluctance of researchers to embrace Green OA. (In this respect, Poynder argues in particular that “physicists were not typical,” in that they flocked to embrace online distribution of preprints, which itself was the natural extension of long-established print-based practices in the discipline. Though even here, preprint distribution falls well short of most definitions of either Gold or Green OA, and of course does not involve the institutional repositories that have generally been the movement’s preferred locus of Green OA deposit.)
- The continued attachment of both researchers and their host institutions to off-the-shelf evaluation tools such as the Impact Factor (IF). (In this regard, Poynder shares a notable statistic: “over 90% of Berkeley faculty still consider high Impact Factor an extremely important criterion when determining where to publish.” And here one has to wonder how these faculty feel about the University of California’s recent decision to cancel access to some of the most high-IF titles in their disciplines. Whether this attachment to the IF is wise is an important, but obviously very different question.)
- The potential for damage caused by unrefereed preprints, which can (for example) be posted by drug companies in the knowledge that journalists and others will likely cite them as having been “published” — the thoroughly debunked but widely cited cellphones-and-brain-cancer study (still available in bioRxiv*) being just one of the more egregious examples of this danger. (It’s important to note here that preprints also pose the potential for significant public and scholarly benefit.)
- The possibility that “geowalls” will take the place of “paywalls.” (This would be a natural, though unintended, consequence of the popular argument that “taxpayers deserve access to scholarship arising from the research they have funded.”)
- The further danger that ideological, social, and economic conflicts between nations could lead to the splintering of the Internet itself, with countries walling their citizens off from the larger world (and walling certain elements of the world out, as well). We see what could be the beginning of a global trend with China’s infamous “Great Firewall,” which some have characterized as the “world’s biggest non-tariff trade barrier.” It would be easy to assume that this can’t happen; that the Internet will (because it inevitably must) remain both open and global. And yet it already is substantially less than globally free and open; many millions of the world’s citizens are actively restricted from accessing it freely — and more than 50% of people (mostly in the Global South) still have no access at all. The argument from inevitability does not have a particularly distinguished career of success in human history.
A Tipping Point? Maybe, and Maybe Not
Despite all of the above issues, however, Poynder argues that two more recent developments have convinced OA advocates “that a tipping point has been reached and the war won.” The first of these is librarians’ growing enthusiasm for transformative agreements (as witnessed, for example, in Elsevier’s abortive negotiations with the University of California system and its successful negotiation with Carnegie-Mellon University), and the second is the slowly-growing trend of governments and funders creating “ever more coercive mandates to compel researchers to embrace OA.”
Poynder, however, suspects that the “tipping point” is illusory, and he sees a number of reasons why the battle for OA could end up being lost rather than won. He outlines several serious challenges to the ultimate success of universal OA. He does so not for the purpose of discouraging its advocates, but rather to help them “anticipate potential problems and try to mitigate them.” Some of the potential problems he outlines are organic (originating from within OA itself, in its various manifestations), and some are external (originating in other social and geopolitical dynamics). They include:
- Pushback/Counterrevolution. While many advocates see open access as a moral imperative, government funders tend to see it in terms of potential financial benefit. But if OA fails to yield the anticipated economic benefits, government support could erode quickly. (It also bears pointing out that the moral-imperative argument for OA is hardly universally accepted, even within the scholarly community.) And, of course, OA journals can be flipped back from open to closed in response to pushback from authors or funders — this has happened already in a notable number of cases. Privacy concerns, worries about the mismanagement or nefarious application of free information (by poachers and traders in human remains, for example), the potential for open access and open data to contribute to dangerously uncontrolled development of artificial intelligence, and concerns on the part of researchers about others exploiting data they have labored to generate may also create pushback. Concerns are also already arising about the redirection of research money to support the free provision of access to content.
- Populism/Nationalism. In recent years we have seen growing attacks on academic freedom from governments throughout the world — including in the US, where the Trump administration has taken an aggressive approach to discouraging research into topics such as climate change, while actively seeking to expunge research data on such topics from the public record. At the same time, we are also seeing an increasing tendency of democratic processes to yield illiberal electoral outcomes. In this context, there is growing concern that making access to research results more broadly available does not necessarily increase the public’s understanding of those results, nor does it necessarily inoculate the public from the predations of scientific hucksters.
- Economic Protectionism. Trends toward economic isolationism and rivalries between powers both great (China vs. the US) and somewhat-less-great (North and South Korea; Saudi Arabia and Yemen; Iran and Iraq) are likely to lead not to more global openness and collaboration, but rather in the opposite direction. OA is, by its fundamental nature, international, but blockades on currency exchange, for example, make it impossible for authors in some countries to pay APCs to foreign journals; similarly, scholarly exchange between scientists in some countries is restricted by government policy (this was true in the US under President Obama, and is even more the case now, under President Trump). Furthermore, there is no question that the free sharing of information, both for reading and for reuse, will inevitably have uneven effects in the world, offering relatively less benefit to the most scientifically and technologically advanced countries and relatively more benefit to less-developed countries. While many of us might argue that this sounds more like a feature than a bug, it may seem just the opposite to those in positions of power in an advanced country whose job it is to help that country stay dominant. Poynder points out the potential implications of this dynamic for (to take just one example) the US National Institutes of Health—the “largest public funder of biomedical research in the world.” At the same time, of course, the massive and systematic cyber theft of intellectual property is a growing international problem, and geopolitical competition and conflict — notably between China and the US — make resolving that problem harder rather than easier.
- Naïveté. Poynder argues that a seemingly willful ignorance of the potential for unintended consequences has been a hallmark of the OA movement since the beginning; indeed, even today (as many of those consequences are becoming painfully apparent) attempts at discussing them are regularly dismissed in the community as “fear-mongering.” Such consequences include:
- the APC model leading to the problem of predatory journal publishing;
- OA mandates leading to a backlash among researchers;
- insistence on Creative Commons licensing creating not only resistance among authors but also unintended IP consequences of its own;
- the potential for OA to lead to decreased funding for libraries.
In one telling example, Poynder reports that this very naïveté about open science and scholarship practices in general has led the FBI to travel to research universities to brief their administrators on best practices regarding information security.
Poynder devotes many pages in his report to an extensive analysis of current global ideological divides and great-power struggles (particularly between China and the United States), most of which is interesting but much of which seems less centrally related to issues of OA and scholarly communication; I let it pass without comment here not because it’s uninteresting or irrelevant, but mainly because I don’t want this response to be as long as the document to which I’m responding. For our purposes, suffice it to say that Poynder sees significant negative implications of these ideological and geopolitical struggles for the future of openness in science, scholarship, and scholarly communication, and I believe he makes a compelling argument for that position. Two of his observations in particular seem especially worth quoting: “The future of scholarly publishing will surely depend to a great extent on what China does — not least because it is now the second largest publisher of research papers in the world and expected soon to overtake the US as the world’s top economy… It seems logical to ask whether China’s interest in OA demonstrates a commitment to openness or simply a desire to have access to research produced in other countries.”
Richard Poynder’s full 84-page document is well worth the time and energy required to read and digest it. Not only does he offer sharp and often trenchant analysis of the state of open access itself, but he also provides wide-ranging geopolitical and economic context for his analysis of the current state and possible future(s) of OA, and of the movement that is dedicated to promoting it.
*Disclosure: I serve on the advisory board of bioRxiv.