Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Melissa H. Cantrell and Michael R. Donaldson. Melissa is the Scholarly Communication Librarian at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Michael is the Open Access Program Manager for Canadian Science Publishing.
Open access can be easily but not precisely defined. At the nucleus of open access is the uncomplicated idea of a means of access free of cost and with permissions clearly outlined by an open license. Yet surrounding this central concept is a dense and active cloud of values, motivations, and incentives knit so closely to the nucleus as to be indistinguishable from open access itself. What open access actually is — its opportunities, challenges, and prospects for the future — remains highly dependent on one’s vantage point within this cloud. There is value in exploring the concept of different perspectives on open access in more detail to begin to develop a “unified approach to open”.
This post is a thought experiment conducted by two individuals, both with interest in advancing open access, but who are situated in quite different contexts within the scholarly communication milieu. Melissa is a librarian at a large state university in the United States. Michael is the Open Access Program Manager at a small/mid-size Canadian scholarly publisher. We originally met through the SSP fellowship program. Our earliest conversations revealed that we both shared a passion for open access, yet we recognized that our perspectives differed in some respects. We began discussing how different stakeholders who comprise various areas of the scholarly ecosystem may also view open access through their own lenses, which could in turn impact how we work together to identify solutions to open access challenges.
To explore this concept further, we undertook an experiment: we each went off on our own and drafted a high-level synopsis on our own personal perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of an open access future. Once we had each drafted our viewpoints, we reconvened and discussed the results, identifying areas where we agreed and areas where we diverged in our perspectives. The outcome of this experiment highlights how stakeholders, and indeed different individuals, may have contrasting viewpoints on open access as they look through their own lens. The following is our attempt to view open access through the cloud of difference and disagreement, to see what a “unified approach” to open access looks like at a personal and local level.
Melissa H. Cantrell’s librarian perspective
For me, open access is the set of ideas and practices which aims to inflect the process of scholarly communication with more humanity. My understanding of best approaches towards open access is ever evolving, and I have long held the view that the means by which we attempt to achieve global open access is just as important as the end result of barrier-free access in itself. Open access tactics on the ground have a responsibility to ensure their pathways advance the “unprecedented public good” it presupposes.
However, more recently I perceive great nuance not only in the mechanisms of open access , which deserve rigorous interrogation, but also the equivocacy of its very principles. While the original BOAI Declaration asserts that removing access barriers will “lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge,” this pronouncement assumes not only an inevitability to the benefits that this access will bestow, but also a consensus on the desirability to be ushered into the fold of this declaration.
In their book chapter “Can Open Scholarly Practices Redress Epistemic Injustice?” in Reassembling Scholarly Communications, Albornoz et al., found that for many in the Global South, the pursuit of opening marginalized knowledge was viewed not as a “radical practice” but as a continuation of “colonial knowledge extraction.” While I claim no particular expertise in practices or perceptions of open access in the Global South, it is worth amplifying the point that uniting humanity in common intellectual conversation cannot functionally be decreed, and must as its starting point scrutinize how actions led without value or intentionality serve to re-create structural inequalities and perpetuate the status quo in scholarly communication.
Thus, open access innovation must be defined by its ability to break down the status quo — not by making access to research literature more panoptic but by instilling empowerment and humanity for every participant in the scholarly ecosystem. I have long been influenced by the theory of Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life regarding the significance of individualized reappropriation of culture and traditions. In his metaphor of walking through a city, we see everywhere evidence of why a “unified view” might fail to extend humanity in scholarly publishing. If we imagine scholarly communications as a city, open access strategies may dwell in the tall, reflective high rises, but we should pay more attention to the open access practices residing in the huddled masses on the street, pressing not only to be heard but also to point the ways forward.
Michael Donaldson’s publisher perspective
As a smaller not-for-profit publisher, our team aims to serve the research community by disseminating trusted scholarly knowledge and ensuring that it is discoverable. From my perspective, open access is a key means for us to achieve this goal since it removes barriers and enables the uptake of research to broader audiences.
Across the scholarly publishing industry, the transition to open access (OA) has been slowed by the challenge of identifying sustainable ways to cover the costs of open access publishing. To accelerate the transition to OA, scholarly publishers are exploring new funding mechanisms, such as transformative models, which repurpose subscription fees to enable open access publishing. It can be a challenge for smaller publishers, who typically operate under thin margins, to take on the risk of piloting new open access models. The other challenge is that smaller publishers must seek out partners and create opportunities for pilot projects or risk being left behind by the large-scale commercial publishers that have the capital to lead the shift to OA.
Like any industry undergoing a disruptive force, there is a need for scholarly publishers to innovate in order to adapt to these new changes. One way to accomplish this is to experiment. Scholarly publishers of all sizes are developing new business models, establishing partnerships, launching pilot projects, and adapting systems and workflows. To innovate, it is necessary to take risks. However, the risks must be taken wisely, using the best available data, as there is no safety net should the experiment fail. Partnerships are essential to moving forward in this space; stakeholders from across the research community need to work together to turn the dial on OA. Publishers must innovate, or risk being left behind and failing to meet their researchers’ needs.
As the industry approaches an inflection point in the shift to OA, revenue models will need to transition from transformative to a permanent open access model. Ultimately, open access is the way of the future and scholarly publishers, including small publishers, must take bold steps to achieve an open access future. By taking risks and working together, scholarly publishers can make the most of this transformation and continue to do their part to serve the needs of their research communities and facilitate the advancement of scholarly research.
One aspect of the exercise that immediately struck both of us had to do not with the content of our responses but with the perspectives we embodied in our writing. Since we had not read each other’s responses prior to finishing our own and sending it to the other person, we both noted the experience of reading the other’s work and thinking “Oh, maybe I should have written this differently!” While Michael’s writing spoke from the positionality of his employer (a publisher), Melissa’s tone was more personal and made no mention of her employer’s position or of the collective position of libraries. We reflected that this subtle difference in how we chose to tell the story of “the current challenges and future of open access” provides meaningful insight into the difficulty of forming a united or shared approach to open access implementation. Michael’s perspective emphasized the sustainability of the transition to OA. This view is strongly influenced by the scholarly publishing industry of which he is a part. While Melissa’s library or university may similarly take actions guided by self-interest, she is also afforded by academia the freedom to openly dissent or deviate in her own practices and thoughts. Thus, while we may share many of the same values when considering this issue, the terrain we are working from remains highly uneven. This is because our affiliations within the scholarly publishing landscape – including what stakes we have, what freedoms we are afforded, and what incentives drive us — overlay our perspectives and exert a powerful force on how we view the best routes to an open access future. However, these conflicting viewpoints also create a valuable starting point from which to come to a better understanding of the many viewpoints within scholarly communication and to parse the available options for moving forward.
Despite the differences in our philosophical viewpoints, we both shared two key challenges related to open access: (1) the concept of community in building an open future and (2) ensuring that equity is foundational to the open access shift.
Michael, wearing his publisher hat, states the view that publishers aim to serve researchers and help them to disseminate their research as widely as possible through open access. Melissa’s perspective is similar albeit broader, as evidenced by her “city” analogy of open access and finding ways for open access to be led by those “on the ground.” We both share the perspective that open access is not only beneficial to research communities and the various stakeholder groups involved in research but also to humanity as a whole, if realized to the fullest extent. However, as Melissa notes, open access is not only about the desired outcome of having research be open but is also about the path to getting there and recognizing that there are many challenges and unintentional outcomes that have already or may eventually emerge as we move in this direction.
We each recognized that while open access has the goal of removing existing barriers, there is a risk of new barriers being unintentionally raised. Building structural equity into the transition to open is essential and should be front of mind for all stakeholders involved in open science. Yet there is a risk that some researchers and research communities, particularly those based in the Global South, may face new cost barriers for publishing their research as open access, or may have different priorities altogether when it comes to their scholarship. The adoption of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, which is a standard-setting instrument to guide UNESCO member nations as they adopt their own open science policies and frameworks, provides an unequivocal declaration that equity and fairness should be fundamental values in an open future; how we achieve that will require careful consideration and purposeful action from all stakeholders who are involved in this shift.
This exercise has illuminated how perspective is a key aspect to understanding open access and conceptualizing how it can be achieved. It is undoubtedly a complex issue with many moving parts and inherent challenges. Achieving open access in an equitable and sustainable manner will require careful consideration, communication, and collaboration among the wide range of stakeholders that are involved in this shift. We encourage others in the open access space to share their perspectives, reflect with colleagues and other stakeholders who may have different perspectives, and think about what a “unified approach” to open access might look like.