Looking back on this piece about the future prospects for a diverse scholarly publishing ecosystem, it’s kind of hard to believe that I wrote it only two and a half years ago. Sad to say, the world at large has not become a place more tolerant of pluralism and ideological diversity than it was in 2020. Here in the US, at least, we continue to be whipsawed politically and culturally between a North Korea-style cult of personality and an increasingly McCarthyesque regime of thought policing. And hey — just about everyone is banning books! To what degree do we want to let the scholarly communication ecosystem become a reflection of our larger society’s increasing intolerance of differing viewpoints, practices, and models?
Will the Future of Scholarly Communication Be Pluralistic and Democratic, or Monocultural and Authoritarian?
Over the past twenty years I’ve engaged in more discussions, and read more articles and reports, and listened to more presentations about the present and future of scholarly communication than I can possibly count. For me, each of these conversations, documents, and presentations serves as a single point in a large and growing mass of data. Looking at it in the aggregate, this data set reveals certain patterns. One of the patterns that has recently become clear to me is that the scholarly communication community — a huge, globally and ideologically diverse group of people and organizations — is struggling collectively to make a choice between two mutually incompatible options. The difficulty of that choice is compounded by several factors, one of which is the fact that neither of these mutually incompatible options is perfect, and yet our community will eventually, inevitably, choose one of them over the other. Another factor contributing to this difficulty is the fact that there is not a universal willingness to discuss openly the necessity of the choice or even the reality of it.
At this point we’d better acknowledge an important truth: that we need to be careful to avoid false choices. Life is full of them. For what it’s worth, I’m living proof that the choice between aligning oneself with the political Left and with the political Right is a false one; there’s no reason why you can’t agree with the Left on some issues and with the Right on others. Also that there’s no need to choose between being a dog person and being a cat person, and that there’s no need to choose between liking classical music and liking reggae.
But just as it’s important to avoid false choices, it’s also important — essential — to acknowledge that not all choices are false. Sometimes we really do have to choose between two things. This is the case when one option rules out or can’t logically coexist with the other one. One such situation is the one that I want to discuss here.
The struggle that is playing out right now within the scholarly communication ecosystem is the struggle to choose between pluralism and monoculture.
In the pluralistic scenario, the scholarly communication ecosystem embraces some mixture of open access (OA) and toll access models. In the monocultural scenario, the scholarly communication ecosystem embraces only OA, and eliminates toll access altogether. (Theoretically, of course, it would be possible to have an all-toll-access scenario as well, but that hasn’t been a realistic possibility for years. OA is here to stay and there is no reason at all to believe that it will ever go away, or that it should.)
We have to choose between these scenarios because as a matter of simple logic, they can’t coexist; one of them will eventually win and one of them will lose.
Not all choices are false. Sometimes we really do have to choose between two things.
It’s important to note that most of the people and organizations promoting and advocating for either of these scenarios are fully in favor of open access. Although I’ve heard credible rumors of genuine opposition to OA within certain segments of the scholarly communication ecosystem, I have never personally encountered any organization that opposes it in principle, or more than a tiny handful of individuals who oppose it. Even those organizations most commonly held up as anti-OA boogiemen (*cough* Elsevier *cough*) tend strongly to have demonstrated their support for OA in the most concrete of ways: by, you know, enthusiastically adopting it — and, in some cases, by having done more to advance it than most other groups who are in favor of it.
The problem is that when those who support the monocultural scenario talk about OA, what they often actually mean is “universal and mandatory OA.” When someone is characterized as “anti-OA,” I find that what that means most often is not that the person or organization in question actually does oppose OA, but rather that they are willing to accept other access models in addition to OA and therefore don’t support the pursuit of a scenario in which OA is the only option available.
What this means — and it’s absolutely crucial that we be clear on this — is that the choice our community is struggling to make is not a choice between OA and not-OA. The choice is between a pluralistic and democratic system and a totalistic and authoritarian one.
Anticipating that someone is going to say, “there you go again, creating a false dichotomy and ginning up a conflict where none exists,” I have to emphasize again the difference between false dichotomies and true ones. Open access vs. toll access is a false dichotomy; you can have (and indeed we do now have) a system that is characterized by both open access and toll access models. So that’s not the choice we’re currently struggling with. What we are struggling with is the choice between universal and mandatory OA and non-universal and optional OA. That’s not a false dichotomy, but a real and logically inescapable one: you can’t simultaneously have universal and non-universal OA; OA can’t simultaneously be mandatory and optional.
Those who are inclined to resist binaries in principle might be tempted to think that there’s a continuum of values between monoculture and pluralism, one that looks like this:
But in fact, this isn’t true. In reality, there’s only a spectrum of pluralism. The difference between monoculture and pluralism is binary: either you have one model, or you have more than one model; that’s the binary distinction. Once you have more than one model, you might have few or you might have many; that’s the spectrum value.
So a better representation of the discontinuous spectrum from monoculture to pluralism would look more like this:
If we can’t have both an OA monoculture and a pluralistic culture of OA and non-OA models — if, in other words, a choice between those two options is logically inevitable — how will the choice be made?
I suggest that this question is an important and urgent one — even more important and urgent than the question of which option the scholarly communication community will ultimately choose.
The question “How will we choose?” is more important than the question “What will we choose?” because the answer to the “how” question will shape much more than just the access landscape. The answer to that question has implications not only for the processes we will follow, but also for who will be given the choicemaking power. You can’t separate the process question from the power question; will the power to choose between these scenarios be placed more or less democratically in the hands of all members of the ecosystem, all of whom have some degree of influence over the outcome, or will that power be granted only to a subset of the ecosystem? If the former, what might that democratic decision-making process look like? And if the latter, who will decide who gets the power?
The scholcomm community is not struggling to choose between “OA” and “not OA,” but between “universal and mandatory OA” and “non-universal and optional OA.”
A democratic approach would involve leaving authors, institutions, funders, publishers, and other members of the scholcomm ecosystem free to consider multiple options and choose between them, thus allowing them to vote with their feet. I know it’s not very hip these days to speak positively of free markets, but the reality is that while free markets do some things quite poorly, they do other things quite well. One of the things a free market of ideas can do quite well is demonstrate the diversity of beliefs and desires of a community. When members of that community are genuinely free to choose for themselves between two mutually exclusive options, we’ll usually get a pretty good idea of what the majority of the community really wants and believes is right.
Another option is for powerful individuals or groups within the community to use their power to make choices on behalf of everyone else. Is there anyone in the scholarly communication ecosystem that has that kind of power?
Yes, of course there is. Those who wield the most institutional power in the system are funders and governments. Funders control the money that is the lifeblood of scientific research, and governments are able to impose their will by legislation and regulation.
Are either governments or funders pushing for mandatory universal open access? Some certainly are, but not many. Despite the publicity surrounding public-funding mandates like Plan S and private-funding mandates like those of the Gates and Ford Foundations, relatively few national or private funders — so far — seem inclined to impose such requirements on the researchers they support. In the US, only those two private funders (though large ones, certainly) require immediate and full OA publication; the largest government-based funders require only public access (making articles free to read but not necessarily free to reuse) and — as of this writing, anyway — allow embargoes of up to a year. Without significantly more global momentum in the direction of OA on the part of those who have power over authors, a universal flip to mandatory OA will remain a theoretical end point towards which we move without ever actually reaching it.
What currently looks much more likely is a future scenario in which different countries and funding agencies adopt varying kinds of open access policies, depending on the needs, goals, and preferences of their constituents — and in some cases adopt no explicit open access policies at all, leaving institutions, disciplines, and authors with the leeway to determine for themselves what they believe makes the most sense.
Without significantly more global momentum in the direction of OA on the part of those who have power over authors, a universal flip to mandatory OA will remain out of reach.
One objection one might raise to this scenario is: what about the readers? What about members of the general public, who have the least power of all in the scholarly communication ecosystem and whose access to (and freedom to reuse) scholarly content would be determined entirely by others? Shouldn’t they have a voice?
They should, of course, and they do. If they believe that the government should (or shouldn’t) put laws or regulations in place making open access mandatory, then they need to make their voices heard — in democratic countries they have representatives in government who need their votes and whose job is to legislate and regulate for the good of their constituents and of the country. Only some of them will get what they want, of course, because that’s how democracy works. If they think that funders should (or shouldn’t) condition their support for research on the willingness of grantees to adopt open access, then they should make those opinions known to them — though individual citizens probably can’t expect big private foundations to care much what they think, since those foundations are only vaguely accountable to the citizenry.
What this all boils down to is a responsibility on each of our parts, both as individuals and as members of organizations, to assert ourselves and make our voices heard (whatever our perspectives or positions may be) and not to allow ourselves to be silenced or intimidated by those who wish to decide for us what our future must look like (whatever their perspectives or positions may be). One way or another, the scholarly communication ecosystem is going to choose between pluralism and monoculture. What that choice will be, and how the choice will be made, is up to us — unless, of course, we allow those in power to decide for us.