Moving from Open Access ‘Centralism’ to Open Access Radicalism

An interesting thought experiment is comparing the Open Access (OA) movement to other current social movements for progressive change, e.g. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Like these movements, OA recognizes an injustice in the system and is fighting to make it more inclusive.

Of course, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are the much more important fights. They are fighting for a specific end result; better lives for discriminated groups, while OA is fighting for a means to an end; OA so that research is better and better research so that people have better lives.

You can see advocacy strategies used within the OA movement have grown out of strategies used by social justice movements. Things like developing more creative ethical (and practical) arguments that can be used to convince others. Advocating for strategic policy changes. Solidarity and community building. Intersectionality.

Often it seems like because the stakes are substantially less for the OA movement that these strategies are a bit watered down there. If you had to choose, you’d want a ‘code of conduct’ policy that addresses discrimination over an OA policy 100% of the time, all the time.

I wonder what the equivalent is for one of the most debated strategies of social justice movements: The ‘Punch a Nazi’ debate? When is it OK to engage in physical violence to stop an action that will cause much greater violence (just more indirectly)? The OA version would have to be extremely watered down, because there’s very little threat of violence in scholarly communication. Maybe the equivalent here would be openly advocating for and using Sci-Hub? Arguing for mass copyright infringement to stop the greater harm of what large publishers are doing to the scholarly ecosystem? I feel like we’ve had almost a proportional amount of debate in Scholarly Communication circles about Sci-Hub as social justice movements have had about Nazi Punching.

The comparison between the OA movement and Social Justice movements gets stronger though when you look at the response to one of OA’s most radical calls for change yet. The ‘Academic Freedom’ counter-argument to Plan S. I can’t but help see it as incredibly similar to the “Freedom of Speech’ response that Social Justice movements often receive.

Plan S is a plan by a Collective of Research Funders to require that authors who receive funding make their works/articles OA. The crux of Plan S, and what makes it so different from other OA requirement policies, is that Plan S has much stricter rules for ensuring that these works are a sustainable and fair version of OA. While other Funders do require OA, their rules have often been more wishy-washy, which has led to lack of compliance and issues with sustainability. Plan S is a radical attempt to make OA the default.

And some people aren’t happy about it.

“Plan S is a serious violation of academic freedom” says an Open Letter signed by over a thousand researchers. Their argument, while it does make a few good points about the technicalities of Plan S (which are now being worked out), it does have a lot of problems. Ultimately though the main thrust of the argument in the Open Letter is that Plan is an attempt to tell researchers ‘how’ and ‘where’ to publish and this goes contrary to Academic Freedom.

I think Marc Coulture did a good job of showing the issue with this argument:

“Here we face a peculiar situation where, in the very name of AF [Academic Freedom], the research community hesitates to let go of, or significantly reform, a system that is far from optimal and that, quite paradoxically, may well limit the AF of individual researchers.”

You could substitute ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘society’ in here and it’s the exact response that Social Justice movements have been using against those rallying against ‘political correctness’ or other so-called limits on ‘freedom’:

‘Here we face a peculiar situation where, in the very name of Freedom of Speech, society hesitates to let go of, or significantly reform, a system that is far from optimal and that, quite paradoxically, may well limit the freedom of individuals.’

Defending a terrible system because it is the status quo and change would require, well, change. You’d have to rethink how you act, what you do.

I’m blogging, tweeting, and talking about radical approaches to scholarly communication a lot more lately. My default growing up through high school and early university was always toward Centralism. I identified as a feminist, anti-racist, and a progressive, but I was all about ‘slow and steady change’ and not sure if we could run a society in a radically different way that would actually be better. (Which I cringe a lot at looking back on. I was aware we had a society where sexual assault and racism were the norm, and I wasn’t sure we could do better?! Ugh).

I think what was behind that Centralist Worldview was two things. #1: It appeared like I benefited from the current system and so radically changing it, while it might help others, it wasn’t clear it would help me. And #2: From what I had read and learned from history, I wasn’t sure we could build a system that didn’t engage in some-sort of mass discrimination of some group.

#1 quickly went out the window as I made a more diverse friend group and realized the diversity that already existed in my personal groups. Discrimination hurts people I care about. It makes my life worse and makes me worse person. It hurts people. Fuck that. Of course radical change would help me.

#2 stuck around a longer. I was sold on the idea that we needed to try for radical change regardless, but I was not sure if it was actually possible. This made advocating for it harder. I wasn’t sure it was a problem that could be solved.

But let me tell you, it can be.

How do I know? The Open Access movement is a good test for this. It is an attempt to radically alter the status quo of scholarly publishing for everyone’s benefit. It’s a massive task, and even if/when Plan S is put into place, there’s still a massive amount of work to do for the ideals of Open Access to fully be realized.

This is because Open isn’t just about everything being ‘free to read’, its about open copyright licenses, open data, reproducibility, moving away from abuse of impact metrics, reforming peer review, equality…etc. And we are nowhere close to solving all of these.

So how do I know it is possible that we can change things? This isn’t some ‘anything is possible’ argument. I think OA is actually more than possible,  I think it is probable. I think this because I know the Builders.

I know those who work toward open access. I’ve watched them, studied them, and I trust them. Yes, there are debates, disagreements, and confusion, but I’ve also seen how careful they are, how inclusive, and how tireless. Yes, they are still flawed individuals and there are some builders who harm more than they help, but you also see growth, sharing of lessons, and responsibility.

The same goes for Social Justice movements. You look at the true leaders and supporters of a cause and that’s where you get your faith that change is possible. That we can engage in radical reform and come out better at the end.

I know this is sappy. Over-optimistic. But we need more of that, no? True, this might all be for naught with Climate Change. Which has put everything on a much tighter timeline. However, if we changed our approach on that too, we could probably get somewhere. Calls for ‘individual freedom’ and avoiding changing ourselves never changes the status quo.

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About Ryan Regier

Doing Library Stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier
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One Response to Moving from Open Access ‘Centralism’ to Open Access Radicalism

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