Open Access: A Personal Take

In the second of our blogs this week on OA, following on from Open Access Week last week, Alastair Horne gives his personal reflection on the challenges ahead…


I have a few reservations about Open Access.

In some respects, that’s hardly surprising. After all, I work for a big publisher – not, admittedly, an Elsevier, but still one of the world’s largest university presses, one of those not-for-profit organisations whose deep differences from the likes of Elsevier are too commonly elided in the recurrent syllogism that ‘Elsevier is a publisher; Elsevier is a profiteer; publishers are profiteers.’

On the other hand, it’s also very surprising indeed. I’m an instinctive socialist who broadly supports concepts like Labour’s long-abandoned Clause Four, who still regards ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ as a laudable aspiration, and who would happily vote to renationalise the railways, for starters. On that basis, why wouldn’t I support a system that seeks to liberate scholarly research from private enterprise and make it freely available to those who need it?

A third factor in this complicated relationship with open access is that I’m also a humanities researcher manqué; an English graduate with an unfinished PhD thesis (which celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year; there wasn’t a party). As it happens, the debate on open access that I attended last Friday – the prompt for all this self-indulgent soul-searching – took place at Cambridge’s Divinity School, where I sat the last of my undergraduate exams in English twenty years ago, and made such a singularly bad fist of writing essays on twentieth century poetry that I imperilled my funding for that PhD.

But enough about me – for the moment, at least – and let’s focus on the debate itself, held under the auspices both of the global Open Access week and Cambridge’s own Festival of Ideas, an annual series of events ‘celebrating the arts, humanities, and social sciences’. Under the chairmanship of Stephen Curry, described as ‘the world’s most amiable open access advocate’, four academics debated whether ‘society can afford open access’. Representing the humanities (in practice, if not necessarily in theory) were Dr Daniel Allington, researcher in Digital Cultures at the University of the West of England, and Professor Peter Mandler, President of the Royal Historical Society; representing the sciences (again, in practice rather than in theory), were Dr Theo Bloom, Executive Editor at the BMJ, and Dr Danny Kingsley, Head of Scholarly Communications for Cambridge University.

Given the festival’s focus, it was perhaps unsurprising that the debate tended more effectively to question whether the humanities and social sciences, rather than society itself, can afford open access. Mandler’s key point – and one that I found largely persuasive – was that since the principles of open access weren’t designed for humanities research, the humanities should therefore not be bound by them. Open access was developed first to solve problems encountered by creative artists, and then by scientists; not those experienced by humanities researchers. The Finch report that informed subsequent UK government policies on open access, he told us, was drawn up by a committee that lacked any representation from the humanities. Any subsequent accommodations that policy-makers had ultimately made towards the humanities had been hard won through vigorous intervention.

One such accommodation could be found in politicians’ reluctant acceptance of Green open access as a legitimate alternative to Gold. Much humanities research is unfunded – Allington insisted that almost all of his own had been – and even the funded research was supported by budgets that were tiny compared to those supporting scientists. When Bloom pointed out that research conducted by an academic whose salary was paid by their university was still publicly-funded, even though it was not directly supported by a funding body, Allington responded that many academics in the humanities are either part-time or paid only for teaching, and as a result, have neither the cash nor the moral imperative to pay the article processing charges required to make their work available through Gold open access. Curry’s suggestion that making humanities research open access might somehow attract more funding seemed, to my mind, somewhat optimistic.

Allington and Mandler also raised concerns about the creative commons licenses required by many funding bodies in order for researchers to comply with their open access policies. Allington pointedly described the author of these licenses, Lawrence Lessig, as essentially a Google-funded advocate, and expressed strong objections to having his work remixed and reworked without his consent. Though Bloom insisted that CC licenses’ requirement for attribution meant that Allington need not worry about being misrepresented, I found Kingsley’s response more persuasive: the open access movement needs to acknowledge that different disciplines have different requirements for CC licenses, and – presumably – work with researchers to create the new licenses needed. Mandler’s assertion that he’d been told by politicians that different disciplines could not have different licenses was worrying.

Discussion turned to the possible impact on journals and societies – and specifically the good work they do in other areas – of losing the money they make from subscriptions. Bloom questioned why that work should be funded through the money they make from research, and was answered pragmatically by Mandler, who pointed out that that was where the money was. Asked by a member of the audience why journals even needed to exist, Kingsley responded that individual researchers tended not to be interested in self-organising (though the development of initiatives such as the Open Library of the Humanities by Caroline Edwards and Martin Eve suggests that this is thankfully by no means universal).

The attitude towards publishers was thankfully more nuanced than is sometimes the case, despite – in a statement whose subtleties I undoubtedly missed in the rush of live-tweeting – Kingsley at one point suggesting that large publishers belonged in the same category as tobacco companies. The panel agreed that with open access creating greater transparency over what publishing actually costs, it was harder now for publishers to justify profits of 30-40%. Bloom was happy with profit being reinvested by publishers, but not with it leaving the system to enrich shareholders. (And on this we were in rare agreement.)

So, where does all this leave me, and the concerns I expressed at somewhat self-indulgent length at the start of this piece? The debate rather brought them into focus: though I support Open Access in principle, I fear the consequences of it being over-rigorously applied to the humanities and social sciences. I’d have liked to hear more about some of the initiatives that – rather than insisting that the humanities and social sciences will be just fine under a model that ignores their particular requirements – are actually trying to find ways to make open access work for these disciplines. (Though the Open Library of the Humanities was briefly mentioned in passing early on, this could have been discussed at more length, and there was no mention made of, say, Knowledge Unlatched’s experiments in funding monographs, or UCL press.)

I’m also still a little concerned about the zeal with which some advocates pursue open access. Perhaps I’m just over-sensitive, but even in the faultlessly polite debate I saw on Friday, there still seemed at times traces of an inflexible rigour that worried me: the belief, however civilly expressed, that the opponents of open access must be either misinformed or exhibiting bad faith. In his opening speech, moderator Stephen Curry asked whether publishers might be dressing up fears about profit margins as concerns for sustainability; in the discussion on funding, there seemed a marked reluctance to believe that the money just isn’t there in the humanities. More often, though, there was an open-mindedness that reassured me. Kingsley’s insistence on the diversity within the open access movement – that though many people round the world supported its ideals, they disagreed on how to achieve them – encouraged me to believe that ways will be found to find models that will work for the humanities and social sciences, and that publishers will have a role to play in them.

Alastair Horne runs webinars and a blog for language teachers at Cambridge University Press; he tweets as @pressfuturist, blogs occasionally at and is currently working on a novel set in a Parisian cemetery.

This blog post can also be found on Alastair’s own blog, here:

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