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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This week I had the privilege of visiting Japan for the first time to speak with SPARC Japan (in Tokyo) about developments in open access for the humanities.

A few interesting points on an OA-front came out of this that are worth sharing for those (much like myself) who primarily operate within an Anglo-American context; I learned a great deal. Firstly, many commentators in Tokyo voiced the argument-by-elitism in slightly different form. It was couched in terms of literacy. The argument runs: if there is a low level of literacy, then "what is the point of making material that will not be understood available?" I could not quite restrain myself from a quipped response at one stage: "how can literacy ever improve if we don't give people material to read?" I also made the case, though, for the necessary social re-integration of the university in a liberal democratic context; a nice bit of idealism amid many pragmatics.

The other point that interested me was the repeated assertion, linked to the above, that researchers feared the seizure of their work by those who would not understand it, particularly when it was on a sensitive topic. I think we see this a bit in the UK as well; you're in trouble as a social scientist if the Daily Mail ever gets hold of your article. However, what I thought curious was that the researchers I spoke to in Japan did not feel the same anxiety about publishing such materials in closed sources. In short: the fear was that an open publication would reach the audiences who might twist their work, while paywalled entries would not. I attempted to counter-argue that paywalls are hardly bulletproof and surely things get into the media from traditional sources, but I'm not sure how much this was received.

Tokyo shop window

There was also a perception, anecdotally supported, from the library community members with whom I spoke that the drive for open access is very much split generationally. Probably the same is true of the UK to some extent, but I'm wary of such arguments for the same reasons as the "digital native" myth, that is now thoroughly debunked.

Pro-OA members of SPARC Japan seemed heartened by the OA mandates coming out of the UK, but are still waiting for their government to act. Without a top-down compulsion, they noted, they have achieved low rates of IR deposit and cannot justify APCs from their institutional budgets. They are particularly wary of double-dipping and are interested in exploring transition mechanisms. The Gold = APC myth also seemed prevalent among the substantial audience. A distributed subsidy mode was well-received and the free-rider problem seemed not to be at the forefront of people's thinking, especially if the pitched amount was low enough to be an easy sign-off.

So, that's most of what I think I learned. I felt shamefully ignorant visiting Japan; I spoke virtually no Japanese and was confronted with a culture that seemed totally alien to my background. My hosts were gracious and generous and my translators put in an amazing effort despite my technical vocabulary. I felt, though, that the dialogue was extremely productive; I came away feeling less ignorant (both culturally and of persepectives on OA) and enamoured by the prospect of returning to Japan. This, I felt, was exactly the kind of worldwide dialogue that has often been missing, in my perspective, from OA debates.