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Martin Paul Eve

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

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As a result of a discussion today, I thought it worth writing out some of my observations/thoughts on a few of the arguments, counter-arguments, and political alignments for and against open access. What, in other words, is the scope of OA? Should it be for work for which authors cannot reasonably expect to make a remuneration by direct sales alone? Or should it be for all educational resources, since education is too valuable to have a price tag?

I am pretty sure that these thoughts have all already been thought and written about by Peter Suber in various places. But I really wanted to just gather this all together in one handy reference point, for my own clarity if nothing else. It’s not comprehensive but I may expand it (last edit 2016-11-06). I make no judgement on how convincing either the argument or counter-arguments are in each case, although I make many of the arguments, but virtually none of the counter-arguments, myself. I just hear them over and over again.

The Taxpayer Argument

This argument runs that “publicly (or taxpayer) -funded research should be accessible to the public”.

Works well when research is funded from general taxation or charitable institutions with OA mandates.

Drawbacks include increase in audit/accounting culture.

Counter-arguments: much work is not publicly funded; work can be only partially funded by taxpayer time; multiple funders involved; privatization of teaching by government or private institutions makes open research difficult to understand.

Argument appeals to centrists; right/cyber -libertarians; anti-government leftists.

The Moral/Educational Argument

This argument runs that “educational resources/research are different to other commodity goods and it is a societal good that they can be read free of charge by many publics”.

Works well in cultures that are politically amenable to such thought.

Counter-arguments: much education is already private; societal good of higher education in abstract terms of “critical thinking” is hard to demonstrate when the majority of governments who defund higher education hold degrees from top universities; straightforward unarguable moral opposition to the argument.

Argument appeals to funders; liberal humanists; vocational educators; other leftists.

The Labour Argument

This argument runs that “the remuneration structures within the university (tenure etc.) were designed to allow researchers to give away their work, rather than selling it for a living. The change in recent technologies mean that they can now give it away and have mass dissemination without a cost to the reader”. Alternatively: “OA is for authors who cannot expect to make a living by selling their esoteric/niche research work”.

Works well for those who have tenured/permanent positions.

Counter-arguments: much labour in the academy is precarious and non-tenured/non-permanent; much research work is conducted outside of remunerated hours; some researchers write trade books that have widespread popular educational appeal and that will make money for authors; some practice-based researchers on fractional contracts do need to sell their research publications (creative writing-research crossovers, for example) for a living.

Appeals to: broad spectrum across political alignments, but see counter-arguments.

The Technological Argument

This argument runs that “the scholarly communications structures that exist were developed on the technology of print. New technologies yield new affordances that we should exploit to ensure the broadest circulation of research”.

Works well across many disciplines.

Counter-arguments: print still desirable (especially for humanities and social-scientific monographs); technological fetishism should not drive academic practice (although print is also a “technology”).

Appeals to: technologists; funders.

The Economic/Impact Argument

This argument runs that “there is an economic advantage to open access in so-called ‘knowledge transfer’ to outside industries”.

Works well in many political contexts centred on economic growth and accounting cultures.

Counter-arguments: acts as private capitalization upon labour of academy; many disciplines unable to see where they fit in such thinking (humanities); edit: 2016-11-06 claims that re-use provisions for other industries will bolster anti-academic practices such as plagiarism; claims that re-use provisions for other industries will lead to exploitative private educational initiatives that will destroy state-funded HE.

Appeals to: centre-left to right-wing politicians; funders; outside industries.

The Library-Economics Argument

This argument runs that “the unequal distribution of resources means that even extremely qualified academics at lesser-funded universities struggle to access work”. Alternatively: “specialists in niche institutions, such as hospitals, often do not have access for economic reasons”.

Works well for many targets since problem is easy to demonstrate.

Counter-arguments: gold open access might end up costing more, particularly in a transition period, and leads to strange concentrations of resource expenditure; learned societies often depend on revenue from subscriptions; academics can use national research libraries or other workarounds such as inter-library loan.

Appeals to: librarians; academics and others with frustrating access provision.

The Epistemological Argument

Added 2016-11-06 thanks to Peter Suber.

This argument runs that “OA facilitates the testing and validation of knowledge claims. OA enhances the process by which science is self-correcting. OA improves the reliability of inquiry.”

Works well across many disciplines, although it may require tweaking in the case of humanities work to appeal to this specific demographic.

Counter-arguments: claims that anyone capable of mounting a cogent critique already has access; claims that in some instances OA alone does not yield maximum dissemination (eg trade-crossover books); claims that broader dissemination will lead to to “mis-readings” or misunderstandings of academic work.

Appeals to: many academics.

The Media Argument

Added 2016-11-06.

This argument runs that “the media distortion of research could be improved if access to the underlying papers was possible”.

Works well for many scientific disciplines where underlying work is misreported and hyped.

Counter-arguments: claims that the general public cannot understand the underlying work; claims that the media will not link to the work; fears that work will be misunderstood anyway.

Appeals to: misrepresented academics; academics with an interest in public engagement.