This week for COPIM we are reading Knöchelmann, Marcel, The Democratisation Myth: Open Access and the Solidification of Epistemic Injustices (SocArXiv, 9 June 2020) https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/hw7at. This piece presents an argument that is familiar to me as it strongly mirrors the contents of the forthcoming Mboa Nkoudou, Thomas Hervé, ‘Epistemic Alienation in African Scholarly Communications: Open Access as a Pharmakon’, in Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access, ed. by Martin Paul Eve and Jonathan Gray (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020), which I had the privilege to edit.
There are several takeaways from Knöchelmann’s piece that stuck with me:
- OA is not enough to dismantle the worldwide systems of exclusionary prestige that exist in academia and research;
- OA as an accessibility issue can fix a narrow set of access conditions for an export of scholarship from the Global North (problematic term) but it won’t fix global participation or mutual respect issues;
- The ‘Democratisation Myth’ that OA will fix the aforementioned points (a myth) is the real problem. It is an overreach that appears to address global exclusion and/or inequality but does not modify the fundamental parameters of the system.
When I first encountered the OA movement (not one thing of course) in 2008, I was full of idealism and hope for what it might achieve. I thought indeed that the movement contained within it the seeds of destruction for the prestige systems of publication and of the global inequalities in participation.
I do not think this any more and I am much more pessimistic about the collective action problem in the academy. I am also pessimistic because just achieving OA is a massive task, let alone fixing all the ills of the academy on top of that. But OA on its own is not going to bring down the exclusionary walls within academia and research. And that’s OK – we just have to be honest about it. Knöchelmann’s preprint, for instance, is openly available. I do not imagine that he believes that he is contributing to a further coloniality of knowledge just because he made this work openly accessible. Making it toll-access would not have somehow redeemed work that was otherwise causing problems because it was OA – because it’s honest about what it is. No democratisation myth, it just gives more convenience and no monetary expense to anyone who wants to read it, which is a good thing.
I also understand many of the arguments for why OA can be seen as more neoliberal. The taxpayer argument; the extraction of content or mining by for-profits; the very discourses of openness and transparency that have their heartland in Chicago-School economics are all reasons to be wary.
That said, I do have some concerns about the way these arguments often play out. I have had people who have never done anything to combat epistemic injustice in their whole individual academic publishing history veer away from OA because they believe that it is neoliberal and colonial. What do they propose instead, though? Nothing. They propose just to carry on publishing in the same venues they always have, under the same prestige structures, with the same paywalls. In other words, the decolonial argument is appropriated as a critical argument against OA, but it is not used as an argument against the structures underpinning general academic publishing – i.e. the same structures that are present in conventional subscription publications.
The argument that I am left with is that we simply have to scale back our hopes for what OA will do on its own. To make OA a truly liberating practice requires more than addressing the accessibility problem. Because it is Big Publishing that has neoliberal and colonial elements, OA can be either or both of these things when it is grafted atop those same structures of publication. But forms of governance and ownership of platforms that sit away from such corporate structures – and with thought given to ensuring stakeholders from around the globe are given truly equal democratic say – could help us imagine forms of academic publishing (hopefully OA) that are not neoliberal/colonial. Within the neoliberal systems of publishing that currently exist, I remain convinced that OA is preferable to toll access, so long as we don’t pretend that it does more than it actually does.