Open Access, “Neoliberalism”, “Impact” and the Privatisation of Knowledge

One of the problems with Open Access (both the movement and the practice), one that rings alarm bells in certain sectors, is the fact that the term “open” is inextricably linked to neoliberal paradigms. While “neoliberal” is a broad and, perhaps problematic, term in its expansion to mean everything, and therefore nothing, if we are more specific about the aspects under discussion (as we have come to be, for example, when discussing “postmodernism”), we can more firmly query why OA might be similarly troubling.

Defining neoliberalism as the practice of using the free market as the assignation of all value, I believe it would be a fair characterisation to pinpoint some of its key traits as:

  1. A fixation on quantification and measurement.
  2. The belief that all aspects of society are best handled on a for-profit basis through competition.
  3. A nominal insistence on transparency, accountability and openness, so that point 1 can best be achieved.

Each of these aspects is worth examining in relation to the rise of open access.

Deep Impact

In recent years, the UK university sector has been gearing up for the Research Excellence Framework 2014, the assessment exercise that will quantify and measure UK research output in order to allocate funding. At the core of this project, the successor to the previous, equally-hated, Research Assessment Exercises, is the desire to ensure that the public are receiving value for money through transparency. It is no longer good enough for universities to claim that they know what they are doing and that money should just be pumped in but, instead, there must be an element of competition between universities so that those who are doing “the best” are awarded proportionally more funds. The REF fits these three subset points of “neoliberalism” perfectly: it is about measurement, it introduces formal competition into university research and it is framed through the rubric of transparency and accountability.

Where this gets interesting, though, is if we consider the rise of “impact” among the components of the REF. Although nobody seems able to give a comprehensive definition of what we’re supposed to precisely demonstrate, part of the assessment will focus on departmental “impact case studies”, in which we are to demonstrate how our research has benefited those outside the walls of Higher Education. Were this what impact was actually about, I think I would probably have no beef with it. After all, that sounds very utopian and pure; research that helps everybody, hurrah!

The problem, though, is that the rise of impact coincides directly with the privatisation of UK Higher Education. Were the public able to have unfettered access to universities, without the £9,000 tuition fees introduced by the coalition government, furthering New Labour’s previous efforts, there would be far less of an inside/outside division to the university in the first place. There are, undoubtedly, other factors influencing the rise of impact, but it seems to me to be no coincidence that, just at the moment when the public are shut out from affordable Higher Education, the onus is put on university researchers to show how their work benefits the public, who, through government policy, no longer see the benefit within HE. The enforced privatisation of knowledge is the reason why we must now quantify and measure the public benefits of our work.

Open Access and the Privatisation of Knowledge

Thinking about it in this way, it becomes clear how OA might be problematic. Is OA the flip side to privatisation of HE? Much as “impact” is there to demonstrate the public good of otherwise inaccessible research, is there a way in which OA is a means of justifying the economic inaccessibility of HE by providing a public good?

I’m not convinced.

First of all, it’s worth noting that the history of OA is entangled with the histories of other free culture movements, particularly in the software world. While it is true that the early history of hacking (in the sense of constructive building through tinkering, not malicious cracking into computer systems) was associated with funding from the military sector, the evolution of licenses that leverage copyright against itself (such as the GPL) in order to protect the freedoms of the user are remarkable instances of countering notions of “intellectual property” and re-establishing historical ideas of a commons. This history gives me some cause for hope.

Secondly, OA is no more prone to the aspects of neoliberal practice outlined above than traditional scholarly publishing. Some arguments are surfacing that, in OA, we hand over our work for others to then privatise. I’m not persuaded. At the moment we hand over our copyright to commercial publishers, who then make our work accessible to only a small subset, at great economic cost. This argument, then, is what happens already. The terms of various proposed licenses, such as the Creative Commons Attribution License, mean that, yes, people can re-sell your work. However, they cannot stop you from distributing it for free. OA could actually undermine neoliberal competitive practices of the privatisation of knowledge. Why else would publishers be getting so hot under the collar?

Finally, could OA exist outside these aspects of neoliberal doctrine? Well, of course, we are dependent on technology, produced under the system of late-capitalism, for our non-rivalrous commodity exchange. In some senses, then: no. However, the same can be said for industrial printing under conventional scholarly publishing.

It seems to me to be the case here that OA is less about justifying the privatisation of HE and more about utilising the technologies we have to ensure that the economic conditions of production of scholarly material (in which we do not depend on selling copies for a living) are replicated in the dissemination. In short: OA seems to me, to some limited and partial extent, to be about resisting commodification, to be about resisting these neoliberal paradigms. No matter how similar the terms may sound.