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Martin Paul Eve

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

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The Budapest Open Access Initiative statement begins: “An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good”. The old tradition is the practice of scientists and scholars to publish their work without remuneration. The new technologies are the internet and the world wide web. It remains true that it is a conjunction of these elements that can make open access work in academia.

But there are other old traditions that have not yet converged with new technologies and it is these that make open access hard to achieve.

Specifically, the digital environment (not just open access, although OA is implied by the digital environment) comes with several presumptions and labour assumptions:

  1. That the digital space is abundant. Dissemination costs are close to zero per copy. The assumption here, then, is that more should be published, that we should exploit digital abundance.

  2. That the labour in producing digital artefacts inheres in the cost to produce the first copy. This is true. But because this cost is often buried by the low dissemination cost, as per point 1, it is sometimes ignored or denied.

  3. It is hard to square materio-social phenomena like money (which depends on scarcity) with abundant technological capacity.

However, many traditions of academia assume the following:

  1. That quality is predicated on scarcity. Without a restriction on unlimited abundance, there will be no quality controls. This logic paradoxically persists even in an era of publish or perish in which everyone is pushed to publish more.

  2. That there is insufficient labour time to read all material as it stands, let alone all that published in a world that took advantage of technological abundance.

  3. That, therefore, we can and must predict which work is of high quality and filter for it.

The reason why open access remains difficult, opposed, and contested, therefore, also comes down to the non-convergence of old traditions and new technologies. The abundance of technological environments (the technical problem) has not been brought into synthesis with the scarcity of the academy (the social problem). The fundamental point here is value, cost, and labour time are all rivalrous social phenomena, predicated on scarcity. Digital dissemination is non-rivalrous, though. In order to synthesize these types of object any of the following could constitute a part response, although not all can help to further the OA cause and some may be actively harmful:

  1. “Artificially” limit technological capacity to match social scarcity desires/requirements. Those who regard OA as a technological problem hindered by an academy/publishers that refuse to change do not like this. However, this is what digital subscription journals do; they impose a financial correlation on something that is, essentially, not correlated to the amount paid in any way other than the price-mechanism-magic of the market. All economic concerns about open access are grounded here.

  2. Show that predictive value claims (pre-publication peer review etc.) are anti-foundational, theoretically and practically unsound, and unworkable. This logic may not help to win friends and influence people, even if it can be shown to be true.

  3. Develop new value signals and contexts that are more compatible with digital abundance (Clay Shirky’s famous remarks on filter failure etc.). This is a social and technological challenge. It probably involves the creation of multiple subgroups and asking the question: “valuable for whom?”.

  4. Develop tools to amplify labour power for readers, such as text and data mining. This is not always well received by traditionalists who are suspicious of such methods and the loss of granularity that may come about.

  5. Challenge the theoretical rhetoric of excellence and scarcity.

Following Bourdieu, I previously described how we implement point #1 at present as a “symbolic economy”. We map hiring panels, promotion, rewards etc. onto a system that, ideally (but not practically), would be equally as scarce as the resources we are trying to allocate. This is a good practical strategy for young open-access projects in 2016: you can’t win without playing the prestige game to some extent. I’m interested – and working with others – on the logic/theory behind points #2 and #5 (which are linked). #3 is hard. #4 is both a technological and social problem.

I don’t have answers here yet, and this is a theoretical post, but every time I think this through at the moment I summarise what’s hard about the implementation of open access in the following way: we have cultures of scarcity (labour in all forms: be it reader time [value signals etc.], publisher work, or academic hiring/promotion/tenure) that cannot yet fulfil the expectations and promise of contemporary technology’s abundance.

For example, economic challenges of OA often pertain to distribution of funding for APCs. But this can be seen as a problem of synthesis between these spaces: money has to be scarce, thus we can only spend a limited amount on publication, so we can’t, therefore, fulfil the potential of the digital world to disseminate (to all intents and purposes) unlimited information. Perhaps it isn’t desirable to do so in all cases. However, the next looming challenge for OA is monographs, as re-shown by the recent Ithaka S+R report for Mellon. In this case, the cost report that has just been released drives home the challenges of material/financial scarcity that we face in this environment, mostly predicated on the fact that we need acquisitions staff etc. because we cannot and may not ever be able to accurately forward-predict value. I continue to think about all this.