Open Access, Read & Publish, and Researcher Identity. A reply to Elena Šimukovič’s Keynote Lecture at the Open Access Days 2019

The Open Access Days 2019 took place in September 2019 and were hosted by Hannover’s Technical Information Library. [1] They focused on Open Access (OA) business models and their financial impact.[2] Such models were also the central topic of the keynote speech delivered by Elena Šimukovič, a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna, who is currently writing her dissertation about the development of the OA discourse and the implications of the proposed transition from subscription-based to OA publishing. Due to its open engagement with and careful criticism of tenets and promises of OA this keynote address added a welcome dimension of reflexivity to the Open Access Days. The aim of the following piece is to recap some of Šimukovič’s main arguments and to discuss them against the backdrop of my experience as subject librarian at the University of Bern.

My experience tells me that researchers need to have a stronger voice within the OA discourse. For them, publishing is not only about careers and reputation but also – more fundamentally – about belonging to a community and to a field of inquiry; it is about crafting an identity.[3] According to Šimukovič, even researchers who spent years studying knowledge production are sometimes ignorant of the OA battles and all its politics, even though they should be the most natural community to engage in this kind of research and debate. Thus, while any criticism of business models and, for example, Article Processing Charges (APC) is in itself important, the question needs to be addressed why researchers are not more involved in the OA discourse. Why do they seem to be absent at many OA events and how can we explain the disconnect between the fiscal realities of publishing and the lack of involvement on part of the researchers? While not being a main argument of this blog-entry, this point would need more careful consideration in any criticism of the OA-discourse and might explain some vectors the discussion has (not) taken so far.

The Keynote

In her keynote, Šimukovič argued that the development of the OA discourse as a whole has become increasingly politicised and has turned into a field of diverging interests, competing views and national priorities. While the movement started with the intention to bring about the openness of research, it turned into a professional field involving jobs and established private and corporate interests. This kind of institutionalisation or professionalization is not per se good or bad. However, if the movement aimed at bringing about change, such a development was not only inevitable but possibly even a desired outcome. Today, the professionalization and institutionalisation of Open Access signals the rise of new agents in the field of research support. Researchers have found new interlocutors, especially at university libraries, who offer new solutions and options for conducting research and disseminating their results, for handling research data and for OA publishing.

Šimukovič took issue with some of the OA Movement’s central promises that either have not yet been delivered or that brought about considerable risks and disadvantages. The OA community, she argued, do not sufficiently consider such drawbacks. While some of the negative effects are unintended, others might be intentional (e.g. promoting visibility of some institutions’ works, while excluding others).

To start with, Šimukovič argued that the APC development widens the gap between the rich and the poor in academia, such as between scholars in the Global North and South, as well as in Southern or Eastern Europe. In view of the currently favoured business models, publishing in OA increasingly risks becoming a financial privilege. Whenever financial conditions are absent, however, OA publishing becomes faithful to the original promise, i.e. it can benefit researchers everywhere, including the Global South, by giving them the possibility to disseminate their findings. Thus, OA has the potential to increase academic debate, the exchange of research results, and the flow of knowledge in both directions. This is an ongoing debate and there are, for example, good reasons for developing countries not to join OA initiatives such as PlanS, as long as APCs are involved: “APCs range in price from several hundred to over $5,000 per article. This is unfeasible for the Global South and so researchers would be excluded in a different (but more pernicious) way than they are under the subscription system”.[4] It is worth remembering that such prices amount to much more than the monthly salary of academics even in many European countries.

Additionally, Šimukovič questioned whether OA could contribute to the economic development of the Global South. The argument usually goes: “Researchers in developing countries can see your work”, i.e. “your” as in “northern researchers”. This argument, according to Šimukovič, implies a hierarchy of knowledge: following this rationale, research undertaken in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia is seen as less valuable by Western researchers, Šimukovič says. This position reflects the post-colonial critique along the lines of “The north speaks, the south listens”, with the former being the producer and subject of knowledge, the latter the consumer and object of knowledge.[5]

Fig. 1: Slide 10 of Elena Šimukovič’s presentation at the OAT19. 
“The many promises of Open Access. Counterarguments”

A precondition for a free and equal exchange between poor and wealthy researchers, between South and North, is that it is at least free of a financial hierarchy and possibly of the power relations behind it, which obstructs the free flow of ideas. With Platinum or Green publishing models, such power gaps can be reduced, perhaps even eliminated.

In a similar vein, Šimukovič argued that OA promised to bridge the communication gap between research communities and society. However, she argued that “Open is not enough”.[6]  Šimukovič pleaded for widening the spectrum of communication with society at large and adjusting one’s publishing activities to the needs of tax-paying public who funded the academic research in the first place. She highlighted examples such as publishing in local languages, in journals of professional associations, or holding public presentations, enhancing collaboration with libraries and museums, or  using blogs, social media, and newspapers. Societal interests, according to Šimukovič, should be an integral part of research. This criticism seems to be directed not so much at OA publishing practices but at academic publishing and academic culture in general. It is a plea to leave the ivory tower and engage with the public. Open Access publishing, when implemented mindfully, is one step towards fact-based, reliable information for anyone who wishes to engage with or share it.  

With the current overabundance of sources and producers of information, there is an urgent need for reliability of knowledge. While there exist black sheep in OA publishing, such as predatory journals with their lack of academic rigour, academic publishing in general, including OA publishing, has safeguards. Through peer review – and perhaps even more through open peer review – manuscripts are checked and double-checked to ensure that publications are reliable.[7] This is a considerable advantage vis-à-vis other forms of information. “Open science is one possible means to combat the problem of fake news”,[8] especially when publishing research data and primary sources.

Also, communication between academia and society (if this dichotomy is applicable at all) is not a one-way process. The public, too, can and should engage in a dialogue with the academic community, and needs to contribute itself to knowledge production (citizen science). One excellent example where this has yielded great results is the Audubon project.[9]

Šimukovič then focused on two possible strategies in OA publishing: a) the technical transformation of established journals from closed to OA, i.e. “Big deals 2.0 and transformative agreements”; and b) a cultural transformation that would see the reputation of (newly established) OA journals enhanced. She criticised that the technical transformation tends to reproduce existing power constellations in which certain countries, publishing houses, and institutions maintain their privileged position. This position is derived from financial power (big publishing houses), but also  from symbolic clout (established academic journals). Only those players already in “the club” can afford to take part in such an OA strategy. While this might indeed represent a problem with transformative agreements, one could argue that they offer established journals a way to become more open while allowing researchers to build their reputation and access their research community by publishing in the most prestigious journals of their field. Again, I am convinced that the Open Access community ignores the important role that journals play in the research community they belong to at its peril. Unfortunately, while Šimukovič focused on the proposed “transition to full OA”, she passed over green OA as a possible strategy, although OA green allows researchers publishing in journals that contribute to the identity-building of an academic community and raise the prestige of the authors, while at the same time granting open access to results, albeit with delay in most cases.

Šimukovič also cast doubts on the issue of sustainability of transformative agreements. For instance, what might seem sustainable to publishing houses, probably is not for libraries. Obviously, this depends on how “sustainability” is defined. The term certainly cannot mean “no change” at all. For example, depending on the OA mode, libraries might need to reinvent themselves and move away from the role of collectors and subscribers towards one of publisher and funder. Sustainability can, however, also refer to the accessibility of research data and their reuse.

Some reflections on the points raised

What Šimukovič’s presentation showed is that there must be a separation of the concepts of APC and OA and that there should be a critical assessment of whether OA publishing is not smashing paywalls in one place and re-erecting them (inadvertently) in another (from “pay to read” to “pay to say/write”).

APCs widen the gap between poor and rich researchers and more mechanisms need to be in place to possibly close such a gap and offer solutions to make OA publishing affordable for all. Examples from South Africa and Latin America show that local solutions to OA can offer alternatives to more international initiatives such as PlanS.[10]

As regards the communication gap between society and academia, this dilemma is not new. Researchers are already engaged in many public debates on many public channels, including social media. However, the democratization of public discourse, especially on social media, has undoubtedly led to many – sometimes justified – attacks on scientific research results. Populist governments capitalize on the ensuing doubts. The transparency of reliable knowledge that OA publishing and open science in general promises, can provide an antidote to this trend: the open accessibility of research data, the transparency of peer review processes, and the availability of literature can make a contribution to the credibility and reliability of research results.

Regarding the discussion around the issue of sustainability, a stronger participation of researchers would be particularly welcome. There is currently an overabundance of definitions of the term and entire interdisciplinary research institutes deal with what is “sustainable”. Especially “digital sustainability” as well as sustainability of research projects beyond their funding period would require more robust definitions in order to allow for meaningful debates on the sustainability of OA and Open Science.

Finally, as mentioned above, what Šimukovič omitted is the whole dimension of publishing and researcher identity. Publishing as social and cultural practice plays a central role in establishing and maintaining a research community as well as achieving and confirming  researchers’ membership in such a community. Academic publications “place individual researchers on the map as they provide legitimacy, recognition, quotation, and eventually pave the way for a successful career and inclusion in the larger community of scholars”.[11] This is why researchers tend to stick with academic publishing houses they “like”, even if their policies do not (fully) correspond with current OA criteria or even obligations of funders or institutions. When some researchers I work with at the University of Berne recently wanted to set-up a new series of monographs, they aimed at two publishing houses because they had an excellent reputation in their discipline and because they made “beautiful books”. What made these publishing houses “likeable” is the identity and reputation they offer: publishing in the “right places” confirms researchers to be part of a certain field or at least pave the way to a community one aspires to be a part of. They might not be the “right places” from an OA point of view, but they are for a researcher’s identity. It is this researchers’ perspective that must be taken more actively into consideration within the OA debate, not only to make the debate more inclusive for key players in the transition to OA, but also to tackle one of the most important impediments to achieve such a transition: the lack of uptake among the people most affected. Researchers should be actively invited to OA events so that OA practitioners become acquainted with their views, and, conversely, to familiarize researchers with the current trends in the OA discourse.


[1] I thank Andrea Hacker and Elena Šimukovič for their comments and suggestions.

[2] Laura Bickel, Nicole Clasen and Ralf Flohr, 2019 Open Access Days: Business models and their financial impacts for open access transformation, https://www.zbw-mediatalk.eu/2019/11/2019-open-access-days-business-models-and-their-financial-impacts-for-open-access-transformation/

[3] Amanda French (2019) “Academic writing as identity-work in higher education: forming a professional writing in higher education habitus”, Studies in Higher Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1572735     

[4] Plan S and the Global South – What do countries in the Global South stand to gain from signing up to Europe’s open access strategy?,  https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2019/03/06/plan-s-and-the-global-south-what-do-countries-in-the-global-south-stand-to-gain-from-signing-up-to-europes-open-access-strategy/

[5] Edward Said notably quoted Marx, asserting that “subalterns” “cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. (…) [But] indeed the subaltern can speak, as the history of liberation movements (…) attests.” (Edward Said (2003) Orientalism. London: Penguin, 335).  It is in this post-colonial tradition that the keynote criticised the position of poor researchers as mere consumers of the knowledge of the wealthy.

[6] Chen, Dallmeier-Tiessen, Dasler et al. (2019). Open is not enough. Nature Physics, 15, 113–119. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41567-018-0342-2

[7] “It is common sense in STS that much of what is regarded ‘scientific’ knowledge is biased, and that increased exposure of broader publics to scientific research and its caveats can lead to paradoxes and increased uncertainties, instead of providing clear-cut answers”(Elena Šimukovič, personal communication, 19.12.2019).

[8] Can Open Science Fight the Fake News Epidemic?, https://www.enago.com/academy/can-open-science-fight-fake-news-epidemic/

[9] https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science

[10]  “I don’t fully understand why people should ask whether South Africa is going to join or should join Plan S. South Africa has already committed to developing open access research publications, and through the Academy of Science developed SciELO SA”, Plan S is a grand plan, but the devil is in the detail: Robin Crewe on Open Access in South Africa, https://council.science/current/blog/plan-s-is-a-grand-plan-but-the-devil-is-in-the-detail-robin-crewe-on-open-access-in-south-africa/

[11] Divina Frau-Meigs (2003) “Academic Journals and Publications: Mapping the Territories”, in Revue française d’études américaines, 98: 116-137. https://doi.org/10.3917/rfea.098.0116

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