Done wrong, the movement will just reproduce the old monopolies.
The open-access policies now being adopted by governments around the world, most notably in the United States, Britain, and the European Union, are designed to remove paywalls from the publication of publicly funded research. In the United States, guidelines issued last year by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy require all federal funding agencies to devise and roll out plans for open publications and research data, as a condition of funding, by the start of 2026. In Britain, UK Research and Innovation will require open-access monographs starting in January 2024, and has set aside a budget of£3.5 million (out of a total of £48 million) to support that mandate.
At its outset the objective of open access publishing was deceptively simple. To make scientific knowledge publically available without requiring you to reside in an affluent country. What quickly became apparent was that the replacement of obscenely expensive subscription fees to access a journal with high APC fees meant that only researchers from richer countries could afford to publish their work. The reflexive response of discounting those fees for countries designated as poor meant that researchers residing in middle-income countries were still locked out. The vision of making access to scientific knowledge more democratic and equitable was failing. This interesting piece discusses why the current approaches are perpetuating the position of existing highly-resourced publications and leaving to whither poorer and new publications.
As Robert Merton showed in his influential 1936 essay “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” good deeds commonly go awry despite the best of intentions. The antithesis of knowledge that is open to all is privatized knowledge. Without meaning to, many putatively open-access policies could further privatize the results of academic research. Aided by platform technology, some open-access models risk turning published research — paid for by universities, funders, and publishers — into profit-making content, the value of which is reduced to the data that can be extracted from it and sold.
Academia.edu, for example, is a free-to-use service that encourages researchers to upload articles, book chapters, and even whole books that have already been published. The revenue generated from the use of that research ($4.4 million annually) is not shared with the authors, publishers, or universities that initially invested in it. Today’s artificial-intelligence chatbots are actively mining published research, both open and not, without consent or credit — let alone compensation. Appropriately, academic publishers are now seeking greater transparency in how large language models are trained, as well as looking for ways to protect authors’ copyrighted material.