Open Access; Not a Fallacy, But a Tenet of Academic Freedom

The following is a response to an article, The Fallacy of Open Access, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed from last month.


Suarez and McGlynn gloomily warn at the end of their essay, The Fallacy of Open Access, that “open access is not the solution to all problems in academic publishing.”  Their suggestions to place their faith in scholarly societies is problematic when so much of academic publishing (including the platforms that scholarly societies often use) are overwhelming owned by for-profit industries feels quaint. Given that over 50% of academic publications are published by for-profit companies and that number has continued to grow according to Larivière, Haustein, & Mongeon (2015).  Dewatripont, Ginsburgh, Legros, and Walckiers (2007) also pointed out the correlation between the increasingly for-profit academic publishing industry and the drastic increase in costs to access to research.  As for asking for financial compensation from publishers for scholarly work, such an idea will problematize scholars’ work along academic freedom by breaking down the idea of freely pursuing knowledge or trying to make a quick buck.  This solution is also likely to encourage institutions to pay scholars less since a core part of their pay is the production of research.
A window sign that says "Open Access"
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But they are right, a fallacy exists, but it is with the assumption that academic publishing and higher education should stay connected.  We are all ignoring a central fallacy of the higher education system is the assumption of knowledge access and the failure of institutions and scholars alike to uphold a key tenet of academic freedom.   

The AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure notes that "The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition."  Free exposition speaks to scholars making their “search for truth” accessible to the public if higher education is to posit itself as a common good.


The idea that knowledge is public and therefore accessible to one and all is embedded into nearly, if not all, tenure and promotion guidelines.  This is such an inherent assumption that scholars have access to all knowledge in their field, that I’ve yet to find an institution’s guidelines that speak anything about the limitations of access to research.  No tenure guidelines exist that say something to the effect of, "the limited access to knowledge afforded this institution within a confined library budget will be taken into account when reviewing the scholar's totality of impact of work."  It is presumed that any scholar has all relevant access to previous relevant scholarship upon which to build their work.  

Yet we live in an age where in 2012, academic libraries across the country nearly $2 billion on access to journal subscriptions alone (ALA, Academic Libraries First Look).  Some 1,100 academic libraries have budgets over $1 million and yet some 2000 academic libraries have budgets under $500,000 (ALA Library Fact Sheet 4, 2015). This disparity of funds not only means a fundamental difference in access to knowledge and research among scholars (and students for that matter) across the United States but signals a failure of free exposition.  And that’s just higher education, inevitably this research is also repeatedly paid for by hospitals, think-tanks, law offices, and many other places.  While ⅔ of higher education research is funded with federal and state tax dollars to the sum of $850+ billion dollars between 1990-2015),  the finished product, the published research ends up owned by publishers and behind paywalls (University S&E R&D Funding by Source, 1990-2015).  If institutions large and small are paying for access (never mind ownership) to scholarship (especially that which the taxpayer has funded), then we are so far from “free exposition” that it boggles the mind that we dare still invoke academic freedom.  We are academically enslaving knowledge to owners who will sell and resell the labor of scholars to other scholars, institutions, hospitals, scientific labs, and citizens to squeeze every red cent of productivity out of that knowledge.  

We are failing to redirect the ways in which scholars and institutions gave and continue to give knowledge freely to publishers only to have them sell it back annually to higher education as temporary access at above-inflation prices.  Furthermore, we fail to ask why higher education hasn't systematically reclaimed the publisher's toolbox, now that such tools are available for pennies on the $100 bill compared to the past costs of textual production, storage, and distribution.  We take for granted that we will digitally access our research but don’t rethink what it means to publish when creating documents that are aesthetically pleasing is something anyone with an internet access can do or that we can now publish books on innumerable platforms for free.  Instead, we cling to and uphold the academic publishing industry like a serious case of Stockholm syndrome.  

image reads: No tenure guidelines exist that say something to the effect of, "the limited access to knowledge afforded this institution within a confined library budget will be taken into account when reviewing the scholar's totality of impact of work."  It is presumed that any scholar has all relevant access to previous relevant scholarship upon which to build their work.


Suarez and McGlynn’s faith in the system would be charming if it weren’t so damning.  They admit to getting fleeced by the publishing system but how many times does one get fleeced before deciding that they're better off doing it themselves.  Higher education has been in a decades-spanning abusive relationship with publishers be it journals, books, or textbooks of getting less and less stable knowledge and increasingly more costly services. They do offer enhanced features with which to get us hooked, but then exploit our data to further manipulate usage and access.  Why do we think simplistic shifts will save their relationship?  Each year, higher education bleeds billions of dollars for access so that as Suarez and McGlynn point out, publishers can glean over 30% profit.  Any loss to that profit margin will have them become even more vicious and find new ways of to extract resources from higher education.   

Open--as in open access, open research, open educational resources--is the ideology we need to center in higher education if we want to undo the harm of the costly and damaging relationship with academic publishing.  Otherwise, we’re not upholding academic freedom, but getting rid of it at an alarming rate because we have entered the age in which in order for one to access the most cutting-edge research, one has to be at institutions that can afford such access or we go the route of many academics around the world.  Millions of people now tap into places such as Sci-Hub or #ICanHazPDF to pursue knowledge through illegal means (Bohannon, 2016).  And while I think the idea of an academic pirate has wonderful potential for a dystopian novel, I dread the fact that it’s becoming an increasing reality.  



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