Open access in the UK

Last Sunday, I published an essay on this blog setting out what I saw as the problems with arguments for open access and with the specific form of open access that is now official policy in the UK (Allington, 2013). Despite the fact that it mis-read Paul Fyfe’s (2012) critique of certain tendencies as an endorsement, it received some lovely comments, and I was deeply honoured to have my arithmetic corrected by the co-creator of CWEB (Levy, 2013). However, it has been pointed out that the essay was rather long (people were kind enough not to say ‘rambling’). Here’s a shorter (although still not exactly short) version, which focuses on what’s happening now in the UK. If you’re not in the UK, I hope you’ll still find it of interest as a discussion of what you might want to try to prevent from happening where you are. The open access movement appeals to many different interests, and once a specific form of open access becomes official policy, at least some of those interests are bound to be disappointed. Casey Brienza has analysed the movement much more incisively than I did in my blog essay, so rather than reprise my arguments I shall simply quote hers before moving to a consideration of UK policy:
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On open access, and why it’s not the answer

0. Preamble

In the last two or three years, open access to academic journal articles has gone from being something that noisy idealists were unrealistically demanding to something that’s going to happen whether we like it or not – at least in the UK, and probably elsewhere as well. Not so long ago, I was in favour of it and doing what I could to put it into practice with regard to my own work. Now, it’s just another of those things that I must pragmatically accept, like the vice-chancellor’s high level appointments. I feel like a man with a beard in a country where shaving has just been banned.

And all this has made me reflect. On open access: what’s it for? What did its advocates (me, for example) think it was going to facilitate? And now that it’s become mainstream, does it look as if it’s going to facilitate that thing we had in mind, or something else entirely? Quite recently, it would have been almost dangerous to think in such terms, because people were getting so cross – perhaps inevitably, as the conversation was largely taking place online, and it’s been argued that social media disseminate anger more effectively than any other emotion (Fan et al, 2013). But now that there’s no point in anyone’s getting cross – now that it’s all happening anyway, regardless of who’s in the vanguard and who’s a bourgeois reactionary – perhaps it’s becoming possible to see things a little more clearly. I must admit that I backed the wrong team: I was a supporter of one kind of open access, but it looks as if the argument for the other has carried the day. And now that the arguing is by-the-by, it all feels so different. The more I look back, the more I realise that open access had been proposed as the solution to a range of problems some of which had very little to do with one another. The more I look forward, the more I realise that among those problems were some that might actually be exacerbated by the form of open access that has become official policy in the UK – and others that were never likely to be addressed by any form of open access (including the one in which I believed).

Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes. As a sort of penance, I have chosen to think the issues through not in an academic journal article but in an essay on this blog. Not quite the use for which I originally intended the latter, but a symbolically apt use just the same.

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