The Case Against Open Access

I think the argument made here by John Holmwood is very important. My instinct is to support open access, though I think the scale of its ramifications are sometimes overestimated, however there has often seemed to be a degree of inattentiveness to economic and political context within which these arguments are being made:

For many commentators, open access to data and academic publications will bring clear public benefits, facilitating better public debate and allowing different kinds of elites to be held to account, whether they be political elites, policy makers or other kinds of experts. The case for open access appears overwhelming where the research is publicly-funded. Why should the public be denied access to that research by the high subscription pay-wall of journals? And, indeed, aren’t most academics interested in the widest dissemination of their work?

This argument confronts a paradox. The push to open access occurs in the context of dramatic reforms to universities that stress that higher education should not be seen as a public benefit, but a private investment in human capital for which the beneficiary should pay (and should pay above its costs once fees are allowed to rise above the current fee cap). Indeed, the Minister for Universities and Science seeks a more efficient and diverse system in which for-profit providers will play a larger part, and even envisages a change in the corporate form of the university to facilitate greater engagement with private equity investors. It seems that a paywall is to be removed, at the same time as new paywalls are under construction.

Once the common factor of commercialisation is teased out the paradox disappears. One of the main drivers of open access is to make academic research more easily available for commercial exploitation, especially by small and medium enterprises. In this context, it is significant that the licence under which open access should function is CC BY which enables commercial exploitation and reuse in any form. The consequence, for the natural sciences, or any other research with a directly exploitable commercial idea, is to bring the underlying research under the protection of Intellectual Property Rights.

All of this is part and parcel of the impact agenda whose primary economic purpose is to shorten the time from idea to income. Here we are witnesses to an inversion of previous science policy inaugurated by Lord Rothschild in the 1970s that was concerned with publicly funded research and advanced the idea that, where there was a private beneficiary, the beneficiary should pay. Now it seems that there should be no research undertaken without a beneficiary, but that beneficiary does not pay.

But what of the humanities and social sciences? Surely, here the situation is different? First, let it be noted that the very commercialisation of the university itself will have the consequence of dividing the higher education system between a small number of elite universities and others subject to the pressures from for-profit providers. This will include the ‘unbundling’ of their functions (also involving the separation of research from teaching), as described by Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Advisor of Pearson (and former member of the Browne Review), in a recent publication for IPPR . In this context, open access – especially MOOCS (and the online curriculum of Pearson) – provided by ‘elite’ universities is the means of undermining the conditions at other institutions and providing a tiered educational system that reinforces social selection to elite positions. This is the context in which Mike Boxall of PA Consulting Group speaks of a sector divided among ‘oligarchs, innovators and zombies’.

Equally significant, is that the argument for unbundling (some) universities is the claim that research is increasingly taking place outside universities. In the case of the social sciences, this is research undertaken by ‘think tanks’ and commercial organisations. It is here that access to ‘big data’ provides commercial opportunities. Open access is an opportunity to amalgamate data from different sources, develop techniques of analysis under patent, and re-present data, and the means of checking any analysis using it, behind a new paywall. Significantly, the recent ESRC call for a What Works Partnership in Crime Reduction specifies that the products of the research need not be under CC BY, but under IPR arrangements.

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