Where Did the Open Access Movement Go Wrong?: An Interview with Richard Poynder

Exhausted man, head in hands, at work desk of laptop and papers

You’ve expressed frustration with various aspects and manifestations of the OA movement over the years. What was the final straw that led you to decide it was no longer worthwhile to keep engaging?

I made the decision halfway through writing an update to a document that I posted online in 2020. It occurred to me that if I continued writing about open access, I would likely end up repeating myself. I also decided that I did not want to spend any more time chronicling a movement that had promised a great deal but has failed to deliver on its promise and seems unlikely to do so.

In one of your recent posts on X (formerly known as Twitter), you said that the OA movement “has failed and is being rebranded in order to obscure the failure.” What would you say has been the essence of its failure, and how do you see it being rebranded?

Open access was intended to solve three problems that have long blighted scholarly communication – the problems of accessibility, affordability, and equity. 20+ years after the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) we can see that the movement has signally failed to solve the latter two problems. And with the geopolitical situation deteriorating solving the accessibility problem now also looks to be at risk. The OA dream of “universal open access” remains a dream and seems likely to remain one.

What has been the essence of the OA movement’s failure?

The fundamental problem was that OA advocates did not take ownership of their own movement. They failed, for instance, to establish a central organization (an OA foundation, if you like) in order to organize and better manage the movement; and they failed to publish a single, canonical definition of open access. This is in contrast to the open source movement, and is an omission I drew attention to in 2006

This failure to take ownership saw responsibility for OA pass to organizations whose interests are not necessarily in sync with the objectives of the movement.

It did not help that the BOAI definition failed to specify that to be classified as open access, scholarly works needed to be made freely available immediately on publication and that they should remain freely available in perpetuity. Nor did it give sufficient thought to how OA would be funded (and OA advocates still fail to do that).

This allowed publishers to co-opt OA for their own purposes, most notably by introducing embargoes and developing the pay-to-publish gold OA model, with its now infamous article processing charge (APC).

Pay-to-publish OA is now the dominant form of open access and looks set to increase the cost of scholarly publishing and so worsen the affordability problem. Amongst other things, this has disenfranchised unfunded researchers and those based in the global south (notwithstanding APC waiver promises).

What also did not help is that OA advocates passed responsibility for open access over to universities and funders. This was contradictory, because OA was conceived as something that researchers would opt into. The assumption was that once the benefits of open access were explained to them, researchers would voluntarily embrace it – primarily by self-archiving their research in institutional or preprint repositories. But while many researchers were willing to sign petitions in support of open access, few (outside disciplines like physics) proved willing to practice it voluntarily.

In response to this lack of engagement, OA advocates began to petition universities, funders, and governments to introduce OA policies recommending that researchers make their papers open access. When these policies also failed to have the desired effect, OA advocates demanded their colleagues be forced to make their work OA by means of mandates requiring them to do so.

Most universities and funders (certainly in the global north) responded positively to these calls, in the belief that open access would increase the pace of scientific development and allow them to present themselves as forward-thinking, future-embracing organizations. Essentially, they saw it as a way of improving productivity and ROI while enhancing their public image.

While many researchers were willing to sign petitions in support of open access, few proved willing to practice it voluntarily.

But in light of researchers’ continued reluctance to make their works open access, universities and funders began to introduce increasingly bureaucratic rules, sanctions, and reporting tools to ensure compliance, and to manage the more complex billing arrangements that OA has introduced.

So, what had been conceived as a bottom-up movement founded on principles of voluntarism morphed into a top-down system of command and control, and open access evolved into an oppressive bureaucratic process that has failed to address either the affordability or equity problems. And as the process, and the rules around that process, have become ever more complex and oppressive, researchers have tended to become alienated from open access.

As a side benefit for universities and funders OA has allowed them to better micromanage their faculty and fundees, and to monitor their publishing activities in ways not previously possible. This has served to further proletarianize researchers and today they are becoming the academic equivalent of workers on an assembly line. Philip Mirowski has predicted that open access will lead to the deskilling of academic labor. The arrival of generative AI might seem to make that outcome the more likely.

This is most noticeable in Europe today, but other countries have been following Europe’s lead, and in the US, we are seeing increasing pressure on federal funders to take a similar road. In addition, I suspect most (if not all) US universities now have OA mandates in place. [Note from Rick: Interestingly, this is not actually the case in the US. Although many universities have adopted OA policies and many of those include mandatory-sounding language, all of them also include ironclad waivers that allow any researcher to opt out of OA publication for any reason s/he wishes. I discussed this phenomenon, and some reasons for it, in Learned Publishing a few years ago. I also previously discussed the ROARMAP database’s systematic misrepresentation of US campus OA policies in two Scholarly Kitchen posts, here and here.]

Can these failures be remedied by means of an OA reset? With this aim in mind (and aware of the failures of the movement), OA advocates are now devoting much of their energy to trying to persuade universities, funders, and philanthropists to invest in a network of alternative nonprofit open infrastructures. They envisage these being publicly owned and focused on facilitating a flowering of new diamond OA journals, preprint servers, and Publish, Review, Curate (PRC) initiatives. In the process, they expect commercial publishers will be marginalized and eventually dislodged.

But it is highly unlikely that the large sums of money that would be needed to create these alternative infrastructures will be forthcoming, certainly not at sufficient levels or on anything other than a temporary basis.

While it is true that more papers and preprints are being published open access each year, I am not convinced this is taking us down the road to universal open access, or that there is a global commitment to open access.

Consequently, I do not believe that a meaningful reset is possible: open access has reached an impasse and there is no obvious way forward that could see the objectives of the OA movement fulfilled.

Partly for this reason, we are seeing attempts to rebrand, reinterpret, and/or reimagine open access and its objectives.

Of course, the first rebranding occurred some years ago, when publishers convinced funders that the only realistic way to transition to open access was to embrace pay-to-publish OA, demoting green OA to an also ran.

And while many claim that the movement is already a success, on the grounds that more and more papers and preprints are being published OA each year, arguing this requires reimagining the movement as one that was only ever focused on improving accessibility, and obscures the fact that it has failed to address the affordability problem. And unless the affordability problem is solved it will not be possible to solve the equity problem.

On the same note, I have seen claims that OA was in fact never about costs, which is simply not true. Indeed, the affordability problem was one of the primary drivers of the OA movement, which emerged at a time when there was huge concern about what was then called the serials crisis.

I think the same rebranding process is evident in funders’ attempts to present their ever more burdensome mandates as tools of liberation.

Both you (Rick) and I have commented on the contradiction inherent in telling researchers that by introducing a “rights retention” policy, universities and funders are enabling researchers to retain control of their intellectual property while in the next breath saying that a CC BY license must be attached to all research papers.

What this does not acknowledge is that using a CC BY license requires researchers to waive all the rights in their work bar the right of attribution. Consequently anyone in the world is free to reuse their work, even for commercial purposes.

They are also told that a CC BY license ensures that their moral rights are protected. However, the legal text of the CC BY license might seem to imply otherwise – although I am not a lawyer.

More recently, cOAlition S has launched a new initiative –Towards Responsible Publishing – that proposes moving to a system based around “scholar-led publishing services”. This seems to be a response to OA advocates’ concerns about the continuing dominance of commercial publishers.

As part of this initiative, cOAlition S has launched a consultation process designed to give the impression that researchers are being put back into the driving seat. It is also implied that they will be able to decide when, where, and how to publish – which might suggest that OA is again becoming a bottom-up voluntarist movement.

But (as you have pointed out) “Scholar-Led” is a misnomer here, not least because cOAlition S has already published a set of pre-established principles, and we can be confident that whatever emerges from the consultation researchers will need to sign up to the new vision, and abide by the principles, if they want to be funded. This is top-down by any other name.

However, as I say, there must be serious doubts as to whether universities, funders and philanthropists are able or willing to underwrite what would amount to a significant (and very expensive) change of direction. It does not help that OA has helped commercial publishers embed themselves so deeply into the research infrastructure that dislodging them might seem all but impossible.

Here’s a thought experiment: 20 years post-BOAI, what would a successful OA movement have looked like?

A successful OA movement would by now have made significant inroads into the three problems it was founded to solve, those of accessibility, affordability, and equity. As I say, I see little sign that the affordability and equity problems are anywhere near being resolved.

And while it is true that more papers and preprints are being published open access each year, I am not convinced this is taking us down the road to universal open access, or that there is a global commitment to open access. In fact, the deteriorating geopolitical environment suggests that at some point we are likely to see an ebb tide. Perhaps peak OA is a more likely outcome than universal OA?

Consider, for instance, the two most populous countries in the world (both deeply committed to investing in research and development) – China and India. China now publishes more papers each year than any other country, but it has no national OA mandate and appears to have serious concerns about what it would cost to transition to a fully open access environment.

Meanwhile, after flirting with joining Plan S, India – which in 2022 was in third position in terms of paper output (ahead of the UK), and whose scientific prowess was demonstrated earlier this year when it put a spacecraft on the moon – is in the process of trying to persuade publishers to sign up to what it calls a “One Nation One Subscription” model.

The other factor to consider is that, as we enter the age of generative AI and Large Language Models, there is going to be a pressing need to distinguish between science fact and science fiction, and to separate the peer reviewed literature from all the junk science and conspiracy theories out there, along with random AI hallucinations.

AI companies have come to realize that mining the web inevitably brings back a lot of erroneous, biased and downright dangerous data. As a result, they are more aware of the need to have access to trustworthy, curated data. I think this will draw attention to the need for some form of membrane between scientific research and the chaotic mess of false and arbitrary information that swirls around the web. This might cause open access papers to lose some of their appeal.

I anticipate that we will require more, not less, gatekeeping in the future, and we could see the return of paywalls. And as concern grows that AI companies could profit massively from exploiting freely available information, perhaps we will see a return to an all-rights environment. Funders and universities might end up regretting that they ever mandated the use of CC BY.

Editor’s Note – This interview is republished with permission of the first publisher, The Scholarly Kitchen, as well as the interviewer and the interviewee.

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