It’s the Neoliberalism, Stupid: Why instrumentalist arguments for Open Access, Open Data, and Open Science are not enough.

Eric Kansa at LSE Blog: “…However, I’m increasingly convinced that advocating for openness in research (or government) isn’t nearly enough. There’s been too much of an instrumentalist justification for open data an open access. Many advocates talk about how it will cut costs and speed up research and innovation. They also argue that it will make research more “reproducible” and transparent so interpretations can be better vetted by the wider community. Advocates for openness, particularly in open government, also talk about the wonderful commercial opportunities that will come from freeing research…
These are all very big policy issues, but they need to be asked if the Open Movement really stands for reform and not just a further expansion and entrenchment of Neoliberalism. I’m using the term “Neoliberalism” because it resonates as a convenient label for describing how and why so many things seem to suck in Academia. Exploding student debt, vanishing job security, increasing compensation for top administrators, expanding bureaucracy and committee work, corporate management methodologies (Taylorism), and intensified competition for ever-shrinking public funding all fall under the general rubric of Neoliberalism. Neoliberal universities primarily serve the needs of commerce. They need to churn out technically skilled human resources (made desperate for any work by high loads of debt) and easily monetized technical advancements….
“Big Data,” “Data Science,” and “Open Data” are now hot topics at universities. Investments are flowing into dedicated centers and programs to establish institutional leadership in all things related to data. I welcome the new Data Science effort at UC Berkeley to explore how to make research data professionalism fit into the academic reward systems. That sounds great! But will these new data professionals have any real autonomy in shaping how they conduct their research and build their careers? Or will they simply be part of an expanding class of harried and contingent employees- hired and fired through the whims of creative destruction fueled by the latest corporate-academic hype-cycle?
Researchers, including #AltAcs and “data professionals”, need  a large measure of freedom. Miriam Posner’s discussion about the career and autonomy limits of Alt-academic-hood help highlight these issues. Unfortunately, there’s only one area where innovation and failure seem survivable, and that’s the world of the start-up. I’ve noticed how the “Entrepreneurial Spirit” gets celebrated lots in this space. I’m guilty of basking in it myself (10 years as a quasi-independent #altAc in a nonprofit I co-founded!).
But in the current Neoliberal setting, being an entrepreneur requires a singular focus on monetizing innovation. PeerJ and Figshare are nice, since they have business models that less “evil” than Elsevier’s. But we need to stop fooling ourselves that the only institutions and programs that we can and should sustain are the ones that can turn a profit. For every PeerJ or Figshare (and these are ultimately just as dependent on continued public financing of research as any grant-driven project), we also need more innovative organizations like the Internet Archive, wholly dedicated to the public good and not the relentless pressure to commoditize everything (especially their patrons’ privacy). We need to be much more critical about the kinds of programs, organizations, and financing strategies we (as a society) can support. I raised the political economy of sustainability issue at a recent ThatCamp and hope to see more discussion.
In reality so much of the Academy’s dysfunctions are driven by our new Gilded Age’s artificial scarcity of money. With wealth concentrated in so few hands, it is very hard to finance risk taking and entreprenurialism in the scholarly community, especially to finance any form of entrepreneurialism that does not turn a profit in a year or two.
Open Access and Open Data will make so much more of a difference if we had the same kind of dynamism in the academic and nonprofit sector as we have in the for-profit start-up sector. After all, Open Access and Open Data can be key enablers to allow much broader participation in research and education. However, broader participation still needs to be financed: you cannot eat an open access publication. We cannot gloss over this key issue.
We need more diverse institutional forms so that researchers can find (or found) the kinds of organizations that best channel their passions into contributions that enrich us all. We need more diverse sources of financing (new foundations, better financed Kickstarters) to connect innovative ideas with the capital needed to see them implemented. Such institutional reforms will make life in the research community much more livable, creative, and dynamic. It would give researchers more options for diverse and varied career trajectories (for-profit or not-for-profit) suited to their interests and contributions.
Making the case to reinvest in the public good will require a long, hard slog. It will be much harder than the campaign for Open Access and Open Data because it will mean contesting Neoliberal ideologies and constituencies that are deeply entrenched in our institutions. However, the constituencies harmed by Neoliberalism, particularly the student community now burdened by over $1 trillion in debt and the middle class more generally, are much larger and very much aware that something is badly amiss. As we celebrate the impressive strides made by the Open Movement in the past year, it’s time we broaden our goals to tackle the needs for wider reform in the financing and organization of research and education.
This post originally appeared on Digging Digitally and is reposted under a CC-BY license.”