Where Did the Open Access Movement Go Wrong?

An Interview with Richard Poynder by Richard Anderson: “…Open access was intended to solve three problems that have long blighted scholarly communication – the problems of accessibilityaffordability, 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…

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…(More)”.