An ethics of care: what kind of open access do we want?

This is the text of a talk I gave at the 2018 RLUK conference in March at the British Library. There is a recording of the talk online.



I’m going to talk about open access, in the context of a neoliberalised academy, and about ways of thinking about open access that bring the focus back on values and ethics, rather than boring things like compliance rates or citation advantages. Over the past five years or so there’s been significant progress made in what we like to optimistically call a transition to open access, and in the UK a lot of this work has been done by people working in libraries to implement research funder policies. But we’re clearly still a long way from anything approaching full open access, especially when you consider monographs, even though there is a broad consensus at the policy level that open access is both necessary and achievable. And there are different ideas about both the best course of action for increasing open access, and also about why it’s a good thing in the first place.

In part, this is because the politics of openness are complex.

For a lot of people who are drawn to open movements, whether that’s open education, open source software, or open access, the attraction is that openness, in this sense, is a unique combination of legal and community structures designed to enable freedom for human creativity, to allow us to explore what we can create together when there are fewer restrictions of our actions.

You can see this most clearly in free and open source software – which is the origin of this particular use of the term ‘open’ – where the combination of open licenses, that legally define what people are permitted to do, and open community software development processes, is what makes free software unique and successful (to an extent).

But when the coalition government in the UK started heavily advocating for openness and transparency, they had a different agenda.

For them, openness in government or the public sector was about how to best allow private capital access to exploit public resources to generate profit. Open access fits into that narrative well, they can view it as making more efficient use of public expenditure, because wider access to research would supposedly stimulate economic activity. From Whitehall it’s been promoted for purely economistic reasons. From the point of view of those us who became passionate about openness for social justice reasons and its potential for more equitably distributing the collective knowledge of humanity, this looks like open access has been co-opted by vested interests who wish to maintain existing power structures. The call for papers to this conference talked about a culture that ‘works collectively towards equity and the betterment of society for all’, but openness is not enough by itself to do this, if justice and an ethical stance are not foregrounded in everything we do. In fact openness has been adapted to fit neatly with the neoliberal policy agenda.

Neoliberalism is a complex ideology so it’s not easy to define, if you want the long version read my thesis – it’s online here in draft form – but the short definition I use is: a political project to re-shape all social relations so that they conform to the logic of capital.

This involves processes of marketisation, commodification, and turning public goods over to the private sector, all of which we’ve seen at work in the higher education sector for some time. The idea that education should be transformed into quantifiable units that can be exchanged in a marketplace for a given price, is not a natural and necessary way to think about learning, but it’s been the dominant way of viewing things in public policy for some time.

Under neoliberal regimes, policy is designed to encourage us to think in a self-interested transactional way about how we all interact with each other. It turns us all into not capitalists exactly, but rather into mini-capital ourselves – the term ‘human capital’ is meant literally – to act as what has been termed ‘entrepreneurs of ourselves’. In higher education, this is reflected in the quantification and metricisation of every aspect of life in universities, whether that’s through the tuition fees that put a price on the supposed value of education to turn students into ‘consumers’ who are meant to make decisions on what and where to study based on rational indicators of projected future earned income; or through the rankings that pit universities and departments against each other; in so many ways academics are forced to act competitively amongst themselves rather than co-operatively. It takes us a long way from traditional notions of the university as a self-critical community of scholars. Neoliberalism in education is not just about the overtly financial things like tuition fees, it’s about enforcing a market-like way of thinking about every aspect of our behaviour.

So the influence of neoliberalism on open access policy is clear in the capitulation of the Finch report to an APC-funded version of gold open access, specifically designed to allow incumbent publishers to maintain existing profit levels, as opposed to allowing the wider community to imagine alternative collective models of creating a sustainable open access environment. The Finch report pretended that no alternatives exist. That was wrong. And as the recommendations from the report were adopted in different ways by the research councils and funding councils, some of the misconceptions the report was based on in turn fed through to influence these policies that were based on the report. The most obvious way this happened is perhaps the conflation of open access with a specific payment model, and the idea that APCs are only way forward, which is clearly not true. But also in other ways, such as tying open access to the REF, which many academics view with scepticism if not outright hostility.

I still think open access is a good thing, but it’s not a panacea. Wider access to scholarship does not necessarily mean that all inequalities have dissolved in relation to that scholarship. The question of who gets to participate, whose voices are heard, is still open.

If we only pay attention to equitable distribution of scholarly wealth rather than equitable access to the creation of that common wealth, then the future we’re building is still exclusionary.

Viewing open access as a commons may offer a way forward. Commons refers to resources that are used by many people in common and the particular rules that govern use of these resources. So I want us to think about what collective governance means for open access. I use the word commons in a similar sense to Elinor Ostrom, who, by examining the ways that different long-enduring commons have been organised, showed us that one of the defining attributes of a successful commons is that of self-governance. In other words, effective governance of a commons must include the community that sustains and uses the resource in the decision-making process – if orders are imposed top down, that is not a commons. A commons can only be governed collectively, with joint responsibility for decision-making and sustainability.

To talk about scholarly commons doesn’t mean a single undifferentiated commons, one global pool of knowledge resources; a more fluid digital version of what some people imagine is contained in this building. Instead, I’m talking about a plurality of local commons attuned to the needs of different communities. This cuts to the heart of the problem of relying on mandates from central authorities to enact progress – that kind of approach doesn’t allow for a diversity of perspectives to emerge. And that’s what we need, so it’s important to create spaces for that to happen such as Radical Open Access Collective and Radical Librarians Collective where people can explore alternative values from those found in the mainstream library and publishing communities. And one value that’s present in these discussions is an ethics of care.

When I talk about an ethics of care, I’m using those words in a quite loose sense – with apologies to any actual ethical philosophers in the room, if there are any here – to mean taking an ethical stance towards our colleagues as human beings with complex needs that can’t be squeezed into market-like patterns of behaviour without losing sight of what actually matters.

This way of thinking is not compatible with neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism only cares about people in as far as they are exchangable units expressing a value in a marketplace, not as human beings; it has no space for the attentiveness and responsiveness to both individual and collective needs that is embodied in the concept of care. So an ethics of care can be an anti-neoliberal strategy to inform our collective action towards building and sustaining scholarly commons more aligned with the values of the library community. If openness and access to knowledge are at the heart of library values – and that is not a given, when we look at the darker side of library history – we should be working within our local communities towards a commons-based knowledge ecology that embodies this perspective. In the UK, the beginnings of this are already here in the emergence of new open access university presses, like White Rose that we heard about the other day, and scholar-led open access publishers.

I’d like to mention a few examples of initiatives that do embody different ways of thinking.

There’s Mattering Press, who believe that the work matters, and the people who do the work also matter, and the whole process of writing and publishing books should be undertaken with care. Then we have punctum books (who are not based in the UK); they explicitly seek to work with those scholars who have been discarded by conventional academia, whose work doesn’t fit within current constraints – it’s not REF-able. And of course Open Library of Humanities, who are funded through a library partnership scheme that gives collective responsibility to the library and academic communities. That collectivity element is vital. The strike actions of the past few weeks have been a strong reminder that collective action can work. When we organise and act with unity, it can achieve real change. (Or in the case of the current action, prevent an unnecessary and destructive change.) The strength in union doesn’t rest in the leadership, it’s in the members – they are the union. That’s worth bearing in mind when we thinking about collective action in the library space. Because we have a potentially powerful collective bargaining tool within the library sector already, in the consortium negotiations led by Jisc Collections, and they have the potential to achieve much more radical agreements if library directors lend their support collectively, and think beyond what is politically acceptable in their own institutions right now, towards what a sustainable long-term settlement might look like.

The examples of scholar-led presses I just mentioned are just a few of many, ones that I am personally familiar with. I’m not saying that any of them have come up with the way that open access should be done, because the point is there may be many ways of working that depend on local, disciplinary needs, that vary depending on where you are in the world and what your priorities are, as a scholar or as a publisher or as a librarian. I know I’ve just talked about the necessity of having different small and local initiatives at the same time as calling for more large-scale collective action, but I don’t think those are in conflict; I’m asking you to imagine what can be achieved when we centre our collective needs and desires, and build governance structures and sustainable means of supporting each other that enable a flourishing of research and scholarly publishing outside of the constraints of a market-derived system.



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