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16 May: The Doublethink of Open Access

Published onJul 09, 2019
16 May: The Doublethink of Open Access

Writers rightly have a special love of words. They matter to us because they provide our refuge and perhaps the only place where we feel truly at home. As George Orwell pointed out, damaging their meaning violates thought and by extension often re-orders relations between people. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell calls the process of making words come to mean their exact opposite ‘doublethink’. In his dystopian image of Britain’s future The Ministry of Love spews hateful propaganda, The Ministry of Truth produces dishonesties and The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with perpetual war.

Doublethink is alive in today’s university environment. The pervasive language of ‘transparency’ is really producing more secrecy, where we are frightened to write anything in an email that we wouldn’t be prepared to put on a notice board. Arguments made by an appeal for more ‘openness’ often result in more enclosures and boundaries. So it is with ‘Open Access’ publishing.

On the surface how could any writer quarrel with the idea that their work should be more available and accessible? After all, don’t we all write to be read? If academics are funded publically to produce knowledge shouldn’t it be available to the public? Pay-walled academic journals can charge as much as £20–30 for a single article. Sociologist John Holmwood comments that while the ‘case for open access appears overwhelming’ it has in fact a misleading appeal.

Holmwood explains that the driver to make knowledge ‘open access’ is not the public good but rather commercial interest. The shift towards open access is happening at the precise moment when educational policy is stressing the interests of business and making academic knowledge available to commercial exploitation. Open access licences effectively enable entrepreneurs to access for free research-based forms of knowledge that are often subsidized by public investment.

Indeed, in this model the cost for making knowledge open access will be met by the universities, and ultimately the academic researchers because the journals they publish in require payment for opening up the content. This also means that pressure will be placed on universities to foot the bill and choices will need to be made about which publications and authors will be included in this version of ‘openness’. So, paradoxically, the move to open access will make some academic work widely available, while less profitable forms of knowledge remain enclosed behind expensive journal pay-walls.

There is another dimension to the debate about open access that threatens the university as a whole. Many academics – including myself – have been enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by making lectures and podcasts available for free online. The idea that students can download and listen again to their lectures on their iPods or mobile phones has potential to let ideas travel and be heard in new ways. Again this seems like an unqualified positive opportunity.

The problem lies in what this means in a context where stark divisions are emerging between institutions across the higher education sector. The experience of the charismatic Princeton sociologist Mitch Duneier offers a cautionary tale. In the summer of 2012 he offered his introductory course in sociology for free through the online provider Coursera. The results were staggering and the course attracted 40,000 students from 113 countries. Duneier became a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) star.

The course enabled the communication of sociological ideas to new audiences as well as dialogue with the students who accessed the course remotely. Duneier reflected: ‘Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching.’ Mitch’s course seemed like a perfect example of the positive potential of openness. However, when Coursera opened its content for free use within the University System of Maryland and other state universities, it became clear that they were being used to cut costs. Free online content was ‘blended’ with a reduced amount of face-to-face contact with sociologists available locally. MOOCs had enabled cuts in public education, while offering the justification that students had open access to world-class academics in Ivy League schools.

As result, Mitch Duneier withdrew his sociology MOOC, reporting that he had been unwittingly used to cut costs and undermine his sociological colleagues in public universities. He told The Chronicle of Higher Education: ‘I . . . don’t want to be part of a movement that is really about helping state universities achieve cost savings at the expense of their own faculty and students.’

What emerges is the need and necessity to consider not just the meanings of openness but the context within which writing and creative work occurs within the university. This involves a critical assessment of both scholarly work and how its value is measured and judged but also the condition under which academic writers labour. Given the longstanding attention of feminist scholars and writers to the relationship between the personal and political dimensions of intellectual work it shouldn’t be surprising that they have been at the forefront of the discussion of scholarly praxis.

My Goldsmiths colleague Sarah Kember argues that there is a need to ‘open out from open access’. Such a move would pre-empt the re-enclosure of knowledge or its assimilation back into the logic of measuring academic value within the audit culture. Here the traditions of feminist deconstruction offer tools to unpick the doublethink of open access. Kember issues a stirring invitation to ‘unwork the work of writing about scholarly practice and to work harder at the work of writing out of its enclosures’.

This also invites the ultimate question of what is at stake in our scholarly work. ‘Why write’, Kember asks provocatively? Her answer is that we should write to transform the space of writing itself and the conditions, conventions and confinements – including forms of self-regulation – that operate within it. This is not just an argument for experimental forms of work but rather for fostering a feminist ethos of experimenting in scholarship. As a leading force in the setting up of The Goldsmiths Press, Sarah Kember has done precisely this, creating new publishing opportunities and spaces for writing.

The happy consequence for me is that the press is providing a published home for orphaned ideas like this diary.

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