Radical OA as a front

Posted on 25 Oct 2020.
Academic journals
Academic journals Image by Patrycja Fjeld.

Academic publishing has undergone great changes the last few years. One major driver in this change is the relatively recent adoption by the European Union of the Plan S initiative, a codex implemented to ensure open access to the products of academic work. Established private publishers have responded by accepting some degree of open access, instead demanding sizeable publication fees from authors, which in most cases means the authors’ institutions of employment. The effect has been that while university libraries in the past had large outlays to receive copies of scholarship produced by researchers employed by their own institutions, they now receive it without cost. Instead the institutions have to pay to get the scholarship published in the first place.

Let’s distinguish from the outset from a loose alliance of bodies that with a wide variety of motives seek to further public access to scholarship, and a far more narrow and more militant radical open access grouping. The first of these alliances emerged from a fair response to what is now largely recognised as a social injustice: how can it be that while the public have financed scholarship from their purse (through taxes that underpin academic institutions in most countries) they have been barred from access to the very fruits of that funding, the academic output in the form of journal publications? The Plan S initiative was one particularly successful response to this situation: through it private, corporate publishers have been compelled to recuperate their costs through other means than subscription, the most ubiquitous of which is author fees.

The Radical OA group, on the other hand, points out, rightfully, that the fees dictated by corporate publishers, whether from readers for subscriptions or from authors for publication, generate funds that go far beyond the component costs of processing and publishing academic articles. Some critics have noted that today the most prestigious journals are owned and controlled by an increasingly narrow band of corporations; only five global publishers now have the most important journals at their disposal, and their resulting bottom-lines are staggering and growing. It appears that these corporate companies have adapted very well to Plan S and the attendant calls for public access to socially generated scholarship. In other words, what we have is a small group of increasingly powerful publishers that generate unheard-of revenue in order to bolster their position in a competitive publishing market, a market that can be characterised as nothing but as a field of fierce competition between rivalling corporation founded on the principles of capital investment and returns, i.e. the system of production Karl Marx referred to as Capitalism.

What is clear from the outset is that the general open access movement, instituted through initiatives such as Plan S, and the more militant Radical Open Access group have very different aims. While the EU have undersigned the aim to open up the results of scholarship that has been funded by the public to those who have footed the bill, i.e. the taxpayers, there is nothing in Plan S that seeks to undermine the motivation to generate profit on capital investment, an obvious driver to corporate publishers when they have repositioned in response to Plan S. This latter purpose is, however, a strong motivator for the Radical OA group. In other words, what this group seeks is not merely to give the public access to scholarship that they themselves have funded, but to undercut the possibility for corporate publishers to generate profit on their academic journals.

While working against profit in publishing is perfectly legitimate, it isn’t entirely clear that generating profit from research is essentially any different from generating profit from other social activities, such as running a restaurant, a newspaper, a grocery store, or a social media network. Rather, it seems as if the main driver for Radical OA is not primarily open access, but that it should be radical, and this radicality is defined by its opposition to generate profits on capital investments, or, to put it differently, what the Radical OA grouping is opposed to is the capitalist mode of production and its inherent profit motive.

For this to be a fine and honourable purpose we should ask that Radical OA’s articulate clearly their political aspiration. Is their first concern to gain open access to publicly funded scholarship? Or are we witnessing the structure of a front organisation: while apparently working to further open access, is Radical OA exploiting a generally favourable public sentiment towards open access to promote their larger anti-capitalist project?

We will await good answers.

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About Torgeir Fjeld
Writer, publisher, and educational administrator, holding PhDs in Philosophy (EGS, 2017) and Cultural Theory (Roehampton, 2012). Latest publications include Introducing Ereignis: Philosophy, Technology, Way of Life (2022) and Rock Philosophy (2019) and articles in Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, International Journal of Žižek Studies, and others. Presently serving as Head of Ereignis Center for Philosophy and the Arts, Publisher at Tankebanen forlag, and Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Inscriptions. Fjeld has taught at universities across North America, Europe, and Africa. Here is section dedicated to poetry in translation. This page has a cookie policy.