Open Access and Intellectual Freedom: Linked Meditations

Open Access

The University of California signed an open-access agreement with the publisher Springer Nature this past week. That’s an improvement on the status quo—although it’s not yet clear how much of an upgrade it will prove to be.

The new agreement responds to a dysfunctional status quo in the world of academic publishing. Academic publishers have charged libraries increasingly exorbitant prices for access to academic journals—and have profited on the other end of their supply chain by receiving articles, peer review, and editing services for nearly free, as scholars desperate for tenure and prestige have volunteered their time and service. Since colleges and universities ultimately pay for their employees’ time, academic publishers have received an unofficial subsidy from academia even before they turn around to screw the last penny from them for access rights.

The arrival of digital publishing has also lowered academic publishers’ costs—a savings they have not noticeably passed on to their consumers. At the same time, digital publishing presents the possibility of better alternative—open access publishing, put immediately on the internet, and not subject to the lengthy delays entailed by academic publishing. Websites such as bioRxiv now provide a timely alternative to the traditional route of online publishing, which allows for instant feedback as an alternative to the increasingly calcified process of peer review.

Indeed, academic publishing increasingly serves as a sort of social imprimatur for research—both in the trivial sense that it provides hollow prestige, and in the more useful sense that it provides a rough proxy of peer esteem. Academic publishers are disposed to compromise about their exorbitantly grasping business model, because universities and researchers increasingly have an alternative: they can abandon the academic publishing oligopoly and support open access publishing instead.

Springer has apparently been more ready to negotiate with universities than has its great rival Elsevier—it has made a number of open-access agreements with universities in the Netherlands, Germany, and other countries. But it is not clear that this deal is particularly good—or that the public may not ultimately bear a substantial part of the burden. A number of public cautions have already been raised, including:

  • It is not clear precisely how much the University of California is paying to Springer under the new deal, and whether there are actually substantial cost savings.
  • Some part of the “savings” seems to proceed from assigning the costs to professors’ grants—and thus to the federal government and other granting organizations. This amounts to a hidden tax, where the taxpayer foots the bill.
  • University of California researchers now have a financial incentive to publish with Springer—which benefits Springer directly, as it improves its market share among scholarly publishers and imposes an odd inhibition on scholars’ desire to publish where they will.
  • Contrariwise, do Springer journal editors now have a financial incentive to publish University of California scholars? If so, it will affect editorial publication decisions.
  • The University of California, by dint of its enormous size, may be able to secure a reasonably favorable deal with Springer; smaller institutions have much less bargaining power.

These questions should give pause to an outside observer—you must use a long spoon if you want to dine with the devil.


Intellectual Freedom

However, the benefits of such an agreement must now also take into account an ominous new development—the erosion of the culture of liberty at both universities and academic presses. The somewhat technical issue of open access publishing is now immediately relevant to the survival of intellectual freedom.

The Cultural Revolution’s Great Purge, the first fruit of the Great Awokening, now includes an alarming tendency to “cancel” articles that offend the would-be Woke censors of academia. Outside pressure, including death threats, led in 2017 to the withdrawal of Bruce Gilley’s “The Case for Colonialism” from Third World Quarterly (Taylor & Francis Online). Gilley’s article has since been republished at the National Association of Scholars’ journal Academic Questions.

In June 2020, Angewandte Chemie (Wiley-VCH) removed Brock University chemistry professor Tomáš Hudlický’s article “‘Organic synthesis-Where now?’ is thirty years old. A reflection on the current state of affairs,” because it offended the Woke tyrants by speaking truthfully about the negative effects of the diversity hiring regime on chemical research. The article can now only be found on a website drawn from a download conducted before the editors withdrew the article. At Angewandte Chemie itself, there is only an apology (“An Open Letter to Our Community,” June 9, 2020) for publishing an “offensive” article, announcements of punishments of editors who accepted Hudlický’s article, and announcements of a new diversity bureaucratic regime within Angewandte Chemie that will vet all future publications.

All scholars and members of the public are now on notice that universities and academic publishers alike are engaged in preemptive and post-publication censorship of any research that contravenes Woke dogma—neo-Lysenkoism throughout what was once the Free West. Topics presumptively subject to such censorship include any open challenge to the diversity regime, any aspect of the humanities or social sciences that might subvert the diversity regime, psychological research (especially on topics such as implicit bias or microaggressions), genetics, climate science, environmental epidemiology, and research by white and/or male scholars solely by dint of their race or sex.

The contracts of “open access” publishing arranged between universities and academic publishers now matter less than assuring the integrity of free scholarly research. That, rather than the division of profits and costs between universities and academic publishers, is the vital issue.

Scholars must arrange for immediate storage of paper and digital copies of all existing scholarship in multiple countries not yet subject to the diversity regime, including, at a minimum, Israel, Hungary, Russia, and China. Scholars should preferentially publish in open access scholarly websites that 1) have no editorial bottlenecks; 2) facilitate pseudonymous or anonymous scholarship; 3) are hosted in multiple countries; 4) will continue to be accessible on the Internet so long as even one institution continues to host them; and 5) include contingency plans for continued access if gatekeepers such as Google impose access restrictions. Indeed, multiple redundancies and multiple modes of access must become essential aspects of open access scholarship.

We must support open access scholarship so as to preserve free scholarship—and liberty more broadly, on any island where it can survive.

David Randall is Research Director at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Kersten Riemer, Public Domain


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