“Something has gone wrong along the road to achieving complete open access in scholarly publishing, and the stakes have changed. Thirty years ago, there was a problem with access to information. Today, we have a problem with who controls publishing and moreover, with the control and governance of the whole range of scientific process and output. Former inequalities remain. New inequalities are emerging. Is open access the beginning of a new and more egalitarian episode of scientific communication? Or is it just another Trojan horse, allowing private companies to extend their control of the Big Data now generated by science?”

Herb, Ulrich and Joachim Schöpfel (2018). Open Divide Emerges as Open Access Unfolds in Open Divide? Critical Studies on Open Access. Licensed under CC-BY-NC

It would be misguided to end this module without addressing some of the limitations of open access. In recent years, critical responses to open access have increased and many supporters have grown disillusioned with the co-opting of OA by commercial publishers and the movement’s inability to address and correct larger inequities that exist within the academic publishing ecosystem.

Decolonizing open

Open Dialogues: Daniel Heath Justice, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, University of British Columbia.

With the rise of gold pay to play open access models, global north countries with robust funding models have a greater ability to contribute to the open dissemination of literature. On the flip side, researchers from the global south are not be able to participate in open access to the same degree resulting in the inability of their research to have the same global impact.

There has also been growing awareness around the complexities of imposing open access on the knowledge of indigenous peoples and marginalized groups. Colonizer cultures have a well established history of appropriating the cultural artifacts, practices and information of colonized peoples and it is imperative that open access principles recognize this practice of extraction and avoid recreating it the discourse of open.

In a recent report on open science prepared for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the authors highlight the imperative to decolonize open access, not only as a moral imperative, but for the betterment of science:

“Debates and policy recommendations from Global North institutions on Open Science and open access usually deal with access to and dissemination of research outputs (still largely in journals and books). Promotion of these policies has tended to focus on the benefits, such as increased visibility and citations, paying little attention to the burden and the risks—particularly for knowledge-holding communities on the margins or scholars from the Global South…In this context, open access tends to reinforce the hegemony of science done and published in the Global North at the expense of local knowledge, seldom in open access. This reduces intellectual diversity and contributes to the homogenization of science and creativity.”

Leslie Chan et al. (2020) Open Science Beyond Open Access: For and with Communities, Licensed under CC-BY-NC.

Case Study – Digitizing African Cultural Heritage

A 2018 study commissioned by the French Government outlined a possible path towards restitution of African Cultural Heritage obtained by the French state during its colonial expansion. One recommendation put forward by the study was to digitize and make available as open access resources all cultural works that would be returning to their respective African home nations. Critics of the report challenged this recommendation, arguing that digitizing the artifacts would:

  • risk placing the French Government in a position of returning Africa’s Material Cultural Heritage while retaining control over the generation, presentation, and stewardship of Africa’s Digital Cultural Heritage for decades to come.
  • create a double standard by requiring African Cultural Heritage to be digitized and made available when the same demands are not made of its own national institutions.
  • and prevent African communities from enjoying full autonomy in devising any access strategies for restituted material and digital cultural heritage

In your opinion, what obligations should holders of appropriated Cultural Heritage have to the cultures and peoples that the works belong to? Is the responsibility to make culture and history widely available greater than that of restitution?

Learn more

Because the modules in this program are meant to serve as brief introductions to the topics presented, there isn’t space to discuss the critiques of open access in sufficient depth. Although not required, participants are encouraged to do additional reading before moving on to other sections. Those listed below may serve as a starting point.

Dig Deeper

To learn more about critical responses to open access, review:

Chan, Leslie. (2017). Confessions of an Open Access Advocate. Licensed under CC-BY-SA.

Ulrich, Herb. (2018). Open Access and Symbolic Gift Giving. Licensed under CC-BY-NC.

Turin, Mark. (2019). Ownership, Control, Access & Possession in Open Access Humanities Publishing. Licensed under CC-BY.

Pavis, Mathilde and Andrea Wallace. (2019). Response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report: Statement on Intellectual Property Rights and Open Access Relevant to the Digitization and Restitution of African Cultural Heritage and Associated Materials Licensed under CC-BY


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