I was at UKSG last week and was lucky to attend a fascinating (though poorly attended) session by the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP).
It was sobering to hear about the very real barriers to consumption that still exist in large swathes of the developing world, exemplified by poor bandwidth and unreliable power grids; and not to forget barriers to publication, often simply manifest in a lack of knowledge of the process. Cue schemes such as AuthorAID with its twofold mission to increase the success rate of developing country researchers in achieving publication and to increase the visibility and influence of research in the developing world.
Where does Open Access fit into this complex equation? Open Access is – if not exclusively then at least overwhelmingly – a positive force for scholarly communities in the developing world. Of course, it is not entirely without issues – concerns exist in regard to the scope for predatory pricing on future APCs, for example – but as a general model it is far more suited to the developing world for the simple reason that developing countries have tended to consume more scholarly content than they create. Furthermore, a fundamentally post-colonial, equable world view is enshrined in the original Budapest declaration in its statement that the signatories are “building a future in which research and education in every part of the world are that much more free to flourish”
Most of us have not failed to notice the sun rising on the asian century. If predictions of GDP growth are borne out, then by the time my kids are my age India will be ‘offshoring’ to the UK and middle-class Indians will no doubt be complaining that they don’t understand the accents of the operatives manning their bank’s outsourced call centre operation.
The scholarly market is following, and will continue to follow, the same trends. China is predicted to take over as the largest economy on the planet around 2016 and will be the world’s greatest producer of scholarly articles; India is moving toward (albeit with some legislative resistance) updating its statute books to enable foreign universities to set up shop, which will start a gold rush.
In considering Open Access as a fundamentally post-colonial idea, one should consider, then, that the anti-OA movement is expressing a shadowing, neocolonial ideal in that the subscription based access model favours fundamentally unequal relationships: it concentrates the knowledge of the many in the hands of the few and establishes significant economic barriers that act to separate the information rich from the information poor.
This neocolonial outlook is exemplified in a recent post on Scholarly Open Access. This post bemoans that fact that (apparently) Hindawi’s profits are ‘bigger’ than Elsevier’s and concludes with the peculiar refrain of
“Is this the future of scholarly publishing, dumbed down and offshore?”
The ‘dumbing down’ charge seems to stem from a beef that, as well as changing the structure of their editorial team, Hindawi actively solicit editorial involvement from its authors (and marketing to academics is seemingly being akin to stone cladding the ivory tower). But what’s more revealing, I think, is the unashamedly neocolonialist use of the term ‘offshore’. Postcolonialism should teach us – if it teaches us nothing else – that such normative expressions should be handled with great care. In other words, what – or where – constitutes ‘offshore’ is wholly dependent on which shore you happen to be standing on.
Whatever your views on OA, we as a community should be doing all we can to help create processes and structures that give researchers in the developing world a leg up in their quest to stand on the shoulders of giants.
Neocolonial angst has no place here.