Open Access vs. neocolonialism?

Stone clad house in Manchester (credit: wikipedia)

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.

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5 Responses to “Open Access vs. neocolonialism?”

  1. Bill Cohen

    The “dumbing down [for dollars]” charge deserves much more scrutiny, not disdain. There are wonderful new scholarly Open Access publishers,and there are also monstrous crooks seeking easy checks for article processing fees. For these funds, the “scammers” just mount scholarly articles much like Youtube mounts videos–without vetting, scrutiny, or giving a fig for genuine scholarship. This assists future scholars like a hole in the head.

  2. Sarah May

    Interesting point and good post. There’s a lot of very unexamined and defensive language used by the publishing industry against open access. Its important not to assume that Open Access journals from outside Europe are predatory – or in any way less rigorous than established journals. My only concern is that similar economic drivers may be at work as ‘off shore’ globalisation – that Western economic interests could use cheaper labour and avoid taxes. Where publishing initiatives are ‘home-grown ‘ it doesn’t matter where the home is

  3. Rob Virkar-Yates

    Yes. It’s these all-too-easy conflations that are troubling: ‘dumbed down’ with ‘offshore’; ‘OA’ with ‘predatory’ …

    Charges of ‘dumbing down’ do of course need full scrutiny – but my point is that these conflations make this more difficult and are therefore counter-productive.

    Organisations such as INASP are working hard to break down cultural boundaries and enable developing countries to contribute, on equal terms, to the global scholarly community; it is a shame that their mission – and that of others like them – can be undermined by a vociferous, ‘neocolonial’ minority.

  4. infokelele

    Wonderful post. I think it pays to really know what constitutes authentic open access then when you spot wolves in sheep skin you call them out for what they really are. I keep an ongoing dialogue on Open Access at and even though OA is obviously a big thing for me, I explore other related topics as well.

  5. Laura

    These are important points, echoed here at
    It is essential that open access is for everyone otherwise the research from those parts of the world without open access policies and infrastructure will become even more invisible than it is now


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