As Open Access Week commences, and the community rightly celebrates its achievement and discusses what needs to happen in the future, I thought I might take a chance to reflect on open access historically. Rather than looking at the Budapest Initiative and the development of current open access developments, however, I thought I might go back even further in time, to the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the U.S. (a topic I cover quite widely within this blog) Coincidentally, this period is also the point in time when the scholarly communication system as we know it began to develop in the U.S.. What might the term “open access” mean to someone then? Additionally, could that definition help current open access advocates think about where we want to go in the future?
Marcel LaFollette in a chapter of the History of the Book in America gives a fairly good definition of what researchers at least felt about making their scholarship available at that point in time. LaFollette suggests that the market for academic publishing in the US was unique because the consumers and the producers were the same people. This phenomenon created an insularity that encouraged research communities to believe that they owned their content when in fact they did not. For scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century U.S., “open” access to knowledge meant only that professional scientists, who served as both producers and consumers of content, were able to read the scholarship within their fields. Open Access would not have meant access to knowledge to everyone in the world. I suspect, if one were to ask most current university faculty about access to their own scholarship, they would also prioritize access to other practitioners rather than to the entire world.
I do not mean to suggest that academics do not engage with the public; there has been a continuing debate about that issue for some time. I do, however, want to make a point about the idea of what a “research community” is. LaFollette was discussing scholars practicing in an academic field. Now that definition would be much broader, and commercial publishers, professional associations, librarians, technologists, the general public, private foundations, government and many others would probably need to be included. Thus, even though the definition of research community has changed, how has that been reflected in open access debates?
Fundamentally, I think that another way to frame this issue would be to discus how communicate their scholarship. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was only one medium available: print. In order to make that medium cost-effective, research communities that endeavored to communicate scholarship to fellow-practitioners delegated much of the day-to-day operations to commercial companies that have since evolved into large multi-national scientific publishers. The media available to scholars now are much wider: print, radio, television, the internet. Nevertheless, I suspect the motive of scholars for communicating their work (i.e. to make it available to fellow practitioners) has not changed.
In earlier posts, I have utilized the work of Andrew Abbott to suggest that in the late nineteenth century, a “linked ecology” of universities and professional scholarly associations have created a “hinge-mechanism” in order to accomplish their shared interests. In the past, that hinge-mechanism was the scholarly journal. For the purposes of tenure and promotion, it still is. Historically that hinge-mechanism was designed, as LaFollette pointed out, as a method for scholars to share work with their fellow practitioners, and for commercial companies to deal with day-to-day management. Unless the entire research community tries to create a new hinge-mechanism, then our debates about the future of open access will continue to lack the richness of social and historical context, that are so desperately needed as we continue both to celebrate the achievements of open access and to envision its future.