#OpenAccess as Famine

The current state of thinking about open access today is a lot like our contemporary understanding of famine.

In the early 1980s Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze published the ground-breaking book Hunger and Public Action. In it, Sen and Drèze made the unexpected and original argument that famines are not caused by lack of food. Rather, they are caused by lack of entitlement — when famines occur, there is typically enough food to feed everyone, but the social system that distributes it is out of whack. Prices change such that poor people can no longer afford food, and there are not enough (or not correctly designed) social programs that ensure the food is distributed to the poor. It’s not the food that’s missing, it’s the justice.

The metaphor can be run several ways. From one point of view, our closed access world is one in which there is more knowledge than ever, but paywalls ensure that most people are starved for it. While some brave souls continue their long tradition of smuggling, most people starve or watch ad-supported TV, which is the knowledge equivalent of eating mud to feel full (apologies to the legitimate geophages out there who find this an invidious comparison).

In another version of this metaphor, it’s the resources needed to publish — money, manpower, software — that’s the food and it’s the scholarly ecology that doesn’t provide the entitlements necessary for open access publishers to get the resources they need to survive and thrive. That’s why so much of the recent work on open access has now moves to understanding the scholarly ecosystem as whole. Projects like Libraria are trying to see if we can rearrange the existing relations of production (ahem) to create cheaper, more free research. In the Netherlands, the univerisites are realizing that cancelling the Elsevier subscription would liberate enough money to make accessible all those articles the Netherlands currently publishes with Elsevier. In this case, the money to publish open access is in place, but the existing system runs this money through for-profit publishers whose profit margins are too large.

Once, we had to face the claim ‘there’s no money to pay for it’. Now, we know the question is ‘who is entitled to access it?’ Of course, open access advocates have long looked at the big picture when it comes to what needs to change in scholarly publishing. But I do feel that in the past couple of years there has been a shift away from the basic groundwork of developing software and making arguments for the legitimacy and feasibility of open access. It could have been that open access remianed a fringe idea pursued by those without a lot of institutional power. Now, however, as governments, funders, universities, and publishers take open access seriously, it’s increasingly the systematics of entitlement that’s being examined and rethought. It’s an exciting time for open access, and I hope to see even more exciting times ahead.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

One thought on “#OpenAccess as Famine

  1. From one point of view, our closed access world is one in which there is more knowledge than ever, but paywalls ensure that most people are starved for it.

    An interesting analogy, but isn’t it fundamentally flawed in at least two respects? (1) Victims of famine die. Those unable to access academic articles are annoyed. Only in rare cases will deprivation of the knowledge in question have life-threatening consequences. (2) The analogy assumes a world of scarcity, in which knowledge is rare and access available only to elites. Open access assumes a digitally connected world. In the one we have knowledge is widely available to anyone with a mobile phone. Only those in need of specific bits to which they are denied access are inconvenienced.

    I support open access. I agree that academic publishing is a game grossly stacked against newcomers and that academic publishers make exorbitant profits by exploiting players’ free labor. But “famine”? Not being able to dine at Maxims de Paris is not starving.

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