The _other_ enemy of Open Access

An article made the rounds of social media recently on whether or not the for-profit website is outflanking the open access movement. It’s a great article that I’d encourage people to read closely., in case you didn’t know, is basically tumblr for academics — a bunch of hosted blog sites tied together into a social network. I am deeply ambivalent about (and its more sciency cousin Research Gate) but in the end I use the site and even accepted one of the many ‘editorships’ they provided to people, which allows you to rate up content on their site.

There’s a lot to be said about, most of which can be found in the post I linked to above. But what that piece sparked in my head was the way and other sites enable (and perhaps even promote?) the other enemy of the open access movement: law-scoffing consumerism.

By now, most of us are familiar with take-downs of big publishers like Elsevier or Wiley. Their reputation as the main enemies of open access is, to be frank, pretty well-deserved. But open access is also impeded by total disregard for copyright and laws regarding intellectual property in general. And let’s face it: is chock full of articles which authors probably don’t have the right to post. When we decide that the law and our scholarly ethics are so far apart that we might as well ignore the law and share our work, it’s hard to care about reforming the law at all. is not the only or worse example of this. We all know about book download sites like where you can go and download ebooks to your heart’s content. These sites make it easier to (probably illegally) download a book than it is to walk over to the library and check it out. Or even turn your chair around to face you bookshelf and pick up your own copy. In fact, it’s so easy to use you start to wonder why we need to have libraries at all.

And that’s a problem. Libraries are important — and in a world of digital publishing where they’re increasingly acting like publishers, they are more important than ever. University presses and independent presses are essential to keeping scholarly publishing going, and for many of them selling content is still (alas) the only business model that they’ve got. It’s one thing to download articles and thumb your nose at Elsevier. It’s another thing to do it to Verso or University of Washington Press.

We are still developing our sense, as scholars, of what counts as ethical sharing and what counts as ripping people off — where fair use and remix give way to plagiarism and piracy. It’s an exciting time to be a scholar and intellectual for precisely this reason. But I worry that when academics develop our communal norms in a context of “who cares who published it and why” we will ultimately develop a sensibility that is not in the best interests of the producers, editors, and publishers of knowledge. When that happens, the only people in the universe who still care about CC licensing will be me and Jason Jackson.

In a perfect world, law, policy, publishing models, and repositories would all be developing in a rich conversation with scholarly thought and practice. And this is happening in a lot of places. It’s hard to not to love the anti-authoritarian, drink-your-fill ethos of book download sites (the free books also add to the appeal). But let’s not forget that ultimately those books came from somewhere. And when let’s remember that while you could just say ‘frack this’ and throw a PDF of your article on, when you take the time to get an open access license or observe a green OA mandate and post a pre-print, you’re making the world a better place  for both your work, and for open access in general..


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

3 thoughts on “The _other_ enemy of Open Access

  1. Alex, I like what you have to say here–enough to review my postings. But–and it’s a big but–there is a fundamental difference between the intellectual property rights of an author, and the pay wall policies of content aggregators (are Wiley and Elsevier really anything more than that–profitable versions of those blogs that reprint “news” from the wire services and company?) Sure they provide a service, and I understand why professional organizations like the AAA have decided to use such services, but does breaking their paywalls really hurt their profitability? They should not, ever, be depending on the ludicrous per article charges for unaffiliated individuals for revenue. Professional associations and libraries, and universities should continue to pay their access fees–because really all these services are providing is a kind of “guarantee” that an article supposed to have been published in, say American Anthropologist, in fact was. Where access comes from is pretty much irrelevant, or could be, with some better thinking on the issue. I don’t think willful ignoring of their legal claims is a good strategy, but in the end the don’t HAVE to enforce their morally tenuous claims–and the organizations and institutions can still elect to pay them as guarantors and front line e-publishers and int he end all they lose is the majority of their pay-per-article revenue: which no just system would ever allow no matter how loud they scream about losing it.

  2. Interesting discussion, really. I’m ambivalent towards, but let me play the devil’s advocate for a second here:

    1) can be, in a sense, more democratic than Open Access. That is because OA works, predominantly, in a pay-to-publish model. Which is fine for people who have access to university or institutional funding that allow them to publish on this system. However, many of us – I’d say most grad students, and definitely almost everyone from less developed countries – can’t afford that.
    Their universities won’t pay for their open access publication fee, they don’t have access to any institutional repository, etc. So their only chance at letting other people read their work is: A) Publishing on free OA journals – like PLoS, if they are from a “group 1” country, or, if you’re Latin American, the SciELO network; B) Publishing your work on traditional journals and uploading it to

    2) is also very useful – I’d say “almost essential” – for putting your research “out there”. When you’re a budding, young researcher, trying to be read – and cited – is a tough job. And papers available on are, whether we like it or not, more read than articles that are not. And this is intensified, for instance, if you want to make available pieces of work that won’t get picked by content aggregators and databases – in some cases, those services even have a heavy anglocentric bias, BTW.

    3) Most of all, is the most convenient way that I know of of keeping track with the literature: you can subscribe to fields of interest, get warned when authors you’re following upload papers, know what papers they themselves are reading…
    Not to mention, of course, that you have easy, almost hassle-free access to content that, depending on your case (institutional affiliations, etc), you wouldn’t have otherwise – even some supposedly OA repositories, like SSRN, apparently charge subscription fees if you’re not associated with an institution that already paid for that access.

    So, yeah, while is far from perfect, traditional OA is as well. In fact, I like to say that traditional OA is scarily like insurance-based healthcare, and alternatives – like SciELO or – are constantly shunned by the system.

  3. I don’t think that Rex is arguing that primarily poses a danger to the pay-to-publish OA model — the model preferred by for-profit publishers. It’s the alternative models – like the cooperative publishing model recently described on this site and others (/2015/10/21/what-a-cooperative-proposal-means-for-the-aaa/) that could potentially be undercut by before they can even get off the ground.

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