While open access has at long last entered the mainstream in the global West and North, it is a particular version of open access that is being taken up so widely. Open access is positioned and promoted by some of its proponents as a means of serving the knowledge economy and helping to stimulate market competition. This version has become so dominant that even those on the left of the political spectrum who are critical of open access are presenting it in much the same terms: as merely assisting with the ongoing process of privatising knowledge, research and the university.
But if open access is not inherently politically progressive, it certainly has the potential to offer a radical challenge to free market capitalism and its forces of co-option. To this end, a number of projects are seeking to to create a very different future for open access. A future based on experimenting with non-commercial, not-for-profit, scholar-led approaches to publishing in the humanities and social sciences (HSS). Many of these projects are grouped here under the umbrella of the Radical Open Access Collective.
Publishing has always been a scholar-led practice. Researchers traditionally conduct and write up research. They then proceed to edit and peer-review it, only relying on publishers to collate, produce and distribute the final versions. Nowadays, however, publishers are increasingly outsourcing much of the production process to academics too: from copyediting through proofreading to indexing.
What brings the scholar-led projects of the Radical Open Access Collective together is a shared investment in taking back control over the means of production in order to rethink what publishing is and what it can be. One of the ways we try to achieve this is by shifting our unpaid labour away from toll access journals and publishers who do not allow authors to self-archive copies of their work online, or who have high charges for annual subscriptions, APCs and BPCs. We donate it instead to developing open access projects that operate in a fashion that is more consistent with their political and ethical commitments.
Accordingly, the philosophy behind the Radical Open Access Collective is one of mutual reliance and cooperation. This is not just for political and ethical reasons; it for reasons of necessity too. The organisations, presses and projects represented here often operate with limited or no funding. This situation therefore requires resilience and mutual support, something the collective provides through the sharing of time and resources, by working at scale, and by means of the cross-pollination of best practice (what software and copyright licenses to use, where to obtain funding for translations and technical help, how to find book designers and so on). In this way the collective promotes a collaborative rather than competitive ecosystem of publishing that is designed to create a progressive (and multi-polar) scholarly commons.
Though each member of the collective organisation is distinct in its aims and values, there is significant overlap between them. In particular, they share a range of models, methods, and approaches that are all underpinned by an emphasis on:
Openness: Instead of adhering to rigid definitions of open access that try to impose order onto the publishing ecology by means of a one-size-fits-all approach, members of the collective each practice their own forms of openness, based on their particular, political, ethical and disciplinary values. Just as important as openness, however, is the room that is left by this heterogeneous approach for the adoption of practices associated with semi-transparency, secrecy and invisibility. Indeed, rather than regarding open access as a grand project with a (pre-)defined set of goals, we view it as a series of critical struggles akin to those found in a pluralistic democracy. The collective is thus concerned to question easy distinctions between open and closed, preferring to explore questions around openness and access (not to mention transparency and secrecy, radicality and collectivity) in a more rigorous and nuanced fashion .
Producing critiques of the status quo: The collective represents a counter-institutional response to certain hegemonic, taken-for-granted practices within publishing, the humanities and social sciences, and the university more generally. In the existing system, publishing practices are heavily influenced by commercial decisions and the need for research to adhere to forms set by the publishers themselves (i.e. the closed, proprietorial, copyrighted codex book). We seek to push back against the growing dominance of market-driven versions of open access—particularly those connected to exorbitant, and ultimately unsustainable, article and book processing charges—in order to promote non-commercial and not-for-profit forms of publishing that work against the neoliberal grain. An important part of this involves the collective in questioning publishing’s relationship with university audit cultures, metricised evaluations, and the need for scholars to circulate their research in the ‘correct’ ways and places (such as those that make use of the Elsevier-owned citation database, Scopus, to provide just one example).
Experimentation: For many of us in the collective, publishing is an extension of our intellectual work: it is a way to explore the kinds of avenues that are otherwise closed down by our established, yet often still highly paper-centric, publishing practices. As such, we perceive open-ended critical experimentation as something of a guiding principle. For us, testing the form, content and processes of academic knowledge production can offer a means of intervening in the increasing commercialisation of both publishing and the university by performing scholarship differently. Indeed, whether they take the shape of processual and performative publishing, enhanced monographs, multimodal and audiovisual publishing, collaborative authorship, wikis, video-books, augmented reality inserts, data-mining, or machine reading, we see one of the major potential benefits of digital media technologies as being the way they make it far easier for scholars to develop new means of creating and disseminating knowledge. They thus enable us to look beyond the existing conservative, commercial models to explore the more politically and ethically progressive possibilities that are being opened up for researchers in the HSS as a result of such technological developments, and to investigate how these might impact on the manner in which research is conducted and shared in future.
New and underrepresented cultures of knowledge: For the members of the collective, interrogating conventional understandings of both authorship and the audience involves opening up scholarship to publics that are new or currently underserved: those associated with writing on niche topics, for example. It also involves nurturing cultures of knowledge associated with spaces that are ‘outside’ the walls of the university as they are conventionally conceived, as well as ensuring para-academics, precariously employed scholars, and those living outside the global North and West, are all able to have a voice.
Ethics of care: The presses and projects within the collective are led by a commitment to ethical forms of publishing, and place a particular emphasis on an ethics of care. This entails recognising we have a responsibility to all those involved in the publishing process—not just authors, reviewers and editors, but indexers, copyeditors and typesetters too. It means paying, rewarding or otherwise acknowledging people fairly for their labour wherever possible, while ensuring that the efforts of volunteers are not exploited or overly relied upon . Related to this is a commitment to taking time and care with regard to the published object itself, something that is often lacking in profit-oriented modes of publishing.
Given these shared values, a collective of likeminded presses and projects will benefit members by offering an alternative to open access as currently promoted, particularly in its often narrow focus on the need for sustainable business models. By sharing resources, advice and (where possible) time, member organisations can rely on a shared body of collaborative knowledge gifted to the community.