Monday, 30 May 2011

Open Access, Context and Control

I've been assuming for sometime that most thinking people in philosophy and academia support the general principles of Open Access and the proliferation of digital publishing so I was startled to note this recent posting that suggests some specific reservations concerning these trends. Before examining and replying to the contentions of this piece, it is worth pointing out for the sake of context of the argument that it is written as a reply to this piece which had argued precisely for Open Access and digital publishing as a general model.

Open Access is understood well by both the previous contributors to this debate as a form of publishing that does not involve fire-walls and which enables free transfer of arguments between people including the distribution of pieces in a stand-alone fashion. The objection argues that the point of philosophy can, in a general shorthand, be understood to be a concern with "truth" and this is introduced in a way that is not intended to be question-begging between different philosophical positions. The basic point in asserting this is that each philosopher, whatever their other general positions, is assumed to take their own arguments and positions sufficiently seriously as to want to convince others of them and, in this limited sense, to be convinced of their "truth". 

Now, after making this point, the argument turns somewhat transcendental as the next move, at least as I understand it, involves a statement concerning the conditions of possibility of assessing the "truth" of the statements of a philosophical utterance and this condition involves being able to "control" the context in which such utterances are made. With traditional print media, so the argument goes, there is a basic way to do this as the argument appears in, for example, a standard academic journal and this journal provides the context for comprehension of the utterance in question. By contrast, with Open Access material there is no such "control" of the context of utterance and hence no way of ensuring respect of the truth-conditions of the utterance in question. Hence there are philosophical grounds for being concerned that such Open Access models should not spread.

Now there is lots to be said in response to this intriguing argument. In general, prior to going into detail, I want to suggest that there is a sense in which the argument is right and another in which it is wrong. Further, the sense in which it is right is different from what might be thought by the one who has stated the argument.

So let's first assess the basis on which the argument might be thought to be "right" and how this basis is different from what might be expected. It is clearly correct to say that the author of an Open Access piece has no way of assessing the way in which their piece will be seen, no "control", as the argument has it, over the "context" of the piece. There are mitigations of this in the sense that, if, for example, an article appears in Kant Studies Online that someone who downloads it is aware of the context of the appearance of the article in an academic journal and the standards expected of such. Further, the pages of the article all include the reference to the place of publication and this shows clearly the general "context" of the publication of the piece. These mitigations may be thought to be insufficient. But now consider the contrast with the traditional place of publication. If your article appears in a print journal or something that has a pay-wall then it is true that access to it is more restricted than in an Open Access situation. But is it true that the author has in this situation "more control" of the context of its means of publication? In fact this is so far from true that the argument advanced fails to distinguish in a meaningful way between traditional publication and Open Access publication.

Let me explain. If you appear in a traditional print journal then what happens is two things that take the "context" quite out of your control as an author. Firstly, assuming this is not a "special" issue devoted to a specific theme or question, the fact is that you have no "control" over the surrounding articles which in fact give the "context" of publication. These surrounding articles could, and often do, display characteristics that are quite different from those in one's own article arguing for positions one might well take to be quite disreputable and doing so in ways that you cannot assume to be standardly acceptable (this happens with even the "best" journals). So in this first important sense the "context" belongs not under the control of the author of the individual piece but rather under that of the editor of the journal. All this applies, mutatis mutandis, with pieces that appear in edited book collections also.

The second way in which the author manifestly lacks "control" of the "context" of the utterance in question is that the utterance can very easily be removed from this "context". It is true that such removal is not quite as easy as with an Open Access journal but it can still pretty easily take place. Articles can be downloaded from print journals that have on-line access and simply studied alone just as happens with Open Access articles. Similarly print journals can be photocopied and the articles circulated in contexts that are quite distinct from that of the original journal and used in ways that are far from under the "control" of the original author. So true is this that the basic conditions of these articles (and it was these conditions that were taken to be part of the assessment of the "truth" value of the utterances in question) cannot be meaningfully distinguished from the conditions of Open Access articles.

So the sense in which it is true to write that Open Access articles are not under the "control" of the author of them is just as applicable to the production of articles in traditional formats. And this was not the point of the original argument which suggests that the original argument has clearly missed something crucial.

What the original argument missed were the conditions of the "control" of "context" that exist with regard to traditional media. Just listing these conditions is enough to give one pause when confronted with suggestions that authors have, in some meaningful sense, "control" of this context. Take a traditional journal. An author submits their material to it freely and it is then passed by the editor, also freely, to referees who further freely give their time to assess the quality of the article. The author has, it has to be added, little by way of guidance generally in terms of how fairly his article will be treated in this process and is frequently requested to make changes of large scope to have any chance of publication, changes which could meaningfully alter his argument. However, the next point is that the result of all this free labour, assuming that it ends with the article's acceptance (something very unlikely in traditional print media) with publication in a journal that is produced under conditions of artificial scarcity that have blocked the publication of many other articles of equal or superior status to those published on grounds that are scarcely intellectually defensible.

Let me expand on these points to draw out what I mean. Artificial scarcity afflicts traditional print media as there can only be so many issues in a year and therefore only so many pieces can appear in a journal. This leads to situations where pieces can take a great deal of time to appear, often, in fact, an accepted article will appear months and even years after it was initially written. By this point the original author will, most likely, have changed their views in quite important ways and the debate to which they may have seen themselves contributing will also have altered in ways not foreseeable when the original piece was produced. So, the "context" of the reception of the article is decidedly not under the control of the author and one of the reasons why it is not is because of the scarcity of published articles in conditions that are not such as to foster academic judgment as the main criteria.

Traditional print journals do not and could not publish everything of quality submitted to them. Further, their publication cycles encourage delay in publication of a sort that is not best conducive to the reception of arguments produced. Both of these points show a lack of "control" of the author with regard to such means of production.

Returning also to the conditions of academic labour here: the journal is run at cost so that whilst all the work of the academics here (editor, readers, author) is donated for nothing, the journal subsequently sells the content that is accepted and artificially produces barriers to its dissemination. These artificial barriers frequently prevent articles reaching those who might well be best placed to respond most usefully and interestingly to the articles published. This is another way in which the traditional means of publication is far from giving "control" of "context" to the author.

By contrast an Open Access journal, by virtue of its openness, ensures that any reader who learns of its existence can read its material and it has no conditions of artificial scarcity affecting its publication assuming it is published digitally (it still does if print only). These conditions in fact give some important "control" to the author. Given that digital Open Access media can also move to publication quickly they also ensure a better environment for the author's argument in the sense that the author is still close to the material and better able, by virtue of this, to defend its contentions. They further open argument up to quicker developments whilst ensuring that only academic judgments of quality (and not questions of the space of the print) decide what gets published. In all these respects it turns out that the publication of Open Access digital journals in fact has serious advantages in terms of "control" of certain kinds of "context" for the author and suggests reasons why the original argument was false.

In conclusion the way in which the argument was true failed to distinguish significantly between traditional means of publication and those of Open Access digital media. The ways in which the argument was false showed, by contrast, insufficient reflection on the conditions of traditional media which are very far from giving authors "control of context" of the reception of their articles.


Anonymous said...

Here's the author of the original post. Thanks for your thoughtful reply (particularly for giving a fair rendition of my point that on a basic level truth is relevant even for relativists). I will reply more extensively on my blog, but my basic point should be clarified here:

All those publishing via Open Access (OA) licenses must be aware of what they are doing. You call rightly for "free transfer" of ideas. But we all should know what that implies.

Imagine a 'catholic philosopher' writing on the arguments to be found in Aquinas against the existence of God (cf. e. g. Summa theologiae Iª q. 2 a. 3 arg. 1 and arg. 2, If this philosopher submits the paper to the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, she can be reasonably sure that people understand what she is doing. Moreover, readers will grasp easily what she is not doing, namely, denying the existence of God.

Now, the editor of the ACPQ is approached by a well-known colleague working on atheism, asking that the paper should be included in a collection on this topic. In the world of traditional copyright, it is impossible that the paper is included in this collection without explicit assent of its author. And, of course, the author will have to reflect on whether the ideas of the paper will be comprehensible in the context of this particular collection.

Anyone having published in an Open Access (OA) journal, however, will have no choice, because this kind of control has been relinquished beforehand (I will write on that more extensively in the coming reply on my blog, but you can believe me that I am right - this is what OA is all about). Of course, common OA licenses require attribution. You can forbid that your work is altered. But you cannot forbid the publication of your work in a context that is alien to your own stance.

This is a particularly sensitive topic, as soon as you work in a field that may be politically relevant. To take up a recent example from the UK: Imagine a perfectly respectable social philosopher dissecting the concept of "big society". Since this colleague is fair, she finds some merit in this concept (even though, in the end, she votes to abandon it). If such a paper is published in an OA journal, David Cameron may publish it in full on his website. Moreover, he may (let) write a blob on the website, introducing the paper as favouring the concept. The paper and its arguments must be accessible without changes and with attribution to its author. But who will bother? And how will the author fight the notion that she is a conservative hack?

Finally, I want to make clear that I am no enemy to open access (the blog you have quoted is, after all, licensed via CC 3.0). I just believe that we must present risks and opportunities fairly, so that our colleagues may make an informed choice. Those who decline may have valid reasons.

It was this last thesis that was disputed in the blog post I was responding to, by the way.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your response. I do understand your point about how the point about Open Access is that pieces can be removed from the context of their original publication but you don't respond to the substantive points I was making in this post. Such as the fact that print media imposes a control on "context" that is far from being one that authors can either trust or have any responsible control over.

I do agree that if people don't want to publish in Open Access formats they can have good reasons for this and see no dispute there. The argument that the context can change around a piece is true but this can happen with print media too. Frequently a piece takes a great while to appear in print media and not only does the author then see their work appear in a different context to the one they originally responded to but it is also the case that the journal in question can have changed quite considerably in the process.

I suspect we don't really disagree that much but I have much less trust than you appear to have in the context of traditional media and don't experience much "control" in relation to it.