The politics of open access

Could opening up publicly funded research result in free R&D for private companies?
(Image c/o Julian Fraser on Flickr.)

Open access to research literature has grown rapidly over the last few years. We are now at a stage where a significant proportion of published research – 50% of journal articles published in 2011 according to one study (Archambault et al. 2013) – is available free to view online. This week is Open Access Week and hundreds of events are taking place around the world. Those of us who have been championing the cause of open access feel like great progress is being made. Perhaps not as fast as we’d like, but we do seem to be moving towards a world where open access is the default. The potential benefits of a culture in which the entire world’s knowledge is available to anyone on the planet with the means to access the internet1 are many, varied, and hard to calculate. But the ideal is one which I, for one, certainly think is worth striving for.

However, there is something that’s been concerning me. Many research funders are beginning to mandate open access for research that they fund (e.g. RCUK (Research Councils UK) [pdf], HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England), and the Wellcome Trust). In other words, if you want to get money from of these bodies in order to fund your research, then the results of the research must be published open access. This is great from an open access advocate’s perspective because it will lead to a much higher percentage of research output being freely available. The current UK government, notably Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, has been a driving force behind these open access mandates in the UK. The working group whose report (Finch Group 2012) contained recommendations which informed the RCUK and HEFCE policies was convened by the government.

This is what causes me concern. This is the same government that has allowed public library funding to be cut drastically, raised tuition fees to absurd levels, and instigated many other policies which shift away from the idea of an inclusive participatory society and towards one in which private capital is the only driving force. So when this government’s agenda aligns perfectly with that of open access advocates, it feels somewhat jarring. I don’t have an answer to assuage this concern but I would like to take this opportunity to begin the search for an answer.

Here is a quote from David Willetts on the recommendations of the Finch Report:

“Removing paywalls that surround taxpayer funded research will have real economic and social benefits. It will allow academics and businesses to develop and commercialise their research more easily and herald a new era of academic discovery.

“This development will provide exciting new opportunities and keep the UK at the forefront of global research to drive innovation and growth.”

(Department for Business, Innovation & Skills 2012)

At first glance this doesn’t appear to be saying anything contrary to standard arguments for open access, but it does have a curious focus on business and profit generation. The academics who are in favour of open access mostly support it because they see access to research as a public good, and also for more self-interested reasons – if everyone can see your work, it can do wonders for your reputation (Swan 2010). If open access has an economic benefit as well then so much the better. To take the government’s stance at face value, it seems to have picked up on this economic aspect and decided to promote open access in order to encourage more rapid innovation and therefore potential more profit made off the back of it, while the social benefits of enhanced access to knowledge remain intact.

It is rarely sensible to take the government’s words only at face value. My knowledge of politics is not sophisticated enough to provide a detailed analysis here, but suffice to say political stances often have an unstated agenda behind them. For example, the rhetoric surrounding changes in the NHS at the moment may talk about benefits for patients, but there is clearly a neoliberal agenda of privatisation which is dominating decision-making. This makes it hard to stop at a shallow reading of comments such as the one from David Willetts quoted above. Could there be a neoliberal agenda behind support for open access which intends to exploit it for purposes antithetical to the ideals of open access supporters?

Could the government be trying to make publicly funded research open, in order for private companies to take this research and commercialise it and generate patents? In other words, state funded research becoming a free R&D department for corporations.

You may think, So what? If the goal of academics is to create an open environment to share the world’s knowledge, what’s the harm in some of this leading to profits for others? By their very nature, the open licenses such as the Creative Commons Attribution License which are recommended for open access publications allow for this possibility. Something to bear in mind here is the way that commercialism and profit generation have been becoming ingrained in higher education in the UK. If universities are required to generate more income from commercialising research results, to make up for reduced funding from central government, then they will be expected to compete with private companies in doing so.

This is where the neoliberal mind might see the advantage of open access. For example, if medical research undertaken at a publicly-funded institution must be published open access, whereas research undertaken by a pharmaceutical company does not, then private corporations are at a distinct advantage when it comes to generating money and patents.

None of this is meant to be interpreted to be a criticism of open access, I just think that it is important to understand the motivations behind the people and institutions that are driving it. I’m not suggesting that I have any answers, but I would like to see other supporters of open access to take a more critical stance when it comes to these issues. We need to keep being positive and highlighting the success stories of open access but not allow ourselves to be blind to political interests that may be at work.

Open access is a global issue and in this article I have been focusing on the situation in the UK. Perhaps an answer to my questions can be found by taking a more international perspective and examining government mandates and policies from countries with differing political environments. I’d be interested to hear from people with knowledge about this.

By Stuart Lawson

Thanks to Martin Eve for a conversation which helped me crystallise some of these ideas.


1. Of course, there is still a digital divide, and much research literature is only available in one language (often English). Making publications free to access is only a step towards a more equal arena for participation in the generation of knowledge.


Archambault et al. 2013. Proportion of Open Access Peer-Reviewed Papers at the European and World Levels—2004-2011. Available at: [Accessed: 17 October 2013].

Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. 2012. Government to open up publicly funded research. Available at: [Accessed: 17 October 2013].

Finch Group. 2012. Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications. Report of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings. Available at: [Accessed: 11 May 2013].

Swan, Alma. 2010. The open access citation advantage: studies and results to date. Available at: [Accessed: 17 October 2013].

7 thoughts on “The politics of open access

  1. It would be possible to spin open access and free culture as socialism or as neoliberalism. These are fun intellectual exercises but I doubt they are really illuminating.

    Intellectual discoveries often create opportunities for economic innovation. Open and free publication of the outputs of publicly-funded research makes those opportunities available to everyone without discrimination. So again, you can see it as advancing the market or advancing public good.

    OA policies may be motivated by the idea that a market will work more efficiently when more people have access to knowledge rather than it being restricted to specific participants. Is that a controversial proposition? I would have thought it would be accepted by both advocates and critics of free-market economics.

  2. The author is wrong about patents. You cannot get a patent if a description of the invention has already been published. By definition, therefore, any OA publication cannot then be followed by a patent application, whether by an academic institution or by a private sector organisation.

    I believe the Government’s rhetoric on OA does have a sinister aspect, but it’s not to do with patents. It’s about protecting the profits of commercial publishers. By encouraging “gold” OA, requiring payment to a publisher before the output can be published in OA form, the Government is undermining the alternative, and better route to OA, i.e., “green” OA, where material is placed in an OA repository at no cost to the authors.

    1. re: government policy encouraging gold open access the protect profits of commercial publishers; yes, absolutely. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the Finch Report was that it implied that all/most gold open access journals charge publication fees (APCs), which of course is false (at the time of the report only around one third charged APCs, although this may have increased since).

      Most discussions about open access that have taken place since the Finch Report and RCUK/HEFCE policy announcements take it as a given that open access = paying to publish. If this was true, then you’d be right to advocate for only green open OA, but I would strongly argue that gold OA is also a part of the solution when implemented fairly. Ethical open access publishers either do not charge fees, make them low enough to be affordable, and/or waive them for those who can’t afford to pay.

  3. Open Access (OA) has been politically manipulated in order to retain an economic imperative to research. The Finch report’s advocacy for Gold OA implicitly and ideologically confounds it with directly with economic interest, and this has promotes confusion on the structural differences that OA offers. This was, to some extent, borne out in the research interviews that I conducted with academics in the humanities. For me, this potentially undermines or even derails much of the benefits that OA has demonstrated. This, coupled with the extended embargo periods kindly offered only support the publisher’s role within OA, not the benefits of making research accessible.

    The asinine ideological aims of the government’s reconfiguring of HE are, thankfully, are receiving a lot of interrogation. However, making some of the intellectual propositions for alternative practices is terribly difficult, particularly with the reproductive cultures of working within the academy. Analysing OA in relation to other political agendas and aims will be essential to discover the discursive formations and understand the politics of OA more acutely.

    The audit culture that surrounds contemporary research, namely the REF, extol the virtues of measurable, consistent and ultimately traditional, or even conservative modes of operation that are risk averse. Developments of policy for future REF exercises in terms of OA mandates will be particularly interesting. In theory, mandating OA should be a benefit, opening up all research. However, I propose that mandating orthodoxy limits deviation and experimentation, thus potentially creating the potential for the same issues surrounding normative practices becoming habitual, rather than critically reflexive.

    It is not just OA that we need to be aware of, but what this supports and how it ideologically contributes to the structures within society.

    1. Oh, don’t get me started on the REF 😉 It seems to be at the heart of many of the problems in UK higher education at the moment.

      You make some good points. Rigorously analysing the idealogical motivation behind policy in this area is necessary if we want to create real change in the structures of knowledge production/dissemination.

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