Open Access

4 ways open access enhances academic freedom

Are politicians stealing our academic freedom? Is their fetish with open access publishing leading to a “pay to say” system for the rich?

Will the trendy goal of making publicly financed research freely available skew the world of scholarship even more in the direction of the natural sciences?

I don’t think so. But it took me a while to get there.

The freedom to choose

Although there may seem to be a conflict, open access policies have the potential to strengthen academic freedom.

Academic freedom lets scientists choose the research questions they want to ask. They can pursue their hypotheses however they like. Their results and reasoning can be discussed without any fear of reprisals from governments or universities.

The frontiers of knowledge move forward without political interference or personal risk because of academic freedom.

Can open access policies violate academic freedom?

The Norwegian government recently wrote about open access publishing as a potential threat to academic freedom.

All research that is publicly financed should be openly accessible. This principle, however, must not hinder the academic freedom researchers enjoy to choose their preferred channels of publication.

How could academic freedom be impeded by a requirement to publish in open access journals? Doesn’t it seem just a bit too luxurious to turn this principle into something about the business model journals use?

Maybe. But experts writing about academic freedom recently asserted a right “to decide how publication shall happen.” This, I think, is where academic freedom and open access policies may collide.

The cost of knowledge

The possible conflict becomes clearer if we turn the question around. Could a researcher refuse to publish in for-profit journals? Thousands just have: Elsevier’s excessive profitability triggered the Cost of Knowledge protest. Do professors with academic freedom have the right to boycott a publisher?

What if a government supported the boycott and refused to let publicly funded research appear in Elsevier’s journals? This would prevent researchers from publishing in The Lancet or Cell, to mention two of their most important titles. Would that prohibition violate academic freedom?

If you answer yes to these questions — as I do — then we must also accept accept the idea that there could be a conflict between a requirement to publish in open access journals and academic freedom.

Open access policies

Important policies have emerged from the National Institutes of Health, the European Commission and the Research Councils of the UK, to mention a few prominent examples. As far as I can see, not one of these mentions academic freedom — in contrast, for example, with Communia’s progressive recommendations about open access policies.

The Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research therefore deserves praise for raising the issue. The power of funding alone should not be enough to override academic freedom. The route to enhanced use of open access, in other words, is not exclusively through compulsion.

Enhancing academic freedom

How can universities and governments nudge their researchers forward? Is there no carrot that can help?

I think there are carrots, and here are four examples of ways in which open access publishing enhances academic freedom.

1. Copyright In open access journals, authors retain copyrights while in the traditional system, they must sign over the copyright to the publisher. Professor Stuart Shieber at Harvard elaborates.

Traditional publishing infringes academic freedom. Authors assign copyright to publishers as part of the publication process. With this control, publishers can and do limit access to the scholar’s writing. Scholars are therefore not free to disseminate their academic work in the broadest way.

2. Interference Open access journals can be cheaper to run, which can increase editorial independence, say Stanford’s John Willinsky and his colleagues in Doing Medical Journals Differently: Open Medicine, Open Access and Academic Freedom.

Open access enables a new journal to become part of the larger academic community immediately, without first having to convince a major corporation or organization to sponsor it or having to assemble sufficient resources to sell initial subscriptions through some combination of advertising and agents. (One estimate sets the price of securing 500 subscribers at roughly US$50,000).

3. Citations There is a growing literature suggesting that open access articles are read and cited more. This enhances academic freedom by allowing you to better fulfill the responsibilities that go with it — especially the obligation to put your work in front of others.

Increased citation also enhances your academic freedom through its quality control function — the use and evaluation of your work by others will give you a sturdier basis for determining what questions to ask next.

In short, the connection is tight between visibility, academic freedom and its concomitant duties. (I leave aside here the challenges traditional publishing models are facing as they lose their grip on quality control, cf. Why you can’t trust research: 3 problems with the quality of science.)

4. Archiving A bizarre consequence of for-profit digital publishing is that the responsibility for archiving scientific articles has de facto been transferred from libraries to publishers. A library that subscribes to an electronically published traditional journal cannot simply keep an archive of what it subscribes to.

The publisher does that. At least until it decides not to. Or goes out of business.

With open access publishing, archiving becomes possible for independent non-profit institutions wanting to take on that responsibility. A natural extension of the notion of academic freedom is the right to have your published work remain available. This is part of the ongoing debate and quality control process that pushes science forward.

In fact, the archiving issue represents the very core of the distinction between traditional and open access approaches to publishing, namely accessibility. Surely scientists concerned about academic freedom agree that the longer their words are accessible, the greater their potential contribution and impact. And isn’t this, after all, exactly what academic freedom is intended to facilitate?

There is a connection between open access policies and academic freedom. It’s subtle and it requires our reflection. From my perspective, the balance tips strongly in favor of open access when we ask which model strengthens academic freedom. I hope ministries and research councils soon will make this case, too.

But for now, I want to know your views. Write a comment below or a quick remark on Twitter or Facebook, and together we’ll broaden the debate.

This piece appeared in The Guardian April 22, 2013, as Open Access: Four ways it could enhance academic freedom and on the blog of the London School of Economics.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Peter Gray says:

    The dilemma about academic freedom and open-access vs. commercial publishing will persist so long as the system is perceived as a hierarchy. The notion that there are ‘top’ journals such as Nature, Science, the Lancet etc is self perpetuating. We need to make far more effort to understand the circulation of knowledge and to develop systems for connecting pieces of knowledge proactively, rather than the current model, which relies on very blunt instruments – keywords, citation indices and the like. This requires resistance, a concept alien to most academic administrations. Except in Tromsø, obviously!

    • Curt Rice says:

      I think part of the change will come from the power of organizations like NIH, which will push journals to modify their practices. But part of will have to come from senior academics taking the lead and publishing in OA journals. I understand that my junior colleagues have to care about promotion and grants, etc., and their perception that the most important thing is publishing in a “top” journal is, as you note, probably right.
      I tried to give those top journals a hard time recently with a piece that got picked up by the Guardian: Why you can’t trust research: 3 problems with the quality of science

  • I agree with Peter Gray that, if we are changing the system anyway, we could just as well start rethinking the whole thing from the bottom up.

    Yet another dimension of this is the ‘article’, the present currency of academic debate as well as of measuring individual researchers and departments. The problem is that it is not at all clear that we always need all these introductions, acknowledgements, lengthy discussions of alternative accounts in the literature – for instance because a few hyperlinks could provide all the relevant information a reader would want.

    Lately, a few academic weblogs have been established in linguistics (, Who can say that people contributing to these blogs, either as bloggers or as commentors, do less valuable work for our scientific understanding of language than those who engage in peer reviewed papers with the obligatory ‘discussion’ section.

    There have been times when scientific knowledge grew mostly in dialogues, and was also published in that form. Dialogue – contradiction, clarification, etc. – might still be one of the most useful ways to acquire knowledge. Setting up a weblog comes with very little costs. Why would we need to use very old 19th century forms, when much more effective ones are available?

    • Curt Rice says:

      You’re too generous, Marc: I think it’s entirely clear that we in fact do not need all these introductions etc etc. A lot of the article/publishing fetish comes from the system that we ourselves have set up, e.g. for promotions, grant evaluations, hirings, etc. But it also comes in part because politicians have a need (I think legitimately) to hold us accountable somehow. The easiest way for them to do that is to count, and we haven’t offered them a better system that they can understand.

      One of the papers I built a different blog entry on actually takes a step you might find interesting, namely abandoning journals altogether, in the spirit of some of your comments: Björn Brembs and Marcus Munafò: Deep Impact: Unintended consequences of journal rank.

  • Mark De Vos says:

    I think any discussion of open access needs to start with an explicit formulation of what one means by the term because it seems to mean different things to different speakers. Academics mean one thing. Politicians another. And publishers yet another.

    One prevalent model seems to be the pay-to-say one, where authors/institutions pay a free upfront to allow the access to continue to be “open”. Unfortunately, the sums that have been touted may well limit the ability of poorer institutions and independent, non-affiliated academics to publish. Faced with the need to pay dollar and euro costs up front, many institutions in South Africa (where I am based) are very likely to refuse with the result that academics will have to publish in the traditional journals. From there it is a very short trip to a ghettoization of knowledge based on income.

    • If ever there was an injustice in science, it’s the blocking of low-income populations from scientific knowledge put up by traditional corporate publishers.
      60% of gold OA publishers do not charge a fee and virtually all others have fee waivers for low-income authors,making it essentially free both to publish and to read OA research.

      • Curt Rice says:

        You are right, Mark, that in the worst case, we end up with authors in low-income areas having to publish in traditional journals because they can’t afford OA fees, but only being able to read OA journals, because they can’t afford subscription fees!

        But as Björn points out, there are fixes for this in place. Indeed, traditional publishers claim the subsidize subscription rates where necessary, too, although I don’t know how effective this really is.

  • As authors, we are not free to publish where we want anyway, already before the OA movement: if we want jobs, promotion or grants, etc. we are forced to publish in the so-called ‘hi-rank’ journals. Of course, we are free to not publish there, but then we’ll be unemployed, or without grant funding etc. With OA mandates it’s pretty much the same way: nobody forces anybody to accept grant funds, just as nobody forces anybody to publish in Cell, Nature, Science, etc. So the situation hasn’t really markedly changed in principle.

    Now as before we are free (or not) to do as we please – we all know what the consequences of our actions are.

    That being said, only a blind person would overlook the conflict between these two incentives. The resolution there is that there isn’t any empirical evidence to back journal rank up: journal rank is a figment of our imagination, much like any purported effects of dowsing, homeopathy or astrology:

    Which nicely resolves that conflict.

    • Curt Rice says:

      In the discussion in Norway, the government isn’t talking only about grants. They talk about “publicly funded research” by which they mean basically everything. If you work at a university, the time you use on research is publicly funded, hence under the domain of their policies. Fortunately, as I note in the entry, it’s an encouragement, not a requirement.

      The link Björn posts is to a terrific paper, which I encourage everyone to read!

  • Flummoxed says:

    Since you are a Professor, I am stunned that you can actually write that requiring academics to publish in any venues may or may not be a violation of academic freedom. You are asking for restrictions to be placed on what academics do, and calling it freedom. Academics should be free to publish in OA, but they cannot be required to do so (except in certain circumstances).

    Like so much OA writing, your article sticks to generalities when specifics are wanted. You appear to think that Nature, Science, and many others should be forced out of business. That’s fine. You make the counter-intuitive claim that the printing press–the largest means for distribution ever devised until the internet–is a gatekeeper that prevents access. Until 10 years ago, nobody could have credibly claimed that.

    The problem with not stating it is that you then lob generalizations on top of the underlying claim: that publication in top journals *limits* access and influence. Think about that. That is the world turning upside-down.

    I am in the US. In the US very little research is publicly-financed. I am generally in agreement that research fully funded by public dollars should be made publicly available–when it is funded through NIH or NSF grants, for example.

    But I am also in the humanities. In the humanities there are 2 dozen or so top journals. Institutional subscriptions are in the low hundreds of dollars per year. Many publications already are open access. So your argument becomes, specifically, that these journals should go out of business because they limit access to research. The most widely-distributed and widely-read and respected journals in my field. Should go out of business because they “limit” access. If they go out of business, fine; but should academics be actively lobbying to put them out of business? (by the way, most of these allow self-archiving and don’t police embargo limits: so do we already have the open access you write about like a total revolution?) This sounds more and more like a request to legislatively put journals out of business, specific journals, and since I think publishing is a means of distribution rather than a way of limiting distribution, that just seems entirely counterproductive.

    One more point: when you make the philosophical argument that all research should be open access, your argument, if it is correct, would also include monographs. Nobody wants to talk about monographs, and there is good reason. In the US, at least, *many* professors make a substantial amount of income from monograph sales (especially people like popular science writers, novelists, historians, etc.) A glance at any top 100 book sales list on Amazon will show more than half of the writers at any time are employed as professors. Do we really want to defund academia so fully as to force professors to give up this income? One possible effect of which would be to have the likes of Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and so many others, choose between their writing and their professor positions? How exactly would that benefit society? The problem is that your philosophical argument entails these monographs in exactly the same way it entails journal articles, and it implies that Roth, Morrison, Dawkins, et al are “hiding” their research results by publishing massive best sellers. That’s ludicrous on its face, and the fact is that you and other hard-core OA advocates are pushing a theory that has little basis in fact, but threatens the University to its core, for a purpose that is hard to understand. Academics *are* the core audience for academic work. There is nothing wrong or evil with money changing hands to get at important work, and that money changing hands can be said to lubricate the distribution process just as much as it impedes it, if not more. That is not to justify Elsevier’s profits, but it is to suggest that the airy invocation of “open” as if it solves a serious social problem is simply not justified, and that the interests served by defunding the entire system of academic publishing may be nowhere near as hospitable to academic inquiry as you seem to believe.

  • Curt Rice says:

    I appreciate you taking the time to write, but I think I haven’t succeeded in communicating my position to you. I do not advocate forcing academics to publish in OA journals. I think publishing in OA journals is a good thing, and I would like for academics to do it, but I think they should be convinced to make that choice themselves, not have it foisted upon them.

    OA is not a model that lacks the potential for profit, as I’m sure any representative from Elsevier can confirm. I do not want Science and Nature put out of business. But I would criticize them on scientific rather than economic grounds. I’ve written independently on that, cf my Why you can’t trust research: 3 problems with the quality of science , which also appeared in the Guardian.

    It’s not true that “very little” research in the US is publicly funded. On the contrary. The state university system is a tremendous source of cutting edge research, and even if their budgets are only 15-25% public funds, that’s not trivial. And if those funds are paying salaries for people who have time in their positions to do research, then their research is in part publicly funded. Furthermore, all research funded through state and federal governments is obviously in this category. Of course, many professors in the humanities do not need a lot of money to do their research and therefore do not have big grants, but, again, their salaries are in many cases partially public in their source.

    Your repeated claim that I’m trying to put someone out of business is, I believe, based on a misunderstanding. That is not my goal. However, the small journals will be more successful in terms of their impact if they are open access. The claim that there are about 2 dozen top journals in “the humanities” is just silly. I’m in the tiny field of theoretical linguistics myself, and it isn’t hard to name many top journals in my field alone. Add literature and there are dozens.

    Finally, regarding monographs, I’m afraid you’re not up to speed there either. Very interesting experiments in publishing OA monographs are being carried out. Interestingly, preliminary evidence discussed e.g. by John Willinsky of Stanford suggests that freely distributing pdfs of academic monographs leads to increased sales of the printed version.

    So, again, thanks for engaging. I dont’ think we’ve entirely understood each other. But maybe, Flummoxed, we one day will.

  • Curt, I agree with you that Open-Access certainly has the potential to enhance academic freedom, and certainly the opportunity to enhance the ability of more people to enjoy academic freedom and I think your example areas are good ones. But I think there’s a peculiar argument playing out here that is trying hijack a concept which is fundamentally about freedom of expression and turn it into a freedom to demand money.

    So first let me say what I think academic freedom is: It is the idea that an institutional administration should not have the power to dictate the direction of an academic’s scholarship nor the power to suppress the expression of an academics opinion.

    But here there seems to be a claim that academic freedom includes both the right to choose the means of expression but also the right to whatever resources are required to enable that means. A straw man example would be – I would like to have a 30 minute television program to express my academic views. I might well be able to argue that this would enhance the impact of my research, but an extraordinary argument would be required for a funder to cover the (enormous) costs of this.

    We already accept a significant limitation on academic freedom – you can pursue whatever scholarship you like, as long as you can get it funded. To extend this to means of expression it follows that where a funder desires a particular means of expression to be utilised they should therefore fund or otherwise enable it.

    Perhaps another example will flesh this out. I’ve heard it said that some humanities scholars like 120gsm paper and high quality print production. I will admit that I do as well. I have a small collection of 18th and 19th century music manuscripts and I love the way that the means of production is still imprinted on the page. But that doesn’t mean that the public purse should be used to support costs over and above what are necessary for effective dissemination.

    I think the issue is actually the inverse. Funders are within their rights to demand that academic freedom not be curtailed. Our traditional approach to publication, handing over exclusive rights to a publisher, curtails that freedom of expression. I cannot imagine that funders would have any problem with publishing in any journal *if that did not curtail the rights of the author to make the work otherwise available*.

    Requiring Open-Access, either through journals or repositories is a perfectly reasonable condition of funding. Parallel publishing would be perfectly reasonable, indeed this is precisely how rights retention mandates work with subscription content and repositories. The problem is not requiring one means of expression, it is that publishers demand *exclusive* rights to a particular expression. So the problem is not that open access requirements place any limits on academic freedoms. It is that they prevent incumbent publishers from placing the traditional limits on academic freedoms that they have used to create their monopoly business model.

    • Peter Gray says:

      The means of expression “straw man” is actually quite substantial! There might be very good reasons why we should get away from the idea that the only effective means of dissemination is academic articles. The possibility of a 30 (or 3) min video explaining a research finding is exciting and need not be enormously expensive, moreover it might well be vastly more effective than an obscure journal article. Dissemination is one thing, but use of results is another, and traditional publishing has very little to say about whether its readers actually do anything meaningful with what they read. Of course, there are some areas of research, and not just in the humanities, where elegantly written texts on subjects with little or no practical value are highly desirable, and these should rightly continue as they are. But we do need to think more clearly about the purpose pf publishing.

  • Always remember the poor academics who are not in the position to help themselves, – poor salaries, large number of dependents and the demand to publish or perish. these are not in position where they can readily affect policies that don’t favour them. There must be a way to help them realize their career ambition – cost – free OA to publish their research and make it available free to those who need them. Many libraries in Africa don’t have the financial support to pay the required subscriptions and the academic libraries must face accreditation agencies. Make life easy for these people and benefit also from their own research output. Knowledge will be more universal if freely available and accessible I believe.

  • Pål M. Lykkja says:

    If the researchers don’t open up data and their articles so that other researchers can verify or falsify the research it does not matter for the society if researchers got academic freedom because then they are not doing what the society pay them for anyway. It is many examples on how researchers not support their conclusions with data, here is the last of that kind of stories:

    Reinhart, Rogoff… and Herndon: The student who caught out the profs By Ruth Alexander BBC News


    Yes, OA is desirable and beneficial and should be mandated by all institutions and funders.

    But, no, OA is definitely not the same thing as OA publishing (“Gold OA”).

    And, yes, constraining authors’ free choice of journals by requiring them to publish in OA journals would definitely be a constraint on academic freedom — and an unnecessary one, since what can and should and is being mandated is not journal choice but OA self-archiving (“Green OA”), regardless of journal choice.

    Equating or conflating OA itself with Gold OA publishing is the single most widespread error regarding OA, as well as the the greatest obstacle to OA progress.

  • Pål M. Lykkja says:

    If there is some academic freedom problems with open access behavior, then the traditional system has to change so that the problems go away. It is not the other way around. The map has to adjust to the physical world, not the other way.

    It is obvious for me that at system based on printed paper and horse-transportation has to change with the invention of internet. To do that it is no other opions than CC-BY (for everything except data ) and CC-0 (for data), and publishing without delay. That will be in adherence with the Mertonian CUDOS norms, everything else may be fine, but not scholarship in my opinion.

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