Is OA Now About Destruction?

While Plan S seems destructive, it could be destruction with a purpose

Is OA Now About Destruction?

For a long time, the concern about OA — and an energizing aspect — has been its inherent antagonism toward publishers (with an undue focus on Elsevier). Along with aspirations about a free and unfettered information space came complaints about publishers, which over time have become cemented as cultural touchstones for the OA movement.

With Plan S, the lingering antagonism has finally bubbled over as a set of policies specifically designed to hurt publishers. This is explicated well by James Phimister in an essay published last week via LinkedIn. Phimister worked for Elsevier for a brief period and helped them found their OA program. He writes about experiencing OA not as a continuous exercise like many of us, but in two windows, one from 2005-2007 when at Elsevier, and again over the past few years, when he began working for publishers again as a consultant and advisor.

He describes the experience of rejoining the debate as follows:

The separated tenures have afforded a different perspective. It feels like meeting a friend after a long time apart - you recognize them, but also note some things are different – and you wonder if would have recognized the differences had you remained close throughout.

After leaving the “friend” in possession of many new commercial options and alternatives (e.g., Gold OA, hybrid OA), he has returned to see that these options are giving way to something far less reasonable:

When returning to journal publishing a few years back, I thought the whole Open Access debate might have been put to bed. After all, if customers want Open Access options there are plenty. But to be clear, it has not been put to bed, and today the tone is much different. . . . Though draped in Open Access, Plan S is not about ensuring the research these funders fund can be Open Access (these venues already exist), it is about undermining the commercial viability of subscription journal publishing, and also, it turns out, limiting the commercial viability of Open Access publishing. There are a number of provisions in Plan S that are intended to do real harm to publishers.

Phimister writes about how over time damaging behavior have become normalized, something I wrote about recently as well, perceiving some similar things:

Because [militancy has] been normalized in certain sectors . . . the militancy may only be obvious to outsiders. . . . delivered repeatedly and without remorse or shame, [hostility] seems culturally normal for those doing it. They can’t see it anymore. They’d feel weird not lashing out, not being angry.

What is truly strange about the militancy against publishers in the library community is the self-defeating idea at the center of the hostility, with some librarians essentially agreeing to marginalize themselves to the point of extinction just so they can hurt publishers. Performing non-essential functions won’t keep an efficient administrator keen on cutting budgets from doing away with positions that have no tangible value via contract negotiation and budget management.

Plan S’s advocates seem antagonistic toward more than publishers, however, with Robert-Jan Smits also expressing disdain for scholarly and professional societies. (However, later this week, subscribers will see that not all publishers are in Smits’ crosshairs, and for some dubious reasons.)

I agree with Phimister’s closing on his excellent essay:

Collectively, I think we have normalized the deviance. Open Access is no longer about Open Access, it is about harming publishers. And that is a shame.

However, the speed with which Wellcome and Gates jumped onto the Plan S bandwagon leads me to believe that the destruction Phimister outlines has a purpose — to reshuffle the information space so that funders are atop it. I’ve written about this in the past few weeks, noting:

. . . when the opportunity to extend the patronage model to be inclusive of publishing presented itself, funders smarting from being constrained saw an opportunity — patronage end to end. Not only could they fund and control the research, they could fund and control publication events.

It seems one possible explanation for the latest insanity is that funders and one or more pure OA publishers have been the main drivers behind the destructive turn OA has taken, a pincer move designed to destroy the traditional knowledge economy and replace it with one driven by funders and publishers who pose little to no barrier to funder publishing, while giving it a patina of legitimacy.

And that would be more than a shame. That would be shameful.