Review: “Athena Unbound”

A pro-OA book seeks to rebrand the movement as troubled but unassailable, while the author avoids digging in to obvious issues

First, an admission — I couldn’t read every word of Peter Baldwin’s 2023 book promoting OA, “Athena Unbound: Why and How Scholarly Knowledge Should Be Free for All.” There are simply too many evidence-free assertions and ill-informed declamations to make it readable for a knowledgeable, skeptical reader.

Baldwin starts with the tired trope of how information economics have changed because digital copies are virtually free, an assertion that made some sense when the digital economy was a sideshow, but which no longer holds water as the digital economy has taken center stage and assumed full costing.

Why is Spotify struggling to make a profit if that’s all there is to digital economics?

Today, digital providers have to cover the expenses of storage, distribution, programming, security, management, and infrastructure — and high salaries for scarce computer science talent. It turns out these expenses are greater than the costs of print, a reality that continues to create financial pressures across the digital economy and reward consolidation.

Baldwin doesn’t inquire as to how costs actually behave in the modern, full-blown digital economy, but simply makes statements without ensuring they are based in fact.

This kind of willful ignorance and follow-on bloviation is a constant throughout the book, which made it impossible for me to read.

Yet, even as an OA apologist, Baldwin can’t avoid seeing OA as something that isn’t working as planned. He defends it against criticism and/or alternatives by quoting Voltaire’s “the best is the enemy of the good,” but he keeps registering problems.

  • Ironically, at the outset of the OA movement, subscription publishers often spoke of OA as the idea that was so extreme and idealistic it represented an ideal that was the enemy of the good. With the warts of OA more and more apparent, we may have come full-circle — now it’s OA that is struggling to hold ground, while more stringent gatekeeping approaches as a radically superior and threatening idea.

In the face of obvious disappointments, Baldwin’s goal seems two-fold — to rebrand OA as something still worthy, and to defend his academic tribe. For the careful reader, he fails on both accounts — at times, spectacularly.