Setting Knowledge Free: Towards an Ethical Open Access

There is widespread agreement that academia has a publishing problem. After decades of large commercial publishers like Springer Nature and Elsevier extracting higher profits than the major tech companies while simultaneously keeping publicly financed research behind expensive paywalls (Buranyi 2017), in recent years universities and funders have attempted to renegotiate publishing agreements to ensure that the research they finance is openly accessible. This is most clearly seen in Plan S, an initiative launched by a coalition of research funders mandating that all research they finance ‘must be published in compliant Open Access journals or platforms’—often earmarking funding within grants specifically to pay journals to ‘unlock’ articles (cOAliton S undated).

While formerly paywalled research articles becoming available to the global public (who already paid for them) is certainly a welcome development, the current strategy of achieving so-called ‘Open Access’ by buying off the commercial publishers at best fails to address the underlying problem and at worst represents a capitulation to the creation of a captive market by the publishers (Batterbury et al. 2022). In particular, it does nothing to change the fact that the huge profits achieved by the commercial publishers are coming at the expense of publicly funded university budgets—representing a massive drain on limited resources that should be used for research, education, and truly open dissemination of research results. And, ultimately, it simply serves to reproduce the ‘triple pay’ system enjoyed by the commercial publishers, where the public pays for the research and academic departments for the quality check (peer review), while the publishers themselves cash in on the opportunity to charge monopoly prices (Buranyi 2017). In other words, the commercial publisher-friendly version of Open Access simply shifts the point in the process where the publishers extract massive profits—readers used to pay for a product but now it is authors (and by extension universities) who are paying (Farley et al. 2021).

A Drain on Public Resources

The practical outcome of this can be seen by simply looking at what publishing agreements mean for university budgets, at least in those relatively rare instances where numbers are publicly available. In Australia, the Council of University Librarians has tried to pin down the amount of money involved but could not come up with a specific figure as they discovered that Open Access fees are paid from a range of sources, including external grants, departmental funds, and personal funds, making a comprehensive accounting very difficult (Foley 2021). At the same time, Australian universities are reticent to disclose relevant information. For instance, queries made by one of the authors to his former employer, The Australian National University, regarding the amount of money involved in 11 ‘Read and Publish Agreements’ that the university had stipulated with commercial academic publishers to allow staff members to both access journal content and publish Open Access were stonewalled by the university administration because these numbers were considered commercial in confidence (ANU Library 2022). However, despite the paucity and fragmentation of available information, in 2021 it was calculated that Australian institutions were still paying more than 332 million AUD (approximately 230 million USD) a year in journal subscriptions and that, all in all, Australia was paying between 460 million AUD and 1 billion AUD (that is, between 319 million USD and 693 million USD) a year to publishers (Foley 2021).

Taking another example, this time from Europe, in 2021 Lund University in Sweden, the employer of another one of the authors, paid out more than 90 million SEK (or approximately 8.6 million USD) on subscriptions, ‘transformative agreements’, and Open Access fees with the commercial publishers. It does not take much imagination to envision the kinds of ground-breaking research, pedagogy, and truly open publishing that could be supported with these resources. If we look at the situation from a national perspective, it becomes even more dire. Lund University’s 90 million SEK is just one part of a Swedish national consortium deal, in which the publishers were paid the astronomical sum of 771 million SEK (or more than 68 million USD) in 2021 (National Library of Sweden 2022).

Observing these very large sums of money being sucked out of the Swedish and Australian academic systems, it becomes clear that if we broaden our focus yet again to the global scale, the amounts become inconceivable and the drain on public resources is impossible to ignore.

Self-Censorship and Surveillance

This situation is problematic not only because it is a wasteful appropriation of public money that directly reduces resources for research, teaching, and independent publishing at our universities, but also because the commercial publishers are acting in unethical ways. Two examples (among many) stand out. First, there is the issue of publisher censorship on behalf of authoritarian regimes, a situation that is enabled by the current profit-oriented publishing models adopted by both commercial conglomerates and university presses. In 2017 a scandal erupted when it was discovered that Cambridge University Press had been blocking access to politically sensitive articles in the flagship China Studies journal The China Quarterly at the behest of the Chinese state censors (Phillips 2017). After an uproar from academics and pushback from the Journal’s editor, to their credit Cambridge University Press reversed course and reinstated the articles (Kennedy and Phillips 2017). Others have fewer scruples. Less than a month later it was revealed that Springer Nature has been doing the same thing, but on an even larger scale. However, unlike Cambridge University Press, when confronted and asked to reverse course Springer Nature refused, arguing that it was more important for ‘the advancement of research’ that they retain the ability to distribute content in China (Reuters 2017). There have since been other incidents where Springer Nature has worked with the Chinese censors to block content in China; and when challenged they continue to refuse to back down (Loubere 2020). As we have pointed out elsewhere (Loubere and Franceschini 2018; Franceschini and Loubere 2022: 48–57), while it is fashionable to blame the authoritarian regimes for these acts of (self?)-censorship, it is our belief that these incidents highlight more fundamental problems related to the current dominant model of profit-oriented academic publishing.

Second, it has recently come to light that Elsevier, through the LexisNexis database, has been supplying large amounts of data to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (Lamdan 2019). LexisNexis’s tool ‘Accurint’ collects data on location, family, work history, as well as other information about individuals, which is then sold as ‘investigative intelligence’ for law enforcement. Internal documents reveal that this tool has become a ‘valuable resource’ that should be ‘widely utilized’ by ICE officers in their mission of hunting down and terrorising undocumented immigrants (Biddle 2022). Elsevier’s full embrace of surveillance capitalism is not surprising considering that they now identify as an ‘information analytics business’ rather than an academic publisher (Pooley 2022). The question that those of us in academia need to be asking ourselves is if the values associated with political censorship at the behest of authoritarian regimes and big data collection to enforce draconian immigration policies that separate children from parents are the types of values that we should be directly supporting monetarily. We need to seriously reflect on what kind of complicities arise from these arrangements and if we are contravening basic ethical imperatives by funnelling public money to these corporations.

The Challenges for Ethical Open Access

While these publishers-cum-data brokers co-opt the language of Open Access and continue to pad their profits from university budgets, truly non-profit-oriented and ethical Open Access projects initiated by researchers with the aim of bypassing this exploitative system face a very difficult financing situation (Pia and Zerilli 2022). While there are sometimes welcome calls both internally within universities and from external funders for grants to support Open Access publications, they are generally limited and the vast majority target the establishment of new journals or platforms. As such, many established Open Access initiatives find themselves piecing together funding for shoestring budgets to keep the lights on, unable to plan for longer than a year (or less) ahead. Unsurprisingly, many ethical, non-profit Open Access projects are heavily reliant on the voluntary labour of those who established them—often labours of love, but substantial labour nonetheless (Pia et al. 2020).

As editors of the Open Access Made in China Journal and Global China Pulse journal, as well as the open platform The People’s Map of Global China, we can illustrate this practically from our own experience. The Made in China Journal was established in 2016 and has become a widely read publication in the China Studies field. Global China Pulse is a newly established journal and one of the first publications dedicated to analysis of China’s rapid globalisation. It is linked to the People’s Map of Global China, which is an open research infrastructure platform aiming to crowdsource local experiences with Chinese investments around the world. Thus far our projects have been financed by small amounts of funding from our previous and current institutions—The Australian National University, Lund University, and the London School of Economics and Political Science—with some additional resources coming from external funders. While this support has thus far allowed us to pay for the necessities—proofreading, design and typesetting, website hosting, etcetera—it has always been on a year-by-year or ad hoc basis, making it impossible to formulate concrete, long-term plans to scale-up and improve the projects. At the same time, since funding for the next year is always in doubt and subject to institutional budgets, we are forced to continually apply for grants in the hopes of having more breathing room and to mitigate the damage in the worst-case scenario that institutional funding dries up, an additional labour load on top of the large amount of voluntary labour we pour into the projects to keep them running.

Moving Forward

While Plan S and other policy requirements for Open Access at first seemed like they might have a transformative impact on the vital relationship academics have with the large commercial publishers that report to shareholders—not authors—the present picture shows these commercial publishers have been able to move effectively into the Open Access space. They have successfully perpetuated the myth that expensive commercial platforms and other publishing services are needed to ensure scholarly impact. Journals like the ones we edit and produce challenge this myth by prefiguring a system of scholarly communication that responds to a non-commercial logic. Public universities and libraries are key allies in transitioning Open Access to a more ethical model in line with the principles of a public academic sector. There have been many calls from those involved in the ethical, non-profit Open Access movement—such as the Action Plan for Diamond Open Access (Ancion et al. 2022)—for higher education institutions, governments, and libraries to act in concert and reconsider the systemic implications of publishing agreements that disproportionately benefit commercial publishers. Instead, our public institutions should seek to diversify the recipients of public funding earmarked for Open Access publishing, with the ultimate goal to divest from wastefully expensive publishing agreements with publishers engaging in unethical behaviour.

While decentralised initiatives such as Quartz OA (Lupova-Henry and Tenorio-Fortés 2021) and Libraria (Brackenbury 2022) promise to unlock crowdsourcing tools to alleviate financial hardships for non-commercial Open Access journals, a wider discussion still needs to take place across the higher education sector and—one could add—society at large, about how best to remove the economic, legal, and technological barriers to accessing research findings (Suber 2019: Chapter 7). Ultimately, this is a question of ownership: who owns the research we collectively produce and who (if anyone) should be able to profit from it? In the meantime, at a bare minimum, universities, research funders, and national consortiums should set aside substantial funding to support the ethical, non-profit Open Access ecosystem. In practical terms, this means earmarking funding for already established non-profit Open Access publications and providing incentives, resources, and support to allow editorial boards to ‘flip’ journals currently being published through agreements with commercial publishers to ethical Open Access models. This could easily be financed by universities withdrawing from extractive ‘transformative agreements’ with commercial publishers and using the saved resources to invest in ethical, non-profit, Open Access modes of publishing and dissemination.

The good news is that our universities are filled with academics, librarians, tech workers, and many others who already participate enthusiastically in the ethical Open Access movement. We just need to give them the resources and time to allow their projects to flourish.


A shorter version of this op-ed originally appeared in Universitetläraren, the magazine of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF)



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Nicholas Loubere

Nicholas Loubere is an Associate Professor in the Study of Modern China at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University. His research examines socioeconomic development in rural China, with a particular focus on microcredit and migration. He co-edits the Made in China Journal.

Ivan Franceschini

Ivan Franceschini is an incoming lecturer at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Melbourne. His expertise lies in the field of labour rights, with a specific focus on China and Cambodia. His latest books include Xinjiang Year Zero (ANU Press, 2022), Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour (Verso Books, 2022), and Global China as Method (Cambridge University Press, 2022). With Tommaso Facchin, he co-directed the documentaries Dreamwork China (2011) and Boramey: Ghosts in the Factory (2021). He is a founder and chief editor of the Made in China Journal, The People’s Map of Global China, and Global China Pulse. He is currently working on a new book on modern slavery in the online scam industry in East and Southeast Asia, which will be published by Verso in 2025.

Andrea E. Pia

Andrea E. Pia is Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of Cutting the Massline: Water, Politics, and Climate in Southwest China (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming in 2024) and one of the editors of the Made in China Journal.

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