Open access and academic freedom

There is always a point in any policy-making process where a clash of objectives or values takes place. Sometimes different aspects of what you are trying to achieve turn out, on analysis, to be in conflict with one another. In other cases, it emerges that objectives are in opposition to principles which were held to be important at the start of the process. These dilemmas are one aspect that makes policy-making a challenge and enjoyable, but also they often result in some stakeholders, sometimes all stakeholders, ending up unhappy with the outcome.

There is one of these dilemmas at the heart of making policy about open access to research publications. The whole point of an open access policy is to maximise openness. But this is in conflict with a core value that underpins research and higher education policy-making – the principle of academic freedom. If we take this to include the freedom to publish research in whatever journal researchers wish too, then it follows that an open access policy must allow publication in journals that restrict access in order to respect academic freedom. But will a policy with such a loop-hole ever achieve its objective of more openness?

It would be easy to think that confronting dilemmas like this is nothing but a problem, but in fact it is incredibly helpful. It forces you to think deeply, and challenge the assumptions that underpin principles and objectives. In this example, is it really the case the academic freedom demands absolute control over the vehicle of publication? On reflection, I think the core of academic freedom is the ability to publish ideas at all, and that, especially now, doesn’t rest on using a particular academic journal, or even an academic journal at all. It could even be argued that the peer review process is itself a barrier to academic freedom, imposing censorship, restricting the dissemination of ideas to those approved of by peers. I am not sure I would go that far, but the more I consider this issue, the more I am convinced that the prize of maximum dissemination is more important that maintaining an excessive interpretation of the notion of academic freedom.