Why open access is not socialism

June 11, 2013

On 29th May, I gave a frankly evangelistic talk on open access at UCL’s “Future Univercities” seminar. I was the first of three speakers on the panel. When Johnny Golding got up to speak second, she began by saying something like “that was as passionate a defence of socialism as I’ve ever heard”.

It got a laugh, but thinking about why it was wrong also provoked an important insight for me.

Classic socialism is about the redistribution of wealth (“rob from the rich and give to the poor”). The idea is that it’s good for people with little to have more; and that in order to achieve that good it’s worth making the sacrifice that people with much have to make do with less. (Let’s ignore the ways this idealistic version of socialism has been perverted.)

The very fundamental difference from socialism is that with open access doesn’t ask anyone to make do with less. Because it deals with access to digital, rather than physical, goods, infinite perfect copies are free.

In the bad old days of physical copies, if I had a reprint library of 1000 papers and wanted to share them with you, I might give you 500 or them and keep the other 500 for myself. But if I have 1000 PDFs, I just give you a copy of my library, and then we both have it.

With open access, we don’t rob from the rich and give to the poor. We rob from no-one and give to the rich and the poor.

Post Script

Why is this important? For various reasons, good and bad, a lot of people dislike socialism. For those people, when open access is tarred with the socialist brush, it turns them off the idea of OA. But there is no need for that. When even the richest university in the world can’t afford all its subscriptions, open access is good news for the rich as well as the poor.

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10 Responses to “Why open access is not socialism”

  1. some asshole Says:

    Amazing how so many politicos in US/UK will readily endorse/adopt fascist policies but live in fear of the socialist boogeyman.

  2. kaveh1000 Says:

    Hindawi have some of the lowest APCs, 100% open access, create technically the best XML and pages, and make around 50% profit.

    No socialist my good mate Ahmed. ;-)

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    I suppose it’s worth mentioning here, too, that everyone’s favourite disruptive publisher PeerJ is also an unabashedly for-profit concern. Making money by spreading knowledge! Interesting concept, huh, legacy publishers?


  4. It’s an interesting debate. Of course some people have always tried to control the flow of information. When the printing press was first developed in Europe some people thought it would be a good idea to translate the bible into English and produce printed copies so lay people could read it for themselves. The church leaders of the time decided this must not be allowed and burnt all the translated books in London. It took a long time for some people to accept that a readable version of the bible should be available to everyone. New scientific ideas had similar problems. During the industrial revolution some people started to complain that the new “steam-powered press” was making new, mainly scientific ideas, too accessible to the common man. Today we have the Internet and various people still want to control the free flow of information. Many of the scientific papers I want to read were difficult to obtain until the Internet made them more freely available and it still seems many people believe I shouldn’t be allowed to consider some of the world-shattering scientific ideas that are now more accessible than ever before. The new computer technology is providing a revolution just as profound as the hand printing press or steam-powered printing press and the future (which is partly here now) must be to allow easier access to scientific information. I want to be able to read new ideas for myself so I can decide if I agree or not. I don’t want these ideas filtered through a layer of other people so I have to rely on their opinion. So I applaud your voice of reason for a more open scientific press.


  5. It strikes me as utterly bizarre that this post was even needed. Not wrong, mind you, but a strange commentary on society as a whole.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, I’m sure that Johnny Golding’s socialism crack was only intended as a joke. But it did set my mind going, and drew my attention back to the huge economic difference between material and electronic goods.


  7. […] Hood 2.0? Open access robs from nobody, gives to […]

  8. John Conway Says:

    We have come to a silly pass when intellectuals are throwing around the word “socialism” like it some sort of general-pupose insult. People can be such maroons.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    To be fair, I don’t think Johnny intended it as an insult.


  10. […] few weeks, it’s been my pleasure and privilege to give invited talks on open access to both UCL and the University of Ulster. (Both of them went well, thanks for […]


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