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.
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.