Moral dimensions of Open, part 0: why this matters

March 31, 2016

From 19th-22nd April this year, it will be my privilege to participate in OSI2016, the first annual meeting of the Open Scholarship Initiative. (I do think this project could have come up with a name that has a different acronym: OSI was previously the Open Society Institute, which was instrumental in getting open access off the ground — not to mention the Open System Interconnection seven-layer networking model. But never mind.)

The OSI meeting is not a conventional conference. Instead, much of its work will consist of meetings of fifteen separate groups, each considering and discussing a different question or issue: for example, What Is Publishing? What Is Open? Who Decides? Peer Review. Embargoes. I will be working in the Moral Dimensions Of Open group, along with a stellar (and slightly intimidating) cast.

I’m delighted to be on this group, because my view is that it’s the most foundational of them all. Everything else we do in the Open space flows from our moral position on Open. If we get this right, then even the thorniest matters of implementation become much clearer — because we have a foundation to build on.

Now, I know this attitude is not universally held. Publishing consultant Joe Esposito gave a very different perspective in an interview with Richard Poynder in 2013 (and let me emphasise how much I appreciate Joe’s candour in this — I am sure his views are shared by plenty of other people who are less forthcoming, and it’s very helpful to have them laid out clearly):

Q: What in your view is the single most important task that the OA movement should focus on today?
A: Getting rid of the idealists. Let pragmatism abound!

Joe is proudly pragmatic about ways of making money from publishing,
whether via paywalls or APCs, and elsewhere has argued that:

Access is a privilege of membership (e.g., being a student at a university), not a right. Can we stop this debate now and simply agree that we have no common ground upon which to base a conversation?

So perhaps the most fundamental disagreements on open scholarship are not between those with different views about its moral basis, but between those who have a view and those who avowedly have none. If open access, for example, is just a different economic model for publishers, then we may find that some of our fellow-travellers never had the same intentions as us, but merely happened to be travelling on the same road for a while.

So in remaking scholarship, and especially scholarly publishing, we need to bear in mind the parable told by G. K. Chesterton in the introduction to his book Heretics:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

That’s why, when I had the privilege of addressing the 11th Berlin conference on open access in 2013, I used my slot to remind the audience that, as my talk’s title put it, open access is about sharing, unity and sanity, not about money. Because I was addressing a more senior audience than I usually speak to — one that necessarily has to think more about practicalities, finances, ways and means — I wanted to take the opportunity to remember that those are not the issues that gave birth to open scholarship; rather, it started out as an unabashedly idealistic movement (as reading any of the three
great open-access declarations will show you). I don’t want us to walk away from that high-ground and be reduced to thinking only about practicalities, important though they are.

Publishers and their associates often say — rightly, as far as they go — that “Scientific and technical publishing is a business“. But no-one goes into that business because of the money they can make. Everyone involved in research surely chose that business because their eyes were on a higher prize. Doing and publishing research is a mission; far from “getting rid of the idealists“, we should cherish them; and we should encourage rather than curb our own idealistic tendencies.

So my first and most important conviction about the moral dimension of Open is that it exists, that it’s crucial, and that it’s absolutely not something for us to feel ashamed of, as though it’s an adolescent phase that we’ll grow out of once we become old enough and wise enough to understand pragmatism. The moral dimension is what gives us a goal for our pragmatism to work towards.

All depends on what is the philosophy of Light.

[Read on to part 1: “marginal cost is zero, so price should be zero”]

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6 Responses to “Moral dimensions of Open, part 0: why this matters”

  1. Frosted Flake Says:

    The difference to my view is the choice of path into the future.

    Whether it is better for all of us, not just those in the publishing industry, to in the practical sense OWN science. Whether it is better to let any kid with an interest take any idea and do what he can with it on the expectation that all will benefit from any new developments resulting form this ‘play’. (Play is what we call stuff we don’t get paid for) Or whether it is better to allow a few grumpy old men treat knowledge like flickering pictures in a seedy back room peep show. A nickle a gander.

    Is science about making money? Or making progress?

  2. Marcin Says:

    Mike,
    THANK YOU for this beautiful post.

  3. ptermx Says:

    A question that arises from this moral dimension is whether practical science (or scholarship) is then supposed to proceed according to the moral dimension (i.e. science is an expression of morality) or whether the moral dimension is just someone’s attempt to express principles they perceive in the way science is pursued in practice (i.e. the “moral dimension” is a description of science).

    Open science is often promoted in terms of practical benefits such as scientific problems being solved quicker or more efficiently through more scientists having better (i.e. cheaper) access to published science or social, economic or even political benefits following from “lay” people having easier (i.e. cheaper) access to scientific literature.

    There’s then a question as to whether the moral dimension is justified in terms of these benefits actually being realised in practise or whether the moral position stands independently of whether anyone can empirically demonstrate the benefits or not.

    Should advocates of open science have to justify the changes they propose by showing empirically (not just as a matter of logical principle) that there really are overall greater benefits from making the changes they advocate?


  4. […] As I mentioned last time, I will be participating in the “Moral Dimensions of Open” working group at the forthcoming OSI2016 conference. Having laid out what I see as the foundational aspect of this discussion in part 0, I’d like to briefly survey some of the specific moral arguments in favour of Open — with particular reference to open access, since it’s an area that I have more experience in than open data, open innovation, and so on. […]


  5. […] for the forthcoming OSI2016 meeting, where I’ll be in the Moral Dimensions group. [Part 0 laid the foundation by asking why this matters; and part 1 discussed the argument that price should […]


  6. […] short series on the moral dimensions of open (particularly open access), we’ve considered why this is important, the argument that zero marginal cost should result in zero price, the idea that the public has a […]


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