Sun 10 May 2009
In the 30th April 2009 issue (1,894) of the Times Higher Education magazine, Prof Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford Unviersity wrote an ill-considered and wrong-headed attack on digital communication in general and on Open Access in particular titled Those who disseminate ideas must acknowledge the routes they travel.
In her article, Prof Sutherland claims that easy access to electronic versions of others’ writing automatically leads to a degradation of the respect for the other as the source of that writing. She makes the serious mistake of generalising from fiction (and other artistic forms such as poetry) to scholarly writing. Perhaps as a professor of textual criticism she feels her won specialism under threat since it must be terribly hard for someone who has spent their professional life deeply reading a relatively small number of texts and dissecting them in minute detail down to the word choices in particular sentences, to realise that even great works of literature have multiple versions, are often edited by those other than the original author, and that they may be abridged, adapted, and updated.
She then continues with a claim that “intellectual property rights are unravelling” and conflates respect for the author’s moral rights (to accurate attribution in particular) with the accessibility and malleability of electronic materials. She seems so deeply mired in the Continental concept of copyright as a moral right that she ignores the fact that the dominant factor in intellectual property as it concerns copyright is financial rights. The right to attribution is under greater threat from the overly strong claims of copyright middlemen which have caused the expansion of copyright so far beyond the idea/expression dichotomy that any new work is fraught with the peril of being accused of stealing someone else’s ideas. Sometimes the courts get it right, as in the case of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh who sued Dan Brown, claiming that his novel The Da Vince Code was a breach of their copyright in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. All creative work is based upon the ideas of others: that’s what culture is, the mixing of the ideas of everyone around you to create new combinations. Dan Brown no more needed to give Baigent and Leigh credit for The Da Vince Code than he needed to give George Lucas and Steven Speilberg credit for the idea of an academic having adventures on an archaeological quest.
Sutherland then goes on to claim that the capability to search throug large amounts of data, link pieces to one another, and cut-and-paste elements together are somehow a bad thing and that they automatically undermine our ability to “read thoughtfully and in the round, which involves hearing and respecting all the voices”. Is it really disrespectful to Jane Austen to be able to cross-reference satire in her work on the manners of the day to a book of etiquette explaining exactly the manners she parodied? Austen’s work was written for readers who knew the manners she parodied. Modern readers live in an Undiscovered Country from Austen’s point of view and as such do not share the same background knowledge as the readers she wrote for. Such cross-linking is not only emphatically not a degradation of Austen’s work but allows precisely the reading in the round and respect for all the voices that Sutherland claims modern communications undermines. Now, like all technology, it is possible to use it well and use it badly. Technology disrupts culture, but usually the doors it opens are far more beneficial if used well than the negative consequences. As academics we must strive to find these beneficial methods and disseminate their use, not cry over the spilt milk for the halcyon days of our youth when things were simpler and easier.
Sutherland then progresses further, warming to her lightly disguised luddite theme, and attacks the Open Access movement. She does this with verve and a complete misapprehension of what Open Access is about, in common with many of its academic critics, even down to the origination of the Open Access movement. She claims that it began in Physics with the need to share large amounts of data and is aimed at providing access to all data instead of just a subsection. This is untrue in every single respect. Open Access is not principally about publishing more data than will fit in a print journal article. Many proprietary journals now offer online appendices (behind their electronic toll gates as is the main article behind both print and electronic toll gates) which answer the question of full data distribution just as well as Open Access. Open Access did not solely originate in Physics. All scholarly fields have had the concept of the offprint for many years, and the concept of inter-library loans is nothing more than a sneaker-net version of Open Access. Computer Science as a discipline began to place text files and then postscript versions of published (i.e. accepted or even already printed in peer-reviewed journals) on ftp servers from the early 80s. The central paper depositing of the Physics ArXiv is a separate development to this and forms another of the historical strands of the OA movement. However, the ArXiv’s place as a place to put pre-reviewed material remains rooted in the highly mathematical fields. There are some good reasons for this which I don’t want to go into here, but which boil down to the fact that rigorous mathematical proof is incredibly hard and that getting more eyes than three or four reviewers on one’s mathematical proofs as early as possible is very useful.
And so we come to Sutherland’s claim that Open Access is not useful to the humanities. Well, speaking as a cross-disciplinary scholar whose academic papers reference texts from psychology, law, anthropology, computer science, neuroscience, art, literature and many others, I call this rubbish. While a professor at a University with one of the world’s largest copyright libraries may find that every paper she needs to read (but given her misconceptions of Open Access, this is a privilege she does not use to investigate concepts before writing polemic THE pieces). For the rest of us, however, even those living and working only thirty minutes from Oxford by train, Open Access is what is needed. I waste ridiculous amounts of time trying to track down references online sitting behind publishers’ toll gates sometimes to find that the third or fourth gateway I try has access for people form my university, and sometimes to find that it would cost me $50 to seee an article whose abstract does not tell me whether it is worth my time actually reading it, let alone paying $50 for the privilege.
Before criticising Open Access, Prof Sutherland should have taken her own advice and read “thoughtfully and in the round … hearing and respecting all the voices.” Her conflation of electronic communication and Open Access with academic plagiarism is simply not supported by the evidence. What is supported by significant evidence is the rather obvious point that before one’s academic work can be read thoughtfully and cited correctly, it must be available to the reader. It is physically and financially impossible for all unviersities to provide easy physical access to all journal publications. It is also necessary for those working in inter- and multi-disciplinary fields to be able to follow references back and forward from a starting point to gain a sufficient grasp of the current thinking in related work to produce a synthesis. The cozy narrow work of Sutherland, combined with her immensely privileged position at Oxford may mean that she does not need Open Access, but the rest of us do, and it is also her academic duty to provide her work to others as broadly as possible, where that costs her nothing and her institution next-to-nothing (in terms of a Univerrsity’s mission an IR costs next to nothing and brings great benefits because their outputs are visible to all).
Academic plagiarism has nothing whatsoever to do with Open Access, except in that more material being available by Open Access should allow automatic plagiarism checking of the same sort that we now use for student work.