Arguing for Your Own Irrelevance- #AcademicPrivilege

Posted on July 12, 2013


Sometimes you read something that is so out there that you have to read it two, three, or more times just to understand it, in this particular case I had to read it six times. What is it?

Why open access makes no sense– by Professor Robin Osborne 

I have read many critiques of Open Access and arguments against it, most of which are thinly veiled arguments of I get lots of money from how things are so let us keep it that way. This is something different. It is as if the Professor is arguing against the whole academic world. I had to read it six times over just to make sure it was not that dry British humour and he was just ‘taking the piss’ our of everyone and I am pretty sure he is serious.

His writing oozes academic privilege e.g like the concept of white privilege, but for academics. Right out of the gate his first argument is this-

When I propose to a research council or similar body that I will investigate a set of research questions in relation to a particular set of data, the research council decides whether those are good questions to apply to that dataset, and in the period during which I am funded by that research council, I investigate those questions, so that at the end of the research I can produce my answers. The false assumption behind open access that this is exactly parallel to what would happen if I were a commercial researcher. In that case a company would commission me to do market research; they would pay me on the basis that I spent my time doing that market research; I would carry out that market research during whatever period I was paid for; and at the end I would deliver my results to the company who had paid me.

The problem is that the two situations are quite different. In the first case, I propose both the research questions and the dataset to which I apply them. In the second the company commissioning the work supplies the questions and may supply or determine also the dataset to which the questions are applied. In the first case the researcher wants to do the work, and the research council is persuaded that that research has more claim on its funds than other research proposals it has before it. In the second case the company commissioning the research wants that research done and the researcher does it because that is what they are employed to do.

So as I understand it, Osborne’s arguing because he thought of an idea he is more privileged than other (commercial) researchers and thus should be privileged to withhold his results from the wider public. emm… not sure how to say this but Mr. O is coming off a bit ….. elitist. Next, I am not sure he understands how research happens outside of his ivory tower. Lots of companies and organizations, including those in the humanities,  accept unsolicited research applications but they, the proposing researcher, don’t get to keep the results hidden for their eyes only.

It gets better-

The size of journals increases, the quality of journals declines, the papers become less widely readable, the job of editing becomes less rewarding – indeed the most important quality of the editorial department becomes its value for money, that is how many articles can be handled by how few staff.

One of the comments to the article says it better than I can-

Finally (and I admit I am getting a bit personal here and will deserve whatever I get for saying it), if your language is so difficult to understand without heavy editing by the publishers, it might be time for you to invest in your own education again.

The professor goes on-

There can be no such thing as free access to academic research. Academic research is not something to which free access is possible. Academic research is a process – a process which universities teach (at a fee). Like it or not, the primary beneficiary of research funding is the researcher, who has managed to deepen their understanding by working on a particular dataset. The publications that result from the research project are only trivially a result of the research funding, they come out of a whole history of human interactions that are not for sale. Not even in a slave society.

Trivially? Polio vaccine! Penicillin! are not trivial. Ok, so that’s not the humanities but the Rosetta Stone! Time Team! are not trivial outcomes of research, even in the humanities.

For those who wish to have access, there is an admission cost: they must invest in the education prerequisite to enable them to understand the language used. Current publication practices work to ensure that the entry threshold for understanding my language is as low as possible.

WTF! As you can see, I was wondering if this was a joke piece. However, I am afraid that Mr O believes that

  1. He should be more privileged than others.
  2. Other people should pay to improve his writing, instead of him doing it on his own.
  3. He should be the only person who benefits from his work, that other people pay for.
  4. Other people should be denied the same privileges he has unless they jump through rings.
  5. The general public is stupid

Maybe its a conspiracy to turn the public against university staff so that less permanent positions will be offered. I can not think of a better example of someone trying to come off elitist. To be honest,  if I was a politician and he tried to argue why universities need to be funded, I would burn them all down. Luckily, I have met many great people working at universities and know the value of them. However, I think that Mr O has made one of the greatest arguments about how irrelevant his work and position is.

Posted in: Publishing