Nathaniel Tkacz on “The Mess that Open Access has become”

Julia Rehfeldt —  October 20, 2014 — Leave a comment

tkacz.nateNathaniel Tkacz is an assistant professor at the University of Warwick. His work lies at the intersection of network cultures, software studies and politics. He has published on: the political and organizational dynamics of openness; collaboration; software forking; trolling; dashboard interfaces and platform economies. His books include Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness; Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader (with Geert Lovink); Digital Light (with Sean Cubitt and Daniel Palmer) and The MoneyLab Reader (with Geert Lovink and Patricia De Vries, forthcoming 2015). He is currently PI on the ESRC funded project, ‘Interrogating the Dashboard’.

Hybrid Publishing Lab: In your research of Wikipedia, have you been confronted with open access as a ‘messy’ subject?

Nathaniel Tkacz: When I was researching Wikipedia, beginning in the mid-2000s, open access was not really institutionalised. Open access was part of an attempt – which is ongoing – to radically experiment with publishing. The question of intellectual property, or rather, its critique, was equally front and centre. Within the field of new media, journals like Fibreculture, Culture Machine and CTheory were early examples of open access, but there wasn’t really a consciousness around the idea. That came a little bit later. To call these journals open access now seems more like a disservice! Early on there was a ‘messiness’ around open access, but it was a good messiness. Of course, there are still all kinds of exciting things happening in publishing, but, to my knowledge, this isn’t happening under the banner of open access.

In the Wikipedia community, a lot of ideas were carried over more or less wholesale from open source software. The early IP license, for example, was the GNU GPL. So in some ways Wikipedia might have been part of spreading notions of ‘openness’ and ‘access’ via their ‘imagine a world…’ slogan, but people weren’t really thinking about Wikipedia as an open access project.

HPL: In your text “From open source to open government: A critique of open politics“, youhave quite a critical view on the notion of “open”. Would you extend this critique to open access? Could one say, that one also needs to develop a critical viewpoint of open access?

Tkacz: Yes, it’s true, I am very much a critic of openness. Initially this seemed like an impossible task. Openness was actually the topic of my PhD research and at the time I was very worried about finding a sympathetic examiner. The landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years, especially due to the highly strategic uptake of openness in government. There are more and more reformed believers.

My critique of openness in general – which I won’t rehash here – extends to openness. I simple don’t think openness works well as a political concept and to attach openness to something seen as progressive does it a disservice. However, open access has it’s own specific issues. It’s a very complicated area and there are a lot of issues that are still being addressed. Here in the UK, open access has very much become a top-down initiative. There is a real push to have the outputs of any government funded research published as open access. That, in itself, has created a lot of mess! Individual universities have their own policies and it’s not clear how this will impact on the Research Excellence Framework (which rates the quality of institutions by rating their outputs). I was in a seminar where my own institution was introducing its open access policy to all the departments within the Humanities. I was asked to say a few words about my own activities in the area. I was quite shocked to observe the strong averse reaction to not only my institution’s specific ideas, but in the idea of open access in general. Most people were perfectly happy with the existing journal model. Copyright, journal fee’s, gatekeeping, etc. were not an issue at all. Moreover, open access was subsumed into a narrative about neoliberalisation and the continued squeezing of the Humanities. While I don’t share their satisfaction with traditional publishing, the overall narrative was at least partially convincing.

Of course, there are many other issues when it comes to implementation.

In disciplines like archaeology, art history and classics, where images (and related permissions) feature heavily, the pay up front model of open access is highly problematic, as the ‘cost’ of articles after permissions can be exceedingly high. Even worse, getting permissions for a book or article that has to be bought is one thing, but getting permission to put something up online for everyone is another, and I have heard of situations where cultural institutions simply decline to give permissions. It’s not so easy to uncoil the snake’s coils, as they say. So, yes, I think a critical viewpoint of open access is very important. ​

HPL: What recent developments do you see in the use of networks that effect academic publishing?

Tkacz: This is a huge question and there are many entry points. There are questions of distribution, of licenses (or at least of policing) and of business models​. There are questions of format, of code, aesthetics, and new practices of reading (distant, social, etc.). There is also the question of metrics, recommendation, ranking, and so forth, that is part of larger issues of ‘datafication’. I think it’s a very exciting time for reading, writing and publishing and I’m very much looking forward to this event!

HPL: Which book will you always have as an analogue copy in your bookshelf?

Tkacz: Well, if I have a bookshelf presumably I’ll have more than one analogue book! In all seriousness, I’d rather avoid exercises in canon building.  ​

Our upcoming Conference on Publishing between Open Access, Piracy and Public Spheres is up for registration now. You can read all Interviews here.

Coming up on Wednesday: Our introduction interview with Corinna Haas, head of the ICI Library at ICI Berlin.

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