• Open Insights: An Interview with Janneke Adema and Sam Moore

    Posted by James Smith on 2018-04-16


The Radical Open Access Collective: Community, Resilience, Collaboration

An Open Insights interview with Janneke Adema and Sam Moore

Janneke Adema and Sam Moore are the authors of a March 2018 UKSG Insights essay entitled Collectivity and collaboration: imagining new forms of communality to create resilience in scholar-led publishing. Today we explore the context behind the Radical Open Access Collective (ROAC), and their thoughts on the complexities of scholar-led open access publishing.


The ROAC is holding the Radical Open Access II - The Ethics of Care conference at Coventry University from 26-27 June 2018.



OLH: Hi Janneke and Sam, thanks for talking to us! To start, how would you summarise the core philosophy of the ROAC?

JA & SM: Thanks for the invitation! We feel that the core philosophy behind the collective is about returning control of publishing to the scholarly community. While the member presses do not represent a unified or homogeneous set of values or practices, they are each interested in practicing a vision of open access that is accountable to (and reflective of) their various communities. This affords experimentation, critique, collaboration and a range of other practices that traditional publishing currently prohibits to a lesser or greater extent. The collective ultimately hopes to offer a mutually supportive, non-hierarchical environment for exploring the futures of open publishing practices.

The collective ultimately hopes to offer a mutually supportive, non-hierarchical environment for exploring the futures of open publishing practices.

Taking this into consideration, some keywords that come to mind with respect to the ROAC’s philosophy are: collaboration, non-competitive, not-for-profit, horizontal (non-hierarchical), scholar-led, ethics of care, diversity, community, experimenting, global justice, affirmative creative critique, performative, progressive, radical, mutually-supportive, mutual reliance, multi-polar, resilience, communality, inclusivity.

OLH: What ethical principles does the ROAC seek to normalise, and what challenges does it face in doing so?

JA & SM: We are not sure “normalise” is the right word here, given the implicit normativity this word brings with it. Ethics, many of us feel, is not something that can be defined in advance or that can be predetermined, we cannot resort to moral criteria or predefined values or truths when it comes to publishing, scholarly communication or openness, for example. A responsible ethical approach to openness, to publishing, to the book, would not presume to know what these are, nore what ethics is, in advance. If anything we feel ethics is, or should be, non-normative: its meaning cannot be predetermined. We also do not follow any set “principles” in this respect; however, our ethics is not relativistic either; instead it responds to specific singular practices and situations, around how openness is implemented and the materiality of the book changes, for example. Our ethics are therefore performative, they arise out of the way we (as scholars, publishers) become with the media we publish.

OLH: Why is being radical a good thing?

JA & SM: Being radical is neither good nor bad, it is a terminology we have adapted to distinguish the specific version of open access we want to promote from more neoliberal or top-down versions, for example. The etymology of “radical” shows it derives from the Latin radix, for root, where it means going back to the origin, to what is essential. For us, radical open access simply represents what we always perceived open access to be, it is a way for us to position ourselves within the wide diversity of meanings open access represents and conjures up.

The etymology of “radical” shows it derives from the Latin radix, for root, where it means going back to the origin, to what is essential.

Being radical does however offer us the chance to present an affirmative counterpoint to the dominant discourses around open access, particularly those promoted by commercial publishers and governmental funders—such as HEFCE and RCUK (now UKRI) in the UK—who tend to be interested in OA inasmuch as it promotes business, transparency, and innovation or merely protects the interests of commercial publishers (see the Finch report, for example). This is how the average humanities and social sciences researcher is likely to encounter OA—as merely representative of a neoliberal ideology and a top down instrumental requirement—and so the ROAC seeks to illustrate that there is an alternative and that OA can have a basis in something both emancipatory and transformative.

OLH: The ROAC is an advocacy group, but it is also a community-builder. How does a strong community translate into a response to the pressing issues of open access?

JA & SM: Because it offers us the opportunity to scale-up or as we have previously argued, to “scale small”—keeping the diversity and independence of the (often small-scale) endeavours of our members intact—both horizontally and vertically. By harnessing the strengths and organizational structures of not-for-profit, independent and scholar-led publishing communities we hope to further facilitate collective efforts through community building and by setting up horizontal alliances. Next to that we hope to enable vertical forms of collaboration with other organisations, collectives, institutions and agencies within scholarly publishing, for example libraries and universities, but also with collectives of artists, technologists and activists. As we have argued elsewhere, we want to explore how we can set up so-called “chains of equivalence” (Laclau) with other movements and struggles that are also dealing with aspects of openness – not just those associated with open knowledge, open science, open data, altmetrics and so on, but also those areas in the Arts and Humanities that conceive digital media more explicitly in terms of power, conflict and violence. Those associated with critical media theory, p2p networks and shadow libraries, for example. We are interested in exploring a plurality of open movements, theories and philosophies in this respect, which may at times conflict and contradict one another, but which can nevertheless contribute to the construction of a common, oppositional horizon.

By harnessing the strengths and organizational structures of not-for-profit, independent and scholar-led publishing communities we hope to further facilitate collective efforts through community building and by setting up horizontal alliances.

In this respect the ROAC also intends to present a unified voice in response to certain issues of advocacy and policy. Having a strong community allows us to discuss and respond to various issues around publishing and openness, around how open access is being implemented for example, highlighting why funders should take alternative, scholar-led publishing initiatives seriously as part of this discussion. Think for example of the recently announced intention of the UKRI in the UK to have a mandatory OA monograph component to the REF after the next. This could present a threat by commercialising and formalising a particularly kind of OA monograph practice in the same way that the current REF policy has done for journal articles (including for example the adaptation of (high) BPCs for monographs, which are unsustainable), which is to say, in accordance with the wishes of commercial publishers. This has already summoned conservative reactions from organisations such as the Royal Historical Society, positioning themselves against this development. Yet, such funder requirement for OA books could also potentially present an opportunity for many presses within the ROAC who already publish OA monographs (such as ROAC members punctum books, Open Book Publishers, and Mattering Press, for example) as well as for scholars looking for options to publish their books in OA without (excessive) BPCs. Making both funders and scholars aware of the existence of these scholar-led models for publishing open access books is of the highest importance here. This is where we would see the ROAC coming in.

OLH: How do you imagine the role of radical experimentation as a tool for humanities open access?

JA & SM: Many of the ROAC member presses would understand the relationship the other way round, that openness affords experimentation and is the reason many OA projects adopt an open approach to begin with. This means that openness is often foundational to radical projects, a natural way of working that permits different kinds of experimentation in certain contexts. Openness is thus not about being more open, for instance, but is rather about being open to change and experimentation—depending on the contingent circumstances, the political and ethical decisions and cuts that need to be made, and so on.

... [B]y experimenting in an open way with the idea and the concept of the book, but also with the materiality and the system of material production surrounding it—which includes our ideas of the material and materiality—we can ask important questions concerning authorship, the fixity of the text, quality, authority and responsibility; issues that lie at the basis of what scholarship is and what the functions of the university should be.

This is why, in foregrounding experimentation, the ROAC reflects a range of practices and ideologies, rather than a single, coherent movement for making research freely available. Experimentation in this respect can be seen as a form of ongoing critique, serving as a means to re-perform our existing institutions and scholarly practices in a more ethical and responsible way. Experimentation thus stands at the basis of a rethinking of scholarly communication and the university in general, and can even potentially be seen as a means to rethink politics itself too. For instance, by experimenting in an open way with the idea and the concept of the book, but also with the materiality and the system of material production surrounding it—which includes our ideas of the material and materiality—we can ask important questions concerning authorship, the fixity of the text, quality, authority and responsibility; issues that lie at the basis of what scholarship is and what the functions of the university should be.

OLH: How does a radical approach to open access empower researchers in the Global South, and those outside of traditional institutional frameworks?

JA & SM: We would rather emphasise the opposite: it is researchers in the Global South and those outside or on the fringes of institutions (so-called para-academics) that empower the open access movement and scholarly publishing more in general. Dominique Babini has for example stressed that “the international community would do well to follow the examples of initiatives in Latin America, where open access is already the norm and where costs are shared among members of scholarly communities to ensure lasting impact”. In Latin America, Babini points out, the cost of publishing has always been an integral part of the cost of research, where it is universities and academic societies, not commercial publishers that predominantly publish journals and books. There is also the example of sustainable publishing platforms and models developed here, based on cost sharing, in opposition to the commercial enclosures APCs impose for example. Think of portals such as SciELO and Redalyc, but also the organisation (and ROAC member) Babini represents, CLACSO, which brings together hundreds of research centres and graduate schools in the social sciences and humanities, predominantly in Latin American countries.

... [I]t is researchers in the Global South and those outside or on the fringes of institutions (so-called para-academics) that empower the open access movement and scholarly publishing more in general.

From the perspective of being outside of established structures, we also need to acknowledge the essential role shadow libraries and guerrilla open access play in providing access to research in a global context, where for example LibGen and Sci-Hub have achieved with relative ease what the open access movement has for decades been striving for: quick and easy and near universal access to the results of scholarly research.

OLH: Open source tools and open access publishing are intertwined. What needs to be free and open for smaller initiatives to thrive?

JA & SM: If possible the entire production process (open that is, nothing is free), although we appreciate we will always be implicated in commercial, profit-driven, proprietary structures, platforms and models to some extent. It is about making strategic choices on the basis of what we, or better said, the ROAC’s members, think is important. Sometimes this means using proprietary software, sometimes it includes publishing in a closed way. There are no pre-set answers or guidelines here, although there are now many open-source options for scholar-publishers to choose from. Future work of the ROAC will be, based on the information portal we have already set up, to further collate many of these options and to develop a toolkit of advice so that other communities can start their own publishing projects too.

In many ways we’re heading in the wrong direction with increased control of the means of production by large corporate entities. 

That said, the current push for centrally-controlled walled gardens, such as those being developed by Elsevier (see e.g. this article by Posada and Chen) and Springer-Nature, is very disturbing. Publishers now seek to lock users into their ecosystems, monetising not just user intellectual property but their interaction data too. In many ways we’re heading in the wrong direction with increased control of the means of production by large corporate entities. A perhaps missed opportunity to counteract this is the recent tender call for the European Commission Open Research Publishing Platform that does not specifically require open infrastructure to protect against corporate capture.

Nonetheless, instead of centralised and one-size-fits all publishing platforms, we would like to emphasise the value of decentralised ecosystems of small open source publishing projects, where platforms are often based on implementing a specific model or solution aimed to solve the crisis in academic publishing. This kind of imposed uniformity could lead to a loss of control of certain aspects of the publishing process and threaten the independence and individuality of small experimental projects. This is why the ROAC intends to complement library-based and university press publishing projects that share a more decentralised vision, and urges funders to support a biodiversity of publishing projects and models.

OLH: What are your views on volunteerist labour in publishing? Is this something for which people should always be paid or is unpaid publishing work acceptable?

JA & SM: Our feeling is that academic publishing is already sustained by (and couldn’t exist without) large amounts of volunteer labour contributed by academic editors, reviewers, copyeditors and interns. Presses in the ROAC simply divert some of this labour from commercial publishing (and encourages other academics to do the same) towards something more transformative, that is truly in the communities interest as well as community-owned and controlled. Yet labour is not a zero-sum game and will be always be a site of struggle between individual commitments as part of the traditional publishing industry, due to the prestige this confers, and collective commitments to transforming this system through experimentation into alternatives. Ultimately we want to make the appeal that publishing should be valued as both an integral aspect of research and something for which scholars should be paid as part of their academic positions.

Ultimately we want to make the appeal that publishing should be valued as both an integral aspect of research and something for which scholars should be paid as part of their academic positions.

That said, many of our initiatives are currently committed to paying their designers, typesetters and proofreaders, interns, or other people they do work with, fairly (whilst they often don’t receive a wage themselves). On the other hand, members of the ROAC have also been critical of applying a market logic or a logic of calculation to all the relationships within research and communication. There are different ways than mere monetary ones in which we can recognise the contributions of the various agencies involved in the publishing process.

The ROAC also aims to decrease the amount of volunteer labour in publishing to some extent by enabling scholar-led and not-for-profit projects to work closer together and to encourage them to, as a community, share amongst themselves, tools, best practices and information that might aid with working more efficiently, including information on how to obtain funds and grants to subsidise publishing projects. To encourage this, we have set up the Radical Open Access mailing list, which we use to discuss issues around the politics and ethics of publishing, and to share best practices and strategies amongst each other.

OLH: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Janneke and Sam!

Join us again soon for more #EmpowOA Open Insights.


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