Book Review

On the Changing Infrastructure of Scholarly Communication: Peter Suber and the Open Access Movement

Suber, Peter. Knowledge Unbound: Selected Writings on Open Access, 2002-2011. Cambridge:   MIT Press, 2016. 436 pages.


The full text of the book is freely available here, as an open access (OA) publication.


Review by Scott Richard St. Louis


            Cards on the table: during my undergraduate years, and more recently as an early-career professional, I have found it lamentably true that conferences tend to lack a felt coherence. Even when these gatherings convene around various themes, the splintered arrays of concurrent activity often fail to inspire the development of robust intellectual community: something that can persist long after the flights home have landed and the CVs are updated. This is a bleak assessment, given the tremendous potential that such community can entail when it becomes both durable and open to new participation, especially for younger scholars. Even so, this perception is almost definitely not mine alone. In fact, it is thrown into stark relief every time an abundance of meandering presentations are inflicted upon overtaxed audiences from reams of double-spaced Times New Roman. I am exaggerating for effect, of course, but only for the sake of appealing to an observation I take to be fairly common, albeit difficult to act upon productively. Happily, in any case, exceptions to the rule are plentiful. (Thanks in no small part to this wonderful blog, I would count the Society for U.S. Intellectual History among them!)

The most admirable and invigorating alternative I have yet encountered is the annual OpenCon meeting, first organized in 2014 by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) and its student-focused offspring, the Right to Research Coalition (R2RC), with help from dozens of sponsors, including a few universities.[1] Its success is testimony to the influence of a scholar who has not yet attended one of the central meetings in person: Peter Suber. First, the conference is breathtaking in its international visibility: its 2014 and 2015 installments both assembled over one hundred participants from around forty countries, demonstrating in no uncertain terms the global significance of promoting access to scholarship in the twenty-first century. Likewise, applications for 2016 exceeded eleven thousand in number, coming from one hundred seventy-six countries; the conference itself brought together over two hundred students, researchers, and information professionals from sixty countries.

Logistical constraints prevent many applicants from attending the conference each year, but support is available for the development of local satellite events throughout the world. OpenCon participants have enjoyed opportunities to meet with staffers from the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament, and other high-profile governmental organizations to raise awareness of open access, open education, and open data among policymakers. Additionally, regular “community calls” unite a supportive group of students and professionals behind a common project – expanding access to knowledge – long after the conference ends each year.

This compelling blend of theory, policy, and practice is also on display in Suber’s fascinating new book, Knowledge Unbound: Selected Writings on Open Access, 2002-2011, published last year by MIT Press. Anyone with an interest in the rich history and evolving landscape of academic publishing should take note of Suber’s work. Director of both the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication and the Harvard Open Access Project, Senior Researcher at SPARC and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Suber became a leader in the open access movement during its pivotal decade, a period traced in this collection of forty-four essays.

The book opens with a foreword by historian Robert Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian Emeritus at Harvard University. Darnton, a board member for the Digital Public Library of America, and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, offers several reasons why Suber’s work should interest intellectual historians. First, “Suber slices into the counterarguments in order to clear a way for a cause: open knowledge for everyone, not merely the cultural elite and corporate insiders. He accepts the legitimacy of copyright and the importance of sustainable business plans. But he provides an arsenal of arguments for anyone who wants to democratize the world of learning within the surrounding world of economic and legal realities” (p. xi). Additionally, the “democratic thrust of Suber’s argument deserves emphasis,” and although a “tone of preaching to the converted seeps into some of the essays, because they were originally written as installments in a newsletter aimed primarily at OA sympathizers … they deserve to be read by the unconverted, for they cover the whole gamut of OA-related issues, and they show how those issues arose, helter-skelter, over the past ten years” (p. xi). Darnton’s expertise as a historian of publishing also emerges in his commentary: “Paradoxically, the blog-like quality of the essays makes them especially interesting, for they offer a running commentary on the digital scene while the scenery was changing. That they are now collected in a book after a previous existence on the web is testimony to the staying power of the printed codex – not as substitute for communication online but as a supplement to it. The digital and the analog do not occupy opposite extremes along a technological spectrum. They intersect and overlap in ways that we are only beginning to understand” (p. xii). In his own preface to the book, Suber discusses not only the online newsletter out of which this collection is largely composed, but also a blog he kept for eight years, accumulating some eighteen thousand posts (p. xv). With Darnton’s commentary in mind, Suber’s preface makes it clear that this book represents only the tip of an iceberg for any scholar who might commit to writing an intellectual history of the open access movement in the future.

The first section of the book, Suber’s “Introduction,” includes just two essays: “Knowledge as a Public Good” (2009) and “Open Access, Markets, and Missions” (2010). In the former piece, Suber briefly explores one of “the most durable arguments for OA … that knowledge is and ought to be a public good” (p. 3). Suber defines public goods, in “the technical sense used by economists,” as “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable” in nature (p. 3). Goods are non-rivalrous when they are “undiminished by consumption … Knowledge is non-rivalrous. Your knowledge of a fact or idea does not block mine, and mine does not block yours” (p. 3). Additionally, knowledge is non-excludable, in that when it is “available to people able to learn it, from books, nature, friends, teachers, or their own senses and experience, attempts to stop them from learning it are generally unavailing” (p. 4). It is on these terms that Suber draws attention to perhaps “the deepest transformation wrought by the digital revolution,” namely that “we can record our non-rivalrous knowledge without turning it into a rivalrous material object … No matter how we record knowledge today, the recording can be as non-rivalrous as the underlying knowledge itself, something new under the sun” (p. 4). The essay goes on to explore approaches for implementing such a vision within the existing framework of copyright law.

In “Open Access, Markets, and Missions,” Suber deftly confronts the misguided complaint that OA policies “interfere with the market,” a stance which “overlooks all the ways in which scholarly publishing is permeated by state action and gift culture. It overlooks the fact that most scientific research is funded by taxpayers, the fact that most researcher salaries are paid by taxpayers, and the fact that most journal subscriptions are paid by taxpayers. It overlooks the fact that authors donate their articles and referees donate their peer-review reports … Publishers benefit from all these traditional distortions or modifications of the market and only protest new ones that would benefit researchers … To call it a market is like calling a mule a horse” (p. 20). For Suber, asking vital questions about the future of scholarly publishing naturally requires a critical stance toward “the assumption that the interests of the research community should be subordinated to the business interests of publishers” (p. 21). With forceful clarity, Suber guides the reader away from bended-knee paeans to a tiresome red herring, encouraging serious reflection about what scholarly publishing ought to accomplish in the first place.

The next section of the book begins with an “Open Access Overview” for those new to the idea. Here, one should know that Suber has provided a more detailed introduction in his 2012 book Open Access, which is freely available here. The most important sources referenced in the “Overview” are the Budapest, Bethesda, and Berlin statements, announced respectively in February 2002, June 2003, and October 2003 (p. 26). These documents remain central to the open access movement today. Correcting those who might otherwise think of open access in monolithic fashion, Suber is careful to state that “OA is a kind of access, not a kind of business model, license, or content … There are many business models compatible with OA … Models that work well in some fields and nations may not work as well in others. No one claims that one size fits all” (p. 39). He proceeds to offer concise remarks on how open access can serve the interests of the many stakeholders in scholarly publishing: authors, readers, teachers and students, libraries, universities, journals and publishers, funding agencies, governments, and citizens (pp. 40-41). Other essays in this section include “Removing the Barriers to Research: An Introduction to Open Access for Librarians” (2003), “The Taxpayer Argument for Open Access” (2003), and “Trends Favoring Open Access” (2007), among others. With meticulous lucidity, Suber develops a case for open access that is admirably mindful of potential objections and real limitations.

The third section, “More on the Case for Open Access,” begins with a very short piece titled “The Scaling Argument” (2004), which poses sobering questions about an escalating disparity: “Will our methods of disseminating knowledge keep pace with the rate of discovery and publication? Or will they function as an artificial brake on the growth of knowledge itself and our ability to find and assimilate it?” (p. 93). Suber notes that even wealthy universities are struggling to afford all the journals they need, concluding that “the current system does not scale. It would not scale even if knowledge grew at a slower rate. But knowledge will continue to grow, probably at an exponential rate … OA scales. It greatly reduces the costs of production, distribution, and storage … OA accommodates growth on a gigantic scale and, best of all, supports more effective tools for searching, sorting, indexing, filtering, mining, and alerting – the tools for coping with information overload” (p. 94). A memo issued in 2012 by the Harvard library system, gaining attention from The Guardian and The Boston Globe, among other outlets, indicates that Suber is correct: without movement toward an OA paradigm, the tremendous growth of knowledge could actually precipitate reductions in the visibility and impact of much scholarship.

In “Delivering Open Access,” the fourth section of the book, Suber opens with two essays, both published in 2006, to address a common misunderstanding that all open access journals operate using author-side fees (pp. 123-131; pp. 133-139). In the latter piece, “No-Fee Open Access Journals,” Suber ends with a 2009 addendum corroborating a study published four years earlier, indicating that most open access journals do not charge any author-side fees (pp. 139). Unfortunately, link rot and URL typos are a stubborn problem in the work. At the present moment, only two of the four links that Suber provides in this addendum guide the reader directly toward the relevant information (p. 139); they are here and here, at least for now. The remaining two – available here and here at the time of writing – required some very light digging by the reviewer.

This shortcoming is neither surprising nor scandalous, given the anthology’s provenance as a selection mostly of aging installments in a digital newsletter, written with the goal of participating in real-time conversations about open access during its early decade. Here, a reminder about Darnton’s foreword is instructive; intellectual historians should consult this work as a valuable collection of primary sources. On the whole, Suber has done yeoman’s work in building and curating a rich historical record that will be useful to keep in mind at times when some point lazily to fleeting controversies, holding them up as excuses to impugn the open access movement in its entirety. Cooler heads ought to prevail when the stakes are high, and in this regard, Suber consistently sets a fine example. Two essays on “Quality and Open Access” (pp. 269-299) further demonstrate that Suber has much to teach those who are long on rhetoric and short on analysis.

The penultimate section of essays, “More on the Landscape of Open Access,” contains Suber at his most bold, provocative, and insightful, but also at his most problematic. In a piece developed in 2004 and 2005, titled “Promoting Open Access in the Humanities,” Suber explains why open access has moved at a slower pace here than in certain scientific fields, and gives eight recommendations for advancing the concept in these disciplines. Circling back to the question of fees, Suber mentions Philosopher’s Imprint at the University of Michigan as an example of an open access humanities journal that charges no author-side fees (p. 337). Reading this essay brings to mind a more recent endeavor in a similar vein: Martin Paul Eve’s Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies, and the Future, published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press and, of course, available online. Alongside Caroline Edwards, Eve co-founded the Open Library of Humanities. Launched officially in September 2015 after an initial development period, including financial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, OLH is a nonprofit organization that publishes OA scholarship with no author-side fees. Using a business model known as partnership subsidies, through which an international library consortium provides financial support to the OLH in exchange for participation in its management, this organization is demonstrating that sustainable OA platforms are possible for the humanities. Currently, the library consortium includes over two hundred members.

Other essays in this section include “Unbinding Knowledge” (2004), containing a proposal for opening past research articles, and “Open Access for Digitization Projects” (2009), in which Suber explores different combinations of such variables as copyright status and funding sources, making reference to three public-private partnerships undertaken by the National Archives and Records Administration (pp. 380-381). The most flawed piece in the entire book is “Open Access to Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs),” published in 2006. Suber offers nine reasons why universities should consider developing OA policies for ETDs, though he awkwardly falls short of describing the open access issue as it is actually experienced by many graduate students. Suber states accurately, but misleadingly, that “authors of journal articles know they’ll never be paid for those texts, but some grad students plan to turn their dissertations into books that generate (or could generate) revenue” (p. 359). Here, Suber plainly misses the mark. In a discipline like history, it is more reasonable to infer that the ambivalence felt by graduate students toward open access to dissertations emerges not through concerns over losing potential monograph revenue so much as through the growing importance of landing a book contract in a hypercompetitive – even abysmal – market for tenure-track positions. Suber’s facile interpretation does not engage substantially with this troubling reality.

The dilemma faced by graduate students, at least in history, was articulated more thoughtfully about four years ago by Michael D. Hattem in an article from The New York Times: “Historians Seek a Delay in Posting Dissertations.” The article was written in response to a controversial statement released by the American Historical Association that summer, calling for “graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years.” [2] As an interviewee for the article, Hattem said, “Ideally, I would want all of our work freely available, but we have to deal with the way things are … It may look to us like a step back, but they have never stepped forward. We still do the degrees in the way we did in the 1800s.” Hattem’s fair-minded summation of the issue speaks both to the understandable concerns of graduate students and to critics of the backward-looking statement, who have argued that “if incentives in academic hiring discourage such sharing, then the American Historical Association should agitate to change those incentives, not promote the idea of embargoes.” More than half a decade after the most recent essays in Suber’s book were originally published, it is clear that historians can no longer afford not to study the open access movement. As library budgets endure the strain of journal subscription prices that have often increased at a rate well above inflation for more than three decades – diminishing the financial resources available for monograph acquisitions – open access in the humanities is likely to keep growing in importance. In Knowledge Unbound, Suber provides a much-needed illustration of a growing body of literature that is capturing the intellectual history of the open access movement as it continues to unfold.

Scott Richard St. Louis currently works as a program manager at the Hauenstein Center of Grand Valley State University in Michigan, where he completed his undergraduate studies in April 2016. An alumnus of OpenCon 2014 and 2015, he served on the application review team for OpenCon 2016. Scott has been involved in efforts promoting open access to scholarship since 2012.

[1] Sponsors from the three OpenCon gatherings held to date are currently available for viewing at the bottom of the following webpage:

[2] I have assembled a non-exhaustive list of writings published in response to the AHA statement on a Google spreadsheet, available here.