Scarcity, technology and open access


In his recent post, Martin Eve argues that the convergence of technology and culture that partly enable open access also partly disable it, due to the incompatibility of (a) the scarcity-dependent prestige culture of academia and (b) the scarcity-eliminating virtues of technology.

What is missed in this analysis is a distinction between the two forms of scarcity in academic publishing that technology promises to eliminate:

  • supply-side scarcity, where limited publication options lead to good work going unpublished;
  • demand-side scarcity, where limited access to existing publications leads to published work going unread/unused.

Technology makes the means of production abundant, addressing supply-side scarcity, but it also makes the means of reproduction abundant, meaning material that is scarce in supply can benefit from maximal amplification.

The more radical and disruptive element of the open access movement would see merit in eliminating both forms of scarcity. I agree with Eve that such radicalism is not compatible with the academic-cultural need to base the conferring of prestige on an aspiring scholar’s ability to overcome the limitations of supply-side scarcity (though I also recognise his developing doubts about our ability to deal with this cultural issue at its source).

However, even if nobody were more able to publish their work in a purely open-access environment than they were in a sales-of-print environment, the maximal amplification effects of technology could still be brought to bear on this existing material. I therefore don’t agree that the incompatibility of radicalism and conservatism necessarily puts a brake on open access itself: there is no reason that addressing demand-side scarcity (as, for example, green open access does) should necessitate forever replicating the “symbolic economy” that actively limits capacity. Suber’s notion that we should move prestige to open access is important here. 

For the avoidance of doubt, I firmly believe that it is necessary to analyse the causes of supply-side scarcity and address any distortive effects; no good academic work should go unpublished, especially if ‘demand’ is such a large component of the decision (as Richard Fisher argues here). But I don’t believe that this a technological problem, nor do I believe it is an open access problem. Cultural reform in the academy can be supported by technological developments but it is rarely enabled by it; we need deeper and more radical solutions here. I believe it is important to keep making this distinction because it helps us address one of the most pernicious and persistent myths about open access: that the new technologies will lead to lower quality. Indeed, any conscious decision by a fledgling OA publisher to limit author entry in the name of ‘quality’ may only be trying to address this myth, and perhaps nothing more.