Peter Baldwin is Professor of History at UCLA, and Global Distinguished Professor at NYU. He is also co-founder, with Lisbet Rausing, of Arcadia Fund, which supports work that promotes open access, and projects that preserve endangered culture and nature. Professor Baldwin’s latest publication, Athena Unbound: Why and How Scholarly Knowledge Should Be Free for All is about the history and possible futures of open access, and it has been published (open access, of course!) by MIT Press.

Professor Baldwin kindly agreed to answer some questions from the Open Access Books Network about his book, and we share the interview in this post.

Athena Unbound cover

What do you want to achieve with Athena Unbound? The book is written in a direct, accessible style; who do you hope will read it?

I hope to make OA a subject where the first question people ask when told you’ve written a book about it is NOT, “What is that?”  Afficionados know everything about OA, most people are largely ignorant.  I had a colleague – a multi-published well-known history professor – who recently, when in this scenario, said, “Oh, is that where you don’t get paid for your books?”  He didn’t know much about it and what he knew, he didn’t like one bit.

Secondarily, my ambition is to convince those who are engaged in OA that it is not a black/white issue, that there are lots of ambiguities, that far from every author is in favor of it, and, nonetheless, that much has been done already and even more can be achieved to push towards the goal of making at least scholarly knowledge accessible. 

The title is intriguing – it’s another classical reference to sit alongside the name of the charity, Arcadia Fund, which you co-founded with Lisbet Rausing. Arcadia is a poignant name for a charity, harking to an idyll but also evoking wistfulness at its loss. What associations do you hope readers make with Athena Unbound?

The title is a riff on the Shelley play, Prometheus Unbound.  Prometheus was of course the Greek deity who was punished for bringing humans fire/light.  To free the bounty of Athena (goddess of knowledge) is OA’s ambition. 

In the book, you put a lot of weight on the taxpayer argument for open access: the idea that research should be available for the taxpayer to read, since the taxpayer has funded it. You state: ‘Only for content that society has paid for can it also claim access.’ However, this replicates the logic of the paywall – ‘if you pay for it, you can read it’ – and, as you acknowledge in the book, it opens the way to debates about, for example, geolocking access to research for countries that have funded it. Do you find the ‘taxpayer argument’ more persuasive than the more utilitarian or altruistic arguments you also discuss?

Someone has to pay to publish content.  Digitality makes the last copy largely free, but the first still costs money, just as in the analog era.  The arguments for OA based on public utility or altruism are nobly intended, but do not answer the question, who is going to foot the bill to disseminate knowledge.  Since we are all taxpayers, I don’t see this argument as replicating the paywall problem.  As taxpayers, we are all entitled to read the fruits of our investment.  Where are the paywalls in that scenario?

For most scientific scholarship the research and writing has already been paid for by the taxpayer.  For each scientific article published in the US, on average about $275,000 has been spent by government and other funders for the research.  If the cost of an OA article is a publishing charge of $2000, that is less than 1% of the costs it has already incurred.  So why kick up a fuss about having to pay for the last step in the journey from author to reader, viz disseminating it? 

Building on the ‘taxpayer argument’, you also spend a lot of time thinking about the concept of ‘work for hire’ as it relates to an author’s rights, suggesting that ‘Work for hire is the logic of open access’s moral leverage.’ In other words, since tax funds have paid for the research via their funding of universities, the taxpayer should be considered the owner of the work, rather than the author. You suggest that an expansion of the application of this concept might help to accelerate a transition to open access. As you acknowledge, this is a controversial idea that would be likely to meet fierce resistance from authors. Briefly, why do you think it might work? Do you think it is at all likely to happen?

In effect it has already happened.  The majority of university research output stems from the sciences, theoretical or applied.  Ever since they first started publishing articles in the their journals in the 18C, scientists have never been paid for their content.  Nor are they today.  They receive salaries for their work and costs are underwritten by outside funding.  It never occurs to scientists that they should be paid again for their research or its write-up.  (Patentable discoveries are another issue – largely solved to everyone’s satisfaction by profit-sharing agreements between researchers and their universities.)  In other words, scientists are already performing work-for-hire, even if it is not called that.  The only question is when their colleagues in the social sciences and especially humanities will come to see that their position in producing knowledge is analogous. 

You often point out that the challenges for books, and for arts, humanities, and social science subjects, are different when it comes to open access. The Open Access Books Network was founded, in part, because of these differences, and to provide space and time to focus on the particular challenges for books. What strategies do you think are necessary to bring books to the forefront of open access, and to make sure that solutions found in the journal world are not transplanted across unthinkingly?

The solutions found for journals are not in themselves bad, if only they had left some of the research library budgets they gutted to be available for HSS content.  But the scientific publishers have been greedy, and thus either their appetites must be curbed or new monies to pay for disseminating HSS content found.  Books, in turn, present particular problems because they cost more than articles to publish OA, even though of course authors tend to write fewer of them. 

Research libraries are joining forces to pay publishing costs for some books.  Whether they pay $200 each for a hard copy of a scholarly monograph or pool their funds to pay $10,000 to make the work OA is a matter of indifference for their budgets.  But for the world, the contrast is dramatic.  Either you have the work sitting on the shelves of fifty research libraries whose stacks are open only to their own professors and currently-enrolled students.  Or it is available anywhere to anyone with an internet connection, viz 6 billion potential readers and counting.  They money is the same, the outcome dramatically different.  That is one means of solving the problem, what is usually known as subscribe-to-open.

You note that arts, humanities and social sciences academics are often ‘surprisingly ignorant’ about open access, and, later on, that ‘The professoriate is surprisingly uninterested in open access.’ How can this be changed?

Without any change in copyright law or the economics of publishing, it is within the power of the universities to decide that hiring, tenuring, and promotion of its faculty and other researchers should be based on work that is openly available.  That would add a strong incentive for the professoriate to publish OA. 

You also observe that the arts, humanities and social sciences are particularly in need of funding support for open access. Does this help to guide the work of Arcadia Fund?

Arcadia has supported various projects that seek to make work in the HSS openly available.  Digitizing public domain books is just a question of supplying the money for scanning and storing.  For books that remain in copyright, yet are out of print, the Internet Archive and the New York Public Library are both working on projects to make these accessible in digital format – though the recent Hachette ruling does not make this easier.

I found this statement eyebrow-raising: ‘Humanity now produces more information every year than during its entire span from civilization’s beginning to the year 2000.’ What are the drawbacks of this accelerating proliferation of information, and should they give supporters of open access pause for thought?

The growth of knowledge has been going on at least since the Ptolomies founded the library of Alexandria 2000 years ago.  The science boom of the post-WWII era has turbo charged this more general development, but is hardly novel.  Nor does it have anything as such to do with OA, except that OA seeks to make this expanding information available to all. 

I find it hard to think of any drawbacks to having more information than ever.  An embarrassment of riches is certainly preferable to the opposite.  And who is to decide what work deserves to remain and lower the boom on that which isn’t up to snuff?  That effort would be yet another distraction from making use of the surfeit of information we enjoy.  Yes, we will need better tools for filtering, sorting, searching, and evaluating this plethora, lest we are overwhelmed.  These are all minor gripes compared to not having enough information.

At various points, you suggest that the work of publishers might be broken down and its components outsourced to different groups or to smaller commercial companies. Do you think there is a role for the publisher in the future (with the qualification that publishers come in many sizes and stripes) and if so, what is it?

Hard to know if and what role publishers will play.  Many publishers’ tasks (printing, binding, shipping) are becoming largely superfluous in the digital age.  Those activities behind producing the first copy (peer reviewing, editing, copyediting, indexing, and the like) do not necessarily require publishers in the first place – indeed for peer reviewing, publishers neither pay for nor undertake it, but at most organize it.  For commercial content (novels, poetry, popular non-fiction), conventional publishers retain much of their inherited role.  For scholarly knowledge, less so.  The same questions, by the way, apply equally to libraries as publishers.  

Are you broadly optimistic, or pessimistic, about the future of open access? Why?

Both broadly and narrowly, I am optimistic, but only in the way that I am optimistic that a stone dropped from a rooftop will make its way to the ground.  Open access is no longer an aspiration, it is inevitable.  The sciences are already on track to accomplishing it for themselves.  Their publishers have discovered that, whether you sell subscriptions or collect article publishing charges, the money can be just as good.  That, in turn, is thanks to their having gutted research library acquisitions budgets over the past thirty years, leaving the HSS high and dry. 

Research libraries no longer can afford to buy research monographs or HSS periodicals since the scientific journals have raised their costs (whether subscriptions or publishing charges) so as to drain off the bulk of library funds to their bottom lines.  Either scientific publishers’ profit margins and artificially inflated costs will have to be trimmed, or new monies must be found to allow HSS scholarship to be made OA. 

But consider two of the most salient gains from OA.  First, the grotesque inequity of knowledge’s distribution across the globe will be remedied in an OA future.  OA is fundamentally about making content producers pay for its dissemination, rather than consumers, as in the analog system.  Once that is implemented for scholarly knowledge, each nation will then pay for its own output, and receive in return the rest of the world’s for free.  Poor and read-intensive nations will pay little, gain much.  Rich and research-intensive countries will pay to make their output available to everyone.  What is there not to like?  

Second: censoring, restricting, or forbidding works whose views political masters dislike will be made ever more difficult.  Attempts to ban certain books from school libraries in places such as Florida will be increasingly futile the more are available OA.  Short of clamping down on the internet itself, as is done in the Middle East and China, book banning is almost impossible so long as content is freely available online.  Note to authors with something controversial to say: publish your works OA!

CC BY 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.