Open access for scholarly publications, part 14 – Academic freedom

The National Library of Sweden has held the appropriation directive from the Swedish Government to produce recommendations for the change to an open access scholarly publication system. These recommendations are presented by Henrik Schmidt, librarian here at KIB, in a series of blog posts.

During the spring of 2019, the National Library presented the results of five investigations into open access of research results to the Swedish government. They also published a summative final report. The final report discusses one recurring objection to the requirements and guidelines presented by research funding agencies and research policy actors: that steering the scientific publishing system towards open access encroaches upon academic freedom. Academic freedom, in this context, means that you can publish wherever, whenever and however you wish.

Moreover academic freedom is a central component in the relationship between universities and (funding) state power, however it´s difficult to define. A key source here is the premise that Wilhelm von Humboldt suggested a long time ago that there is a relationship between freedom and knowledge. If freedom is restricted, opportunities to create new knowledge are also restricted. This idea is “regulated” in the Magna Charta Universitatum, a document signed by many universities, including Karolinska Institutet.

In Sweden, most people engaged in the ”business” of academia would likely defend what is generally meant by the term academic freedom. Roughly speaking, in this context, academic freedom means that teachers and researchers independently decide what kind of teaching and research they wish to engage in. In the Swedish Higher Education Act (only in Swedish , the concept of academic freedom is not mentioned, but the content is prescribed in paragraph six: ”that research problems are freely chosen, research methods freely developed, and research results freely published.” Rights prescribed by law are not, of course, always practiced. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a university environment knows that research and education are both surrounded by a host of ethical, political, economic, organizational and ideological frames and guidelines. Every restriction of a university employee’s choices cannot be regarded as an encroachment on academic freedom.

The risk with the ”Humboldtian” ideal is that you can lose your grip on reality. We can call this the ”risk of the ivory tower.” For it is not unreasonable to claim that both education and the formation of new knowledge should correspond to the practical and theoretical challenges society faces. Is this an imminent risk in Sweden? Hardly. Swedish universities, including KI, have a generally positive attitude toward, and want to develop their collaboration with, local, regional and (inter)national communities, without for that reason losing either their integrity or their autonomy.

Some maintain that the opposition between academic freedom and societal use-value is misleading. They claim that it is the autonomy of universities, in it self, that guarantees that education and knowledge production contributes to societal development in the best possible way.

No problems at all, then? Well, there’s some chafing between research funding agencies and research policy agents’ demands that publicly financed research on the one hand be immediately open and available to all, and on the other, individual researchers’ freedom to publish their results wherever they wish. The question is as follows: should a government funder make its resources conditional in such a way that it ensures research results will be accessible to all? Or to put this slightly differently, should a government funder make its resources conditional in such a way that it limits individual researchers’ ability to publish wherever they choose?

In the investigation on steering of and resource allocation to Swedish state higher education institutions (Strut) (in Swedish with a summary in English) from 2019, the overarching purpose for universities and university colleges can be summarized “as the creation, preservation and transmission of knowledge for a better world.” Steering of resource allocation should promote academic freedom, while at the same time, the knowledge and competence created is expected to meet specific needs in the society. Both the Strut-investigation and the National Library’s final report refer to norms that fall under the acronym CUDOS, which among other things maintains that science should be collectively owned and accessible to all in order to promote collaboration and critical review. Perhaps an open access publishing system fits this norm better than one that is closed, subscription-based? According to the Strut-investigation, the possibility for different actors in society to engage in research results only published in subscription-based journals is limited, which is why ”open access to scientific publications is a high priority question” (p.116).

What about practically? Can researchers freely choose which journal they want to publish in? Not really. Both journals and experts can limit that choice. Guidelines and recommendations around choice of journal also influences researchers’ choices, not least if they are connected to an allocation of resources. Interestingly, for this context, is that in Germany, researchers’ choices are regarded as free when it comes to choosing whether or not to publish. But if the results are published, they must be accessible to everyone. Norway’s Higher Education Act insists on safeguarding open access to research results, and furthermore that researchers must make their results public: ”skal sørge for at slik offentliggjøring skjer.”

Overall, one message to take away from KB´s entire investigation is that those of us involved in the publishing system need to work hard to generate a situation where individual researchers can freely choose where to publish, but, at the same time, that the chosen channel can deliver an open and immediate access to the results. If we can succeed with the transition to an open access scholarly publication system, then the contradiction disappears. And we are well on our way, not least here at KI. Our (KIB’s) latest follow up analysis suggests that around 70 percent of KI´s scientific articles are freely accessible via the Internet within a year after publication; this analysis was conducted in January 2020. The number 70 percent suggests we’re on the right path, but also that we’re not there yet.

Recommendation 14 reads as follows: That the relevant authority be commissioned on a national level to follow up the status of open access research articles.

Find out more about the description of and argument in favour of this recommendation in the report: Ekonomiskt och tekniskt stöd till tidskrifter som publicerar med öppen tillgång (only in Swedish). Here you can also find the final report where the transition to open access is contextualized.

All blog posts in this series

Henrik Schmidt

Librarian engaged in research support in various forms. Teaches doctoral students and researchers in areas related to literature search, publishing strategies and publication analysis.