Like most humanists, I believe that the free circulation of knowledge and ideas is a good thing. Knowledge, like fresh air and water, should be available to all, bringing well-being to those exposed to it. The unrestricted transmission of ideas and discoveries enriches us all, just as their hoarding produces intellectual stagnation. To hold back the sharing of ideas ultimately harms their owners as much as it hurts those deprived of the ideas, creating a climate of scarcity and suspicion.
I also believe, with equal fervor, that free labor is not a good thing. Except when it is offered as a gift, out of friendship or charity, labor should receive fair compensation. Such a notion seems almost too obvious to require stating, and I cannot imagine that many readers of this feminist publication would disagree.
These two convictions pull me in opposite directions when I consider the issue of open access. At the core of this tension is our dual understanding of the word "free" as unrestricted but also as uncompensated. Although I am excited by the idea of free—meaning unrestricted—access to the products of intellectual labor, my position as the editor of a scholarly journal in the field of literature leaves me deeply concerned about the long-term impact open access will have on the notion that intellectual endeavor should be free in the sense of freely offered, uncompensated. The widespread defunding that research, teaching, and publishing in the liberal arts have suffered, through the withdrawal of government support and through cuts within university budgets, makes this problem increasingly urgent. My worry is that the old adage, "You get what you pay for," may end up too accurately describing humanities scholarship, resulting in a situation where the quality of scholarship declines or where we pay more—literally and figuratively, collectively but also individually—than we have under more traditional funding models.
The open access movement, which strives to make scholarly work freely available through distribution on the Internet, has been underway for about a decade now. It seems appropriate to present a definition of this term from its entry in Wikipedia, arguably the quintessential open access resource, with its infinite and continual openness to revision-in-the-moment:
Open access (OA) is the practice of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly research. . . . The two most common ways [End Page 7] to provide open access are through self-archiving, also known as 'green' open access, and open access journals, known as 'gold' open access. With green open access authors publish in any journal and then self-archive a version of the article for gratis public use in their institutional repository, in a central repository (such as PubMed Central), or on some other open access website.1
Open access clearly is a well intentioned and important movement, advocating for the free circulation of ideas in a world where the means and scope of information transmission have been changed dramatically by the World Wide Web.
The opening of the Max Planck Society's "Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities," one of three major statements on open access made by scientific and scholarly bodies at the beginning of this millennium, makes clear what is at stake in advocacy for open access:
The Internet has fundamentally changed the practical and economic realities of distributing scientific knowledge and cultural heritage. For the first time ever, the Internet now offers the chance to constitute a global and interactive representation of human knowledge, including cultural heritage and the guarantee of worldwide access.2
Such declarations constitute a push against the threat of a World Wide Web in which the transmission of all information has a price, enriching the few possessors of proprietary knowledge while leaving many in intellectual and financial poverty. These efforts seem especially understandable and important as a response to the exorbitantly expensive institutional subscription prices that some journals—especially in the fields of science, medicine, and technology—and some for-profit aggregators now charge.3
In addition to bypassing obstacles that prevent...