The early years of the current decade were momentous for UK scholarly communication practices. They saw the lead-up to and subsequent fallout from the Finch Report,1 and governmental hearings into research communication practices,2 along with the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) implementing mandates supportive of open access (OA) practice. Yet, with a practice arising from the digital disruptive impacts to legacy research publication models, it has often been taken for granted within prior discourse that OA represents an ideological ‘self-evident’ good.3 Nevertheless, when this research began in 2012, despite over a decade of concerted effort by librarians, repository managers,4 scholars5 and other actors,6, 7 OA practitioners frequently reported that local academic communities displayed limited or reluctant engagement with the various emerging open dissemination forms. Pro-OA progress was seemingly not progressing as rapidly as might be desirable. Indeed, the Finch Report itself was partly predicated on observations which suggested that, despite the UK’s primacy in high-quality research output production8 and investments in OA infrastructure,9 the country lagged behind comparable developed nations.
Hence, a research project was initiated to attempt a re-examination of the UK scholarly communication praxis, and especially to explore the underlying cultural challenges, power-relationships and OA practitioner responses towards achieving a progressive development of open research publication practices. The intention was, through an empirical examination, to create a rich, revelatory and narrative overview of the OA activities, actors and responses specifically within the UK higher education environment. This environment was one whose actors, activities and relationships were rationalized as a discrete entity after Bourdieu’s work conceptualizing fields,10 as representing a ‘field of academic publication’. Moreover, to create a novel assessment, the work drew primarily upon the humanities research traditions, contrasting with the largely scientific-swerving research discourse11 in this field. It was accepted that the UK Academy is not a homogeneous entity, and represents only one of a myriad actors operating within this field. Nevertheless, the research aimed to expose the prevailing everyday cultural myths and belief systems as a coherent narrative.
The initial fieldwork supporting this research sought to provide a baseline of current cultural publishing practices and norms. This was to be established through an ethnographically framed critical exploration of the institutional OA practitioner community’s perceptions of scholarly engagement, resistance and comprehension of OA praxis. This article presents a summary of the findings from this viewpoint, focusing on the perceived obstacles to greater academic community uptake of OA. While providing a contextual baseline, this work also developed communication networks to support further fieldwork with publishing actors. Additionally, it was intended that interviewees would benefit through participation, by being offered an opportunity to critically reflect on their day-to-day experiences. This article therefore also partly recompenses their generous participation and goals of a greater cultural embrace of OA.
In response to these issues, an ethnographically framed series of fieldwork engagements with OA practitioners was adopted. Ethnography incorporates a variety of participatory and observational methods, and focuses on uncovering overlooked, mundane and everyday knowledge and behaviours which expose a community’s inner workings.12 Understanding how a community operates, and what its members know concerning its functioning, language and norms, and contextualizing this within an intellectual framework, is challenging. Contrasted with reductionist, quantitative approaches, which seek to enumerate a complex, analogue reality, creating such a representative narrative through ethnographic methods requires often time-consuming acquisition and processing of a considerable amount of data. Consequentially, the rich narrative tapestry typically produced must be subjected to a lengthy, deeper, critical analysis before hidden themes emerge. This narrative summary is normally augmented through representational quotes from participants. Some dismiss narrative evidence as valueless, suggesting results demonstrate researcher bias.13, 14 Foucault would counter that subjectivity is endemic within all research, which is only validated when researchers clearly articulate their own epistemological stance within its reporting.15 Thus, researchers must embrace a ‘self-reflexivity’, wherein their socio-political and epistemological positions are evident throughout data capture and analysis.16 Ethically, researchers must also represent participants’ insights credibly and rigorously, albeit while supplying additional context via their own theoretical lens.17 Findings should ideally undergo member validation, where participant groups review interim conclusions to clarify and augment findings, and consequently interim results from this work were shared.18 However, given the potentially revelatory disclosures arising, ethnographic researchers must be sensitive when publicly representing participant perceptions. Hence, partly for this reason, attributable quotes have not been included here in favour of a narrative summary.
A qualitative semi-structured cultural interviewing method19 was used for data collection. This is a conversational, non-confrontational and naturalistic method which can yield considerable in-depth insights alongside contextual information, and is especially suitable where investigators possess some native understanding of participants’ ‘life-worlds’.20 As the OA practitioner community largely comprised former and current academic librarians, a community of which the author was once a member, this offered an appropriate approach. Semi-structured interviewing is a flexible and adaptable data collection tool, as the exact wording and sequence of questions can be varied. Additionally, the rich source of first-hand perceptions collected, termed a ‘thick description’, contrasted with quantitative survey methods, which risk intellectually dominating outcomes through preconceptions and assumptions. Transcripts also provide a rich source of material for later re-examination and can provide further insights without additional data collection. Conversely, interviewing can be time-consuming in data collection, transcription and analysis, and hence these drawbacks must be weighed against its benefits. In execution, interviewers follow a questioning outline script, permitting spoken exchanges to naturally flow between topics, while dynamically responding to unexpected conversational developments. Throughout, a tonal informality is maintained, which is beneficial in eliciting participant trust and achieving sufficiently revelatory exchanges.21
It was concluded that leading university-based practitioners would be best placed to provide cultural native insights into institutional publishing, dissemination and administrative activities, while simultaneously contextualizing local behavioural norms. During the latter half of 2013, 125 UK universities were approached, with specific individuals selected via a mixture of personal recommendation, direct approach and, latterly, snowball sampling (acquiring new interviewees through prior-participant referrals).22 Pre-interview exchanges clarified the purpose of the research and participants’ contributions before participation consent was agreed. Over six months, practitioners at 81 universities were interviewed, representing a broad institutional demographic spread in terms of research intensity, location and organizational size. Interviewees were encouraged to provide genuine perceptions, rather than representing official institutional positions, to ensure an authentic picture of local OA activities could be derived. Questions explored their perceptions of institutional activities and strategic responses, local academic engagement, challenges and sources of ideological and operational influence. Many participants answered aspects without prompting, although probing and encouragement were necessary to guide less forthcoming subjects. Sessions were recorded and transcribed, which given some participants’ loquacity was more time-consuming than anticipated. Intriguingly, participants responded well to all areas of questioning, although some struggled to identity those influential actors most affecting publishing behaviours. Identifying influential actors was crucial for later research focusing on the power-relationship networks, along with deeper questions of hegemonic dominance and resistance within the field of academic publishing.23
Data analysis saw transcripts initially undergo close reading then qualitative content analysis (QCA), before analysis through ideological critique. Repeated close transcript reading immerses researchers within narrative data, increasing familiarity with explicit themes, concepts and perceptions, but also permits implicit nuances and latent meanings to manifest.24 QCA does not represent an analytical technique but is a systematic and flexible data segmentation method, aiding the comprehension of themes present. This, through an iterative coding process, permits the evolution of effective and authentic data descriptions. QCA also enhances comprehension of the data’s complexity, allowing key themes to be summarized without adopting an overtly reductionist stance, and enabling the identification of quotes relating to specific themes, which helps to authentically illustrate ethnographic results. An ideological critique approach was then embraced, which bases its evaluation upon primarily socio-political and socio-economic issues and provides a lens for exposing underlying messages.25 Such exposed ideologically framed messages are generally so natural within the cultures where they are expressed, they are generally imperceptible to informants. Yet, such messages are emblematic of underlying influences within a culture which shape people’s thoughts and activities. Culture here was defined as the UK Academy, comprising the institutions, scholars and support staff engaged in research dissemination practices within British universities. One of the most effective and well-established ideological critiques derives from Marxist thinking, centring on exposing the capitalist modes of production and dominance enshrined within all societal strata, which redistribute and concentrate wealth within a capitalist elite’s hands. Capital, within the scholarly publication field, derives partly from finances but also from the commodification of productive intellectual immaterial labour.26 Notably, autonomous Marxist ideas concerning the predatory, depossessing transformation of common capital into private property strongly resonate with the actions of a heavily commercialized publishing sector built upon scholars’ intellectual labour. While detailing the bespoke intellectual framework underpinning this research would exceed the scope of this article, briefly, the data were critiqued through a Marxist lens, informed through Foucault’s thought on power-relations,27 and Gramsci and Foucault’s insights on dominance and resistance.28
Analysis revealed broad themes centring on OA activities and discourse, perceptions of publishing policies, motivational drivers, influential actors and, crucially, obstacles to the adoption of open praxis. While each theme yielded valuable insights for later work, participants indicated particular interest in the configuration of barriers to the academic community embracing OA. Since developing a greater understanding of these barriers also represented a research goal, this paper will focus on exploring them.
Notably, while participants represented an array of potential mechanistic, policy or legal blocks, it was the academic community’s knowledge of and attitudes towards OA that were shown to present the greatest obstacles. Despite the endeavours of OA practitioners who were devoted to advocacy, the majority of scholars’ understanding or embrace of openness within research dissemination practice was found to be ‘patchy’, ‘ill-informed’ or ‘confused’. Consequently, a picture of the UK academy was presented wherein the reluctance of academics to engage with OA was predicated on an underlying lack of sound information about it. Such reluctance was underscored by academic preferences for retaining time-honoured dissemination practices, especially through channels considered the most apposite within their fields, regardless of their permitting OA dissemination or not.
Some perceptions were expressed that the retention of legacy, traditional publishing practices was a consequence of counter-OA advocacy from commercial scholarly publishing actors. Simultaneously, various participants demonstrated perceptions that reluctance to change was not simply a personal choice, but reflected an underlying cultural imperative, with clearly demarcated local disciplinary boundaries. Demonstrably, some resonance with Marx’s concept of false consciousness,29 a blinding of the self to economic and social rationality whilst adhering to a more ‘accepted’ norm, was clearly evidenced within UK scholarly communities. Notably though, perceptions of STEM scholars ‘leading the charge’ to OA, contrasted with arts, humanities and social science scholars lagging behind, were not evidenced, with cultural adoption or reluctance tangible across all disciplinary realms. Allied to these cultural barriers were also perceptions of workload challenges, where the need for additional effort to better understand or adapt to new patterns of dissemination diminished academics’ engagement. Understandably in the neo-liberalized and marketized Academy,30 the challenge for academics to demonstrably compete, produce and excel was seen to be producing scholarly publishing practices increasingly shaped through time pressure and performance measure, rather than ideological desires. That such perceptions were strongly represented across the Academy is concerning not solely for OA, but also for the embrace of any new scholarly practice paradigm not directly associated with a form of institutionally advantageous measure. Competition and marketization of scholarly communication channels was also perceptible as an ideological and practical barrier to OA, as scholars perceived dangers to learned society publications. Already squeezed by the actions of competitive commercial publishers, OA could ‘threaten established publisher relationships’ or ‘diminish publication choice’ through the folding of publications that were no longer viable as a result. Thus, OA became conceptualized as an existential danger threatening the viability of future scholarly publication, and consequently a source of active resistance to change.
Understandably, issues with academic knowledge about OA were seen as a blockage, although advocacy itself was failing to connect with scholars, with its ineffectuality representing an obstacle. Despite concerted efforts, an increase in practitioner numbers and improved resources to aid in reaching out to scholars, the suggestion that more advocacy could resolve this issue was dismissed by participants as a facile idea. Indeed, being able to perceive publication issues from the academic community’s perspective represented a related issue. Notably, in terms of established practices, external and internal policy drivers along with competing priorities presented a massive challenge for practitioners in trying to gain a sufficient understanding of academic researchers’ cultural imperatives (‘Weltanschauung’).31 Nevertheless, the technological interactions required for all OA forms, from repository deposits to funded-gold payment systems, were seen as specifically procedural challenges to an academic community configured by participants as time poor, reluctant and under-informed. While the academics’ implicit and explicit objections to OA were central to this work’s enquiry, curiously scholars were perceived to be freely engaging in greater numbers with ‘easier’ open sharing online services. Despite their contents and arguably questionably licit nature, platforms such as ResearchGate or Academia.Edu seemingly offered tempting propositions, albeit reinforcing practitioners’ conception of scholars as lacking in genuine comprehension of publishing licensing and permissions.
Practitioners also perceived a wealth of policy-derived barriers, although notably little resistance or reluctance was witnessed as stemming from RCUK, HEFCE or other funder mandates, which during the fieldwork were relatively new entities. Nevertheless, some foresaw future dysfunctions arising from overlapping and contradictory funder mandates. Later work with research funders would reveal a strong preference for the systematic unification of policy terms, nationally and internationally. However, the implications of greater capital consequences relating to publication outputs were reflected in concerns over the increased significance that senior institutional managers, pro-vice-chancellors for research and equivalents were beginning to play in publishing practices. In this respect, participants anticipated the instigation of RCUK block grants to institutions could revalorize the importance of OA dissemination at a senior institutional level. Yet, senior academics’ inaction or focus upon other areas (e.g. REF metrics) was also perceived to trump any beneficial agency fostering institutional open dissemination cultures. It is likely that such policies may have inadvertently diminished some OA forms, and later conversations with practitioners intimated that senior focus has remained on achieving income streams rather than fostering more egalitarian or ideologically derived publication practices.32
Finally, participants exposed barriers originating within the scholarly OA community itself as they perceived a siloing of their work and a concomitant diminution of agency, within their organizations. Moreover, a perceived separation between practitioners and senior institutional policymakers meant a fracturing of message, methods and modes within many organizations, compounding issues of academic understanding of OA. Such silos were also sometimes evident between OA research practitioners and people working with other OA forms (e.g. data or education). Individuals might share compatible outlooks, and could benefit practically by collectively and collaboratively enhancing each other’s agency.
These results have presented a broad brush of the challenges faced in developing a greater cultural adoption of OA within the UK Academy. Achieving authentic cultural change, especially within as complex a cultural environment as the Academy was always a proposition fraught with difficulty. Yet, because of the importance of research dissemination not only to scholars but also for the UK’s economic and societal growth, overcoming these issues has been tackled by governmental and policy bodies, along with practitioners and OA advocates. Hence, unsurprisingly, this work exposed a multitude of barriers to the Academy’s adoption of OA across UK institutions. Nevertheless, in representing the scale and scope of the ideological, practical, informational and cultural problems, the enormity of the challenge that practitioners face in effecting change becomes more evident. The scale of such variety does partly reflect the breadth of institutions included within this study. Certainly, from the QCA coding, it was possible to identify that no single institution witnessed all of these challenges simultaneously. Conversely, no institution suffered from only a singular obstacle, representing that achieving changes in academic publishing practices is clearly a multifactorial problem.
The barriers discussed above are those most frequently encountered, although other more culturally bespoke barriers were witnessed in a smaller proportion of institutions. Nevertheless, this complexity of barriers reveals the difficulties in understanding the underlying causes of cultural resistance endemic to the OA environment. Resolving them is not a task which can be reduced to a single explanation, nor resolved through a singular solution. This does not negate the efforts of funding mandates, policy or educational and advocacy campaigns to drive greater adoption of OA praxis, as practitioners reported these were impacting successfully in some quarters. Perhaps regrettably, adoption achieved through policy compliance derives more from a configuration of begrudging pragmatism, rather than the community-driven, ideological embrace of praxis which many activists might desire. In this regard, cultural change has been achieved, but only in a more limited sense, rather than authentic cultural embrace of the broad spectrum of potential open dissemination forms. Such a pragmatic shift has already been strongly evidenced within the Academy, with the increasing focus on satisfying funded-gold models and related protocols becoming a de facto normative institutional state.
Moreover, there is a likely interdependence between the operation of these barriers, where resolving one risks creating another. Scholars’ publishing habits may be altered through the application of mandated requirements to disseminate through open channels, which may require support to meet APC funded-gold costs. Where these are lacking, some scholars might be denied the chance to publish in their organ of choice, thus in turn souring perceptions of OA practices. Notably, such potential stratification of scholarship was a theme later work with academics highlighted as a genuine concern and potentially a disruptive threat to scholarly research practices. Hence, the uncertain cascade of events which might emerge in resolving challenges to OA cultural adoption can potentially introduce a sense of paralysis through the fear, uncertainty and doubt of potential outcomes.
Barriers relating to the academic community’s epistemological understanding of open dissemination practices are another complex area, where many established cultural myths have gained an agency within the field. There remained a strong perception among some practitioners that such knowledge gaps were intensified by attempts at deliberate misinformation by external actors. Understandably, some actors who believe open dissemination modes, models or methods could imperil their own hegemonic field dominance might make efforts to reshape praxis to better suit their needs. However, such moves are less concerned with specifically countering or neutering OA practices, but are rather more concerned with rearticulating the field’s power-relationships to ensure a continued hegemonic dominance and, for some, profitability. While it is reductionist to suggest such actors are only those profiteering from academic immaterial labour, practitioners generally perceived it to be these capitalistically configured entities. Although, later work engaging with such actors demonstrated not a duality, but a plurality of ideologies, policies and practices which shaped the publication field.
Nevertheless, in espousing academic knowledge gaps as key barriers, it must also be acknowledged that efforts to resolve these issues by practitioners have long formed a key strand in creating their own institutional agency and value. Consequently, a degree of critical caution must be noted in representing this as a significant barrier, as practitioners may, inadvertently, be valorizing and validating their contributions. The argument might go that, if academics remain ill-informed, indifferent and reluctant to engage with OA practices, then naturally effort should be expended to resolve this problem by expert actors within their institution. Within the neo-liberalized Academy, where metric, measure and competition perniciously suffuses the environment, such inherent self-valorization is understandable. Nevertheless, within this study, any such practitioner valorization was indeed inadvertent.
This ethnographic research set out to provide a broad grounding narrative outlining the cultural practices, conflicts and progress of the adoption of OA dissemination practices by the UK Academy. What it uncovered was a narrative of a field in a state of dynamic flux, responding to an increasingly externalized fiscal and policy imperative, alongside a diminishing drive from an ideologically derived OA praxis towards a state of normalized pragmatism. Nevertheless, the interviews clearly established strong perceptions of the multitude of barriers that practitioners’ perceived to be forestalling cultural shifts towards a greater academic embrace of OA practices. Academics, like anyone, are susceptible to having their opinions and practices influenced by other actors. Some may even have retreated into a sense of false consciousness, secure and comfortable in dealing with more familiar scholarly communication modes. Any reluctance to switch is understandable, even more so when the political-economic reality of competing for research investment, career progression and professional esteem are considered.
Hence, within a post-Finch UK Academy, while considerable strides towards a far greater prominence of OA were evidenced, simultaneously less beneficial impacts originating from higher education’s ongoing neo-liberalization were also perceptible. In this respect, these neo-liberal influences were serving to deflect, distort or diminish any authentic revolutionary impact of OA on publishing practices. These impacts were evident not only on academic publishing habits, but also upon practitioners’ activities. Consequently, the UK Academy’s OA research dissemination praxis was perceptibly, and perhaps irrevocably, shifting from an era of activism-derived practice to an age of pragmatism-defined practice. Questions concerning academic perceptions and, crucially, the configuration and impact of influences of identified field actors on them, present worthy topics for further exploration.33
Since this work was conducted, the policy environment concerning OA has continued to evolve, impacting on its practices. Yet, subsequent conversations with disparate practitioners in recent years underlined how they still faced disparate barriers, complications and complexities, particularly impacts from the coupling of REF metrics to a holistic adoption of OA praxis within their academic communities. Were this study repeated today, it is anticipated that, while specific issues will have evolved, new challenges remain yet to be answered.