Kathryn Suhterland's Attack on OA in the THE

From: Andrew A. Adams <a.a.adams_at_READING.AC.UK>
Date: Sat, 9 May 2009 17:32:12 +0100

For those who haven't seen it, Kathryn Sutherland of University of Oxford,
wrote an attack on internet accessible writing and singled out OA for an
ill-conceived polemic in the 30th April issue of the Times Higher Education

THE via tinyurl:

I have submitted a response to this as a letter to the editor today (no idea
if it will be chosen for publication):


Kathryn Sutherland ("Those who disseminate ideas must acknowledge the routes
they travel" - THE 30th April 2009) appears to fundamentally misunderstand
the goals of the Open Access movement. There are many current challenges
faced by academia worldwide that she discusses but her conflation of issues
of the purposes of humanities research, the approach to material, the credit
gained for an author for their writing, the money flowing in academia, and
the various aspects of copyright (the right to attribution, the right to
disseminate copies, the right to make derivative works) is rather a mess. The
worst element for me is the suggestion that Open Access will somehow
automatically and inexorably undermine careful reading of material, and the
attribution of ideas and words to their originator. That is complete
nonsense. It seems the Open Access proponents must repeat in every forum the
basic goal ad infinitum. Open Access is about removing barriers to reading
peer-reviewed journal articles which authors already give away for free. It
is NOT about requiring books for which their author is paid to give the
material away online for free. It is NOT about undermining the peer review
and journal editorial quality controls. it is about making sure that scholars
and scientists worldwide have access to the full output of each other.
Sutherland's complaints of the explosion of material is nothing to do with OA
but with the increase in the number of researchers (based at least partly on
the expansion of the undergraduate population leading to an expansion of
staff numbers and an expansion of research output), the pressure on
researchers to publish (publish-or-perish and least-publishable unit) and the
greed of publishing companies who are starting more journals than ever in an
attempt to cash in on these pressures on staff to publish. Open Access is one
of the solutions to this problem in that too many publications and too many
papers published in them automatically creates an access issue for most
outside the richest universities (almost no university can afford to carry
all academic journals and hence access is restricted for readers at almost
all institutions). Open Access also provides the possibility of a huge
improvement on the issue of academic plagiarism: while electronic versions of
articles may be easier to cut-and-paste into a new work, the length of
academic papers generally has never precluded re-typing anyway, but the huge
array of material published now makes detection by peer review less likely.
However, if all articles were available online without publisher toll gates,
then plagiarism checking could become as easy and automatic for journal
submissions as it is becoming for student essays. Battling
misappropriation/plagiarism, lazy academic writing, lazy academic study is
completely orthogonal to the question of Open Access. This requires academia
to take along hard look at its practices and the pressures that lead to
unethical behaviour. It does not require us to perpetuate restrictions on
access to peer-reviewed publications necessitated by the era of the printing
press and entirely possible to sweep away in the era of the internet.


I have also posted a longer response on my blog at:


In the 30th April 2009 issue (1,894) of the Times Higher Education magazine,
Prof Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford Unviersity wrote an ill-considered and
wrong-headed attack on digital communication in general and on Open Access in
particular titled Those who disseminate ideas must acknowledge the routes
they travel.

In her article, Prof Sutherland claims that easy access to electronic
versions of others' writing automatically leads to a degradation of the
respect for the other as the source of that writing. She makes the serious
mistake of generalising from fiction (and other artistic forms such as
poetry) to scholarly writing. Perhaps as a professor of textual criticism she
feels her won specialism under threat since it must be terribly hard for
someone who has spent their professional life deeply reading a relatively
small number of texts and dissecting them in minute detail down to the word
choices in particular sentences, to realise that even great works of
literature have multiple versions, are often edited by those other than the
original author, and that they may be abridged, adapted, and updated.

She then continues with a claim that "intellectual property rights are
unravelling" and conflates respect for the author's moral rights (to accurate
attribution in particular) with the accessibility and malleability of
electronic materials. She seems so deeply mired in the Continental concept of
copyright as a moral right that she ignores the fact that the dominant factor
in intellectual property as it concerns copyright is financial rights. The
right to attribution is under greater threat from the overly strong claims of
copyright middlemen which have caused the expansion of copyright so far
beyond the idea/expression dichotomy that any new work is fraught with the
peril of being accused of stealing someone else's ideas. Sometimes the courts
get it right, as in the case of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh who sued
Dan Brown, claiming that his novel The Da Vince Code was a breach of their
copyright in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. All creative work is based
upon the ideas of others: that\u2019s what culture is, the mixing of the
ideas of everyone around you to create new combinations. Dan Brown no more
needed to give Baigent and Leigh credit for The Da Vince Code than he needed
to give George Lucas and Steven Speilberg credit for the idea of an academic
having adventures on an archaeological quest.

Sutherland then goes on to claim that the capability to search throug large
amounts of data, link pieces to one another, and cut-and-paste elements
together are somehow a bad thing and that they automatically undermine our
ability to "read thoughtfully and in the round, which involves hearing and
respecting all the voices". Is it really disrespectful to Jane Austen to be
able to cross-reference satire in her work on the manners of the day to a
book of etiquette explaining exactly the manners she parodied? Austen's work
was written for readers who knew the manners she parodied. Modern readers
live in an Undiscovered Country from Austen's point of view and as such do
not share the same background knowledge as the readers she wrote for. Such
cross-linking is not only emphatically not a degradation of Austen's work but
allows precisely the reading in the round and respect for all the voices that
Sutherland claims modern communications undermines. Now, like all technology,
it is possible to use it well and use it badly. Technology disrupts culture,
but usually the doors it opens are far more beneficial if used well than the
negative consequences. As academics we must strive to find these beneficial
methods and disseminate their use, not cry over the spilt milk for the
halcyon days of our youth when things were simpler and easier.

Sutherland then progresses further, warming to her lightly disguised luddite
theme, and attacks the Open Access movement. She does this with verve and a
complete misapprehension of what Open Access is about, in common with many of
its academic critics, even down to the origination of the Open Access
movement. She claims that it began in Physics with the need to share large
amounts of data and is aimed at providing access to all data instead of just
a subsection. This is untrue in every single respect. Open Access is not
principally about publishing more data than will fit in a print journal
article. Many proprietary journals now offer online appendices (behind their
electronic toll gates as is the main article behind both print and electronic
toll gates) which answer the question of full data distribution just as well
as Open Access. Open Access did not solely originate in Physics. All
scholarly fields have had the concept of the offprint for many years, and the
concept of inter-library loans is nothing more than a sneaker-net version of
Open Access. Computer Science as a discipline began to place text files and
then postscript versions of published (i.e. accepted or even already printed
in peer-reviewed journals) on ftp servers from the early 80s. The central
paper depositing of the Physics ArXiv is a separate development to this and
forms another of the historical strands of the OA movement. However, the
ArXiv's place as a place to put pre-reviewed material remains rooted in the
highly mathematical fields. There are some good reasons for this which I
don't want to go into here, but which boil down to the fact that rigorous
mathematical proof is incredibly hard and that getting more eyes than three
or four reviewers on one\u2019s mathematical proofs as early as possible is
very useful.

And so we come to Sutherland's claim that Open Access is not useful to the
humanities. Well, speaking as a cross-disciplinary scholar whose academic
papers reference texts from psychology, law, anthropology, computer science,
neuroscience, art, literature and many others, I call this rubbish. While a
professor at a University with one of the world's largest copyright libraries
may find that every paper she needs to read (but given her misconceptions of
Open Access, this is a privilege she does not use to investigate concepts
before writing polemic THE pieces). For the rest of us, however, even those
living and working only thirty minutes from Oxford by train, Open Access is
what is needed. I waste ridiculous amounts of time trying to track down
references online sitting behind publishers' toll gates sometimes to find
that the third or fourth gateway I try has access for people form my
university, and sometimes to find that it would cost me $50 to seee an
article whose abstract does not tell me whether it is worth my time actually
reading it, let alone paying $50 for the privilege.

Before criticising Open Access, Prof Sutherland should have taken her own
advice and read "thoughtfully and in the round \u2026 hearing and respecting
all the voices." Her conflation of electronic communication and Open Access
with academic plagiarism is simply not supported by the evidence. What is
supported by significant evidence is the rather obvious point that before
one's academic work can be read thoughtfully and cited correctly, it must be
available to the reader. It is physically and financially impossible for all
unviersities to provide easy physical access to all journal publications. It
is also necessary for those working in inter- and multi-disciplinary fields
to be able to follow references back and forward from a starting point to
gain a sufficient grasp of the current thinking in related work to produce a
synthesis. The cozy narrow work of Sutherland, combined with her immensely
privileged position at Oxford may mean that she does not need Open Access,
but the rest of us do, and it is also her academic duty to provide her work
to others as broadly as possible, where that costs her nothing and her
institution next-to-nothing (in terms of a Univerrsity's mission an IR costs
next to nothing and brings great benefits because their outputs are visible
to all).

Academic plagiarism has nothing whatsoever to do with Open Access, except in
that more material being available by Open Access should allow automatic
plagiarism checking of the same sort that we now use for student work.

Dr Andrew A Adams, School of Systems Engineering
The University of Reading, Reading, RG6 6AY, UK
Tel:44-118-378-6997 E-mail:a.a.adams_at_rdg.ac.uk
Received on Sun May 10 2009 - 01:39:22 BST

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