The spectre of corporatism in academic libraries, or, Beall has Gone Bananas.

Jeffrey Beall has essentially discredited himself.  The time has come to take his important work in identifying predatory publishers from him, and run another list, one that can be trusted.

There is a spectre haunting the scholarly communication system – corporatism.

Oh all right, paraphrasing the communist manifesto is a wee bit OTT – or is it?  I have a lot of time for Jeffrey Beall, maintainer of “Beall’s List” of predatory academic publishers.  That its called “Beall’s list” should tell you something (rather than ‘the list of predatory publishers’).  Its a useful and provocative resource, shaming businesses that are duping naive academics into paying article processing charges for publishing in mimic high profile journals.  He’s exposing a rort, and for that I forgive him a certain amount of self aggrandisement.  Actually, quite a lot.  Personally, though he’s not Matthew Inman, I’d throw some money in a defense fund if necessary.

His recent article, “The Open-Access Movement is Not Really about Open Access”, however, is quite revealing about his attitudes about the OA ‘movement’.  I’m not sure he realises, but this is a pretty standard tract made by libertarians, or those generally on the right of the labour movement about progressive labour tendencies.  His argument boils down to the following: the OA movement is really a monolithic stalking horse behind which there is a cabal wanting to establish centralised control of academic publishing.  Which is, of course, nonsense.

It’s a pity, because the moderates that support OA will see him as a bit of a loony, and will no longer trust his good work on predatory publishing.  Those on the libertarian right will think he’s entertainingly provocative, and those on the infantile left (to borrow from Lenin) will see him as a traitor.

I’m using a political frame of reference in my critique as, well, he started it. He claims that ‘political correctness’ drives OA,  much as it obviously runs academia in general.  Obviously no social scientist, Beall has taken some leads from Fox News and claims that OA is “an anti-corporatist movement that wants to deny the freedom of the press to companies it disagrees with”.  Many will come after me with a  detailed critique of this, but the points that fundamentally undermine this entire jeremiad are:

  • OA is not a movement.  Movements require organisation and leaders (just ask Occupy 🙂  No one has pictures of Stefan Hanard hanging above their repository server.  (and if you do, that would actually be quite funny).
  • OA is not anti-corporatist.  Just because there is a fundamental change in the business models for scholarly publishing doesn’t mean there is a communist conspiracy designed to destroy Elsevier.  The journal that published this article uses Open Source software on a commercial ISP.  Ironic, much?
  • How does making more information freely available deny anyone ‘freedom of the press’?  I mean, seriously, WTF?

Now, just to out my own political predilections, I’m a bourgeois individualist left liberal with anarchist pretentions.  I’m left enough to have a sneaking regard for Lenin, Lennon and Trotsky, programs and party building, but GenX enough to have a deep suspicion of all boomer bureaucracy. I’m all for ripping down capitalism, but its doing a pretty good job of it for itself.  If every article I upload into my repository was a chip against inequality and a blow for freedom of opportunity, that would be lovely.  If you scratch deep enough under any librarian’s facade (or get them drunk enough) I think you’ll find something similar.  Are we enough of a force to create a cabal of OA zealots, with shock troops in every academic library secretly sworn to the destruction of commercial academic publishing?  I hope so, but no-one invited me.  In truth the downfall of the profiteering publishers was their own making: by creating unsustainable businesses that forgot who their customer was – the people paying for the research in the first place – taxpayers and consumers.  Y’know, us.

I’ve been in the free/libre software milieu long enough to recognise that some people with interesting ideas can also be a bit nutty.  Eric Raymond (who Beall should read sometime) has really interesting ideas on how an essentially anarchist approach to software development is fun, productive AND profitable.  And he’s a gun-totin’ libertarian nutjob.  Beall is welcome to write, and  his article will provide students with a useful critical lever to examine ideas of openness.

However, this article does much to damage his reputation as a even handed player in the community.  He is obviously angry about many things, and this tirade outs himself as politically motivated against the libre parts of the OA phenomenon.  I suggest therefore, that his work on the list of predatory publishers be taken over by a group that are a little less openly provocative, and might be able to maintain a reputation for cool headed disinterest.  I think I just ruled myself out of doing it as well!

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