Open Access

When thinking about open and free there are important questions to be asked around issues of access.

Image: Brian Sims CC BY 2.0; Wikimedia Commons

From a theoretical and regulatory perspective, assumptions around terms like ‘open’ and ‘free’ should be critiqued and challenged regularly. 

The system of scholarly knowledge production needs to be critically reflective in practice and active in championing equitable access to information within our societies.

The internet has transformed how we do business. To function, this new space for exchange and enterprise needs to remain open and paradoxically ‘free’.  But how much has really changed? Globally, a culture of commodification pervades, with over half the world’s wealth in the hands of just 1% of the population. (Treanor, 2015)

There are instances where the world wide web has contested this status quo. For example, “participatory media played a key role in the movement” of the Occupy Wall Street campaign. (Milner, 2013) Similarly, the day the internet went black in protest of the proposed SOPA and PIPA laws shows that the web creates opportunity for civic action to push back against commercial and political interests.

Aaron Swartz played a significant role in the SOPA and PIPA protest. His biography, as presented in the film The Internet’s Own Boy, is a sad but powerful tale. It demonstrates how significant the barriers to a socially-interested open web really are. It also makes evident that a cultural legacy that sees higher education institutions as elite knowledge gatekeepers still prevails.

THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY | Official Trailer | FilmBuff (Accessed Feb 2018)

The Role of the Academy

The ideology of free and open access to information is far from being a reality. Scholarship and the academy have a key role to play, both within their learning and civic communities. There is broad move towards making scholarly research and data open access. Within the higher education sector, universities are being increasingly challenged to demonstrate the public value of their role in societies. In Ireland initiatives like the Campus Engage Charter champion this commitment to societal engagement (Campus Engage Ireland, 2014) and it is now often a requirement of funding that the research will made open access.

The organisational infrastructure of libraries, archives and publishing are another important part of this story. Critiques of the ideology of open and free highlight that, far from being free, digital information environments like their print counterparts, require funding and resources to develop, deliver and maintain material.

“Many critics are dubious of Open Access because they do not believe that the model is economically sustainable”.

(Warlock, 2004)

Shillingsburg’s section An electronic infrastructure for scripts acts in From Gutenberg to Google considers Practical Problems, How will it be financed? (p103-106, Shillingsburg, 2006) Here he tackles some of these challenges. He points to new financing models informed by Google books as a solution to achieving this balance between ensuring equitable access and sustainable funding.

“…since accounting systems for tracking hits and charging ‘‘subscribers’’ are now well-developed  technologies,  pennies  or  half-pennies  per  hit,  generated the world over, would enable libraries to provide their patrons with access to a much more comprehensive and useful electronic repository of knowledge  than  any  single  library,  no  matter  how  big,  could  afford  to purchase and house.”

(p105, Shillingsburg, 2006)

Examples of the ostensible political and commercial interests shaping the reality of web access are widely evident. One of my peers will not have access to major social media platforms when she returns to China. Facebook’s Free Basics initiative in Africa provides free access to the site but has been criticised for being more about market domination than about providing access to the benefits that the web brings. (Shearlaw, 2016) However there are inspiring examples like the Quipu project, which conscientiously make use of other technologies to overcome the fact that, for these communities, like many populations globally, there simply is no internet. (The Quipu Project)

Rigour and Equity of Access

Less apparent though, are the deeper cultural and ideological influences that can perpetuate systemic conditions of bias. In practice many groups remain marginalised from the technology, theory and practice of an open and free web.  Widner’s critical review of the Genius web annotation tool demonstrates how open web communities can re-inscribe societies biases. He stresses the importance of applying scholarly rigour to new digital platforms for knowledge production.

“…we must ask: is the Genius community like most others on the Internet? Is it young, white, straight males?

The answer is “yes.”

According to survey results of approximately 240 users, over 90% of the site users are male.

Just under 80% are 20 years old or younger. Around 87% are heterosexual. 86% lack a college degree (no doubt an artifact of the incredibly young age of the survey respondents). The top two races are white (58%) and black (17%).”

(Widner, 2105)

When discussing an open and free web, it is essential to critically examine the underlying systems. What is free and open, and to whom? Who controls the access, who doesn’t have access and what are social, cultural and economic implications of these exclusions? In short, ensuring not just open access, but also equity of access is crucial.

The current #NetNeutrality campaign in the US is building support to ensure that Internet service providers treat all data the same. Campaigners hope to prevent a situation where content can be blocked by your internet service provider or subjected to additional charges.


(Chaudhry, 2017)

Higher education institutes have a remit and responsibility to be stewards of information. They should be actively engaged in campaigns like these. Academic communities can bring both political sway and critical mass to these civic issues.




Campus Engage Ireland, 2014. Campus Engage Charter for Higher Education Civic and Community Engagement [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 12.3.17).

Chaudhry, M.A., 2017. Imagine poor students who see this image & won’t be able to do their homework if #NetNeutrality @hashtag.

Knappenberger, B, 2014. The Internet’s Own Boy; Official Trailer, Film Buff. YouTube Movies [WWW Document] (accessed 18.02.2018)

Milner, R.M., 2013. Pop Polyvocality: Internet Memes, Public Participation, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Int. J. Commun. 7, 34.

Mosa, H., 2010. BBC – The Virtual Revolution – Programme 3: the cost of free [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 12.3.17).

Shearlaw, M., 2016. Facebook lures Africa with free internet – but what is the hidden cost? [WWW Document]. the Guardian. URL (accessed 12.3.17).

Shillingsburg, P.L., 2006. From Gutenberg to Google: electronic representations of literary texts. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK; New York.

The Quipu Project [WWW Document], n.d. URL (accessed 12.1.17).

Treanor, J., 2015. Half of world’s wealth now in hands of 1% of population – report [WWW Document]. the Guardian. URL (accessed 12.3.17).

Warlock, K., 2004. The pros and cons of Open Acces [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 12.3.17).

Widner, M., 2105. The Problems with Genius, Part One: Online Annotations, Consensus, and Bias | Manuscripts and Machines [WWW Document]. Lacuna Stories. URL (accessed 12.3.17).