Week 7: Exceptions to Open Access

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been highly interested in open access and debates surrounding its merits and shortcomings. Serendipitously, I was invited to sit in on Dr. Amy Margaris’s Anthropology Seminar, Culture, Contact and Colonialism, during which we would discuss the limitations of open access systems for publishing scholarly work regarding traditional/indigenous knowledge. Prior to attending the class, I read a number of articles centered on this debate including “Opening Archives: Respectful Repatriation” by Kimberly Christen and “Protecting Traditional Knowledge and Expanding Access to Scientific Data: Juxtaposing Intellectual Property Agendas via “Some Rights Reserved” Model” by Eric C. Kansa, et al. (Full citations can be found on my reading list).

The main argument against open access from traditional knowledge advocates goes like this: by arguing that “information wants to be free”, open access advocates fail to take into account whether the owners of traditional knowledge wish to share the information taken from them. Said more eloquently, “At one side, open-knowledge advocates seek greater freedom for finding, distributing, using, and reusing information. On the other hand, traditional-knowledge rights advocates seek to protect certain forms of knowledge from appropriation and exploitation and seek recognition for communal and culturally situated notions of heritage and intellectual property” (Kansa, et al.).

What I didn’t know prior to reading these materials was that traditional knowledge was and still is largely considered part of the public domain. I had visited museums filled with stolen objects (everything from art to architecture to furniture to actual human remains), so I had a frame of reference regarding the scale of the issue when it came to physical objects. I hadn’t yet considered the digital form these objects and the intangible aspects of traditional knowledge had taken. Digital objects are entirely different from their physical counterparts because digital objects can be stolen repeatedly, infinitely reappropriated, and can be easily taken out of context. Without strict licensing agreements or copyright protections, we have very little control over how digital objects are used, and even then, we still may not have as much control as we hoped. Naturally then, making all traditional knowledge part of the public domain has some serious consequences, namely that it perpetuates colonization.

Traditional Knowledge advocates argue in favor of some guidelines and restrictions when posting traditional knowledge online. Kansa et al. argue in favor of creating new Creative Commons licenses that include terms I’ll paraphrase such as “user must maintain the cultural integrity of the object” and “user must provide a native translation of the object.” Though Creative Commons licenses aren’t perfect, they are a solid model upon which traditional knowledge restrictions and licenses can be built. Christen makes a case for the Mukurtu project, which is an online hosting platform for traditional knowledge collections which allows for greater indigenous control over the visibility and access to materials, a more equitable visualization of traditional knowledge side by side with “expert” or “academic” knowledge, and the ability to create unique, culturally informed systems of organizing knowledge.

If we decided to take up all of these practices, would we be in direct opposition to the principles of open access? Personally, I don’t think so. Take my analogy* below:

Imagine you have a recipe that has been passed down for generations in your family and though it isn’t currently used to generate a profit, it has great emotional value within your family. You may not want someone to come to your house, read the recipe, and post it online where anyone could access it, and start making your great, great, great aunt’s dish for a profit, right? Not all information belongs in the public domain. Your private photographs are not part of the public domain. Your family’s recipe is not part of the public domain. Your diary isn’t public domain. None of these things are automatically assumed to be part of the public domain just because they consist of information, and even if someone asked you if they could read your diary or flip through your photo albums, that doesn’t give them the right to post all of it online. You should have control over what gets posted and how it’s presented.

What needs to change is the assumption that every single piece of data a researcher collects is part of the public domain. Just because a researcher may have collected it, doesn’t mean it belongs to them–regardless of whether they had consent to collect the information. This is certainly still in line with the principles of open access.

The goal of open access is to prevent exploitation and unjust gatekeeping of information. As stated by the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

“There are many degrees and kinds of wider and easier access to this literature [specifically, peer-reviewed journal articles]. By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

This critique is, at its core, anti-capitalist. Open access advocates don’t argue that literally all information should be posted online (certainly, some information is private, as I made clear above), but rather that the work scholars produce should not be hoarded by private publishers for the purpose of making information a scarce commodity. There are limitations on open access (such as copyright, which should be used to maintain the integrity of the work and ensure proper citation), and traditional knowledge should be understood as a form of information that has limiting factors. At the same time, the goal of traditional knowledge advocates is to prevent exploitation and appropriation of culturally significant materials. It is, at its core, an anti-colonial argument. So essentially, both argue against imperialism, against dominating Western forces that prevent the human flourishing scholarly work is meant to produce.

As a scholarly community, it should be our goal to bring both sides of this debate together, so that the fewest number of people are exploited by research and publishing activities. This means reducing barriers, particularly financial barriers to access in some situations, and raising some barriers in others, particularly in cases where the information is culturally sensitive.

Moving forward, digital scholars, researchers, and archivists alike need to empower indigenous systems of understanding and sharing information. Indigenous populations should be able to:

  • Dictate the terms of use for the traditional knowledge and objects they share. They should have the right to: control what goes online, who sees it, who gets to use it, and how the person accessing it get to use it.
  • Benefit from the collection being online.
  • Control how the information is modeled and framed (i.e. the Smithsonian top down model for organizing information doesn’t apply to all knowledge. Other ontologies need to be made possible online).

At the same time digital scholars, researchers, and archivists should try to make research and scholarship more widely available whenever possible by publishing in open access journals, publishing in repositories, encouraging students and the public to use open access journals, and taking advantage of Creative Commons licensing systems.

The academic publishing status quo leaves much to be desired by both the traditional knowledge and the open access standards. We can all do better.


*To be clear, I am not at all trying to imply that private photos, recipes, diaries, etc. have the same cultural value or significance as traditional knowledge. My intention is to imply that some knowledge is personal and private, not public.

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