The Nonfinancial Barriers to Access

We continue to live in the past and a fanciful unreality when it comes to OA policy, as if financial barriers are the main barriers to accession of scholarly and scientific content.

Even if we were to remove the financial barriers for all users upon publication, numerous non-financial barriers remain, and would go unaddressed if victory were declared.

One new set of barriers comes from platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter that purposely deprecate content that is factual and non-controversial. As I wrote in 2017:

The assumption that the Internet is a neutral publishing substrate no longer holds, and organizations that sell content after publication may have an advantage in this environment.

With a business model driven by algorithm-fueled advertising that performs better when doubt and fear are triggered, scientific and scholarly content is at a huge discoverability disadvantage in the modern era. OA does nothing to address this, and because there are few and weak incentives to drive usage or caretake or promote content after publication, it may actually make scientific and scholarly content less relevant and discoverable.

Of course, there are the obvious barriers to access represented by specialty knowledge, jargon, and reading levels, none of which is trivial and all of which are routinely overlooked or downplayed by proponents, who seem to believe that everyone will simply become smarter via osmosis if placed adjacent to more scholarly content placed outside pay points. If anything, the past 20 years should disabuse anyone of this notion, as more content is available than ever, yet more anti-science attitudes exist than before. Something else is clearly happening.

A routinely unseen barrier to access is the barrier of time. That is, people are spending their time doing a million other things, and if it’s not your job to care about scientific and scholarly content, you won’t. There are more distractions online than ever, with the aforementioned platforms designed to grab as much as possible by creating addictive responses via behavior modification. Web 2.0 is turning out to be an insidious mess, not a panacea of interactivity and elevated behavior.

Another barrier is the mimicry of scholarly and scientific publishing trade dress that has exploded across the information landscape as barriers to entry have fallen. Barriers to entry are actually important to information reliability, as I wrote about this summer:

Giving malefactors unbridled access to the raw materials of information warfare while platforms and preference systems have given them the targeting tools needed to divide and conquer far-flung constituencies, opponents, and rivals portends further problems. Scholarly publishing is not yet caught up wholly in the debacle that is modern coercive media, and one reason may be the dominance of the subscription model, which does keep out the crowd and limit access more or less to a discoverable and accountable elite core.

We see many aspects of our world mocked by non-profits that are wolves in sheep’s clothing, “studies” that are not rigorous and deeply biased but formulated to deceive, and of course predatory publishers, who shamelessly exploit the form and function through deception and misdirection.

In total, the cumulative barrier to access is a growing lack of trust. Facts have become subjective biases (“alternative facts” is today’s “truthiness”). Findings are dismissed as transitory or motivated by some unseen interest. The cautions of science have been weaponized to sow doubt, as the lack of trust is a potent political weapon to stymie or reverse policies that might weaken entrenched interests.

The nonfinancial barriers to access are many, potent, and will not be moved by removing any financial barriers like a subscription model. And this is perhaps the most profound mistake of the OA movement — believing that they will not be feeding the problem if they succeed. Let me return to that essay from earlier this year:

The mental model of scholarly publishing has been changed by the belief that it could and should mirror the commercial model of the broader Internet — free to users, paid by producers, technocentric, technocratic. As a result, we dress up weak business models and lowered barriers to entry in terms like “open” and “democratic,” in a way reminiscent of society using “social media” as a euphemism for coercive media.

Pre-2016 Silicon Valley thinking about the information economy can be safely considered to be old-fashioned at this point. The information world has changed dramatically. Looking at how things actually turned out using these approaches — by reading books like Watts’ or others — is a reminder that the destructiveness unleashed by the lack of barriers to entry, the diminishment of the obvious and expert core for the sake of the hidden illicit core and the crowd, and commerce that depends on psychological exploitation.

With billionaires feeding a shadow information ecosystem still benefiting from exploiting users, and no commercial alternative supported by policymakers in scholarly publishing, the real barriers to access are doubt, fear, distractions, and entrenched technology platforms. OA feeds into each of these by accelerating confusion, allowing counterfactuals, escalating the speed of publication, and feeding the disinformation machines without compensation or consequence.

Oddly, a small number of normal and well-accepted financial barriers via subscription and licensing could spare us from all of this nonsense. Social media on a subscription basis would be far superior to what we have now. Why we don’t advocate for a business model that puts the user in charge as strongly as possible is a question I ponder often. I have no satisfactory answer.