For the third of our blog posts for Open Access Week, we are looking at how open access as a means of social justice. This post was previously published on this blog in October 2018.

“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1944): Article 27, section 1

Making research open access has important implications for social justice and the enrichment of lives. Open access research is available to anyone, not just those who can afford the subscriptions and/or who are members of a university. If we believe in the enriching power of higher education then we have a “… moral responsibility to maximise the benefits of scholarly publishing for the larger society” (Ansolabehere et al, 2016)

As well as enriching lives through access to information and knowledge, open access can also be seen as an alternative to the status quo. Advocates of radical open access argue that this is the way it should be used:

“Open access publishing, without a concurrent interrogation of the economic underpinnings of the scholarly communication system, will only reform the situation rather than provide a radical alternative” (Adema & Hall, 2013)

Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

Part of the power of higher education comes from the fact that it enables people to stand apart from society and the status quo and critically examine it. Open access can be a part of this ‘alternative view’, as it allows people to step outside the system and be part of creating a new one. In addition, the radical open access movement argues that open access should not only be about access alone, but also about re-use of, experimentation with and critique of research outputs. This facilitates a richer experience of research. People can not only read the research, but can perhaps experience it in new ways. For example, an open access monograph allows the reader to explore what ‘a book’ is, what it means as a cultural and political object, among other things – is an e-book really still a book? Is how we read a book affected by its physical form?

Social justice and sustainability

The number of people in further or higher education worldwide grew almost seven-fold between 1970 (3 million) and 2009 (200 million) due to the sudden expansion of higher education in the developing world. This massive increase in the number of people in higher education was accompanied by a severe lack of scholarly information for these students. (Bodo, 2016). It should not matter where we are in the world, or which institution we belong to or are employed by: we should be able to access the research outputs at the point of need, and whether or not we can access research should not depend on our income or indeed the income of our institution.  Within the scholarly publication system itself, we need a focus on non-discrimination, equality and equity in the distribution of costs and benefits, in order to try to create a just and sustainable environment. Yamey (2008), argues that open access publishing is a socially responsive and equitable approach to knowledge dissemination, and subscription fees that exclude the poor from access to scholarly resource are a rights violation.  As Willinsky (2006) says:

“the right to know is not solely about having access to knowledge that will prevent harm or reduce suffering, rather [it] is about having fair and equitable access to a public good”.

Interestingly, he also argues that open access to knowledge can enable people to defend and advocate other people’s rights, something which should chime very strongly with our values as a university.

Photo by Karsten Würth (@inf1783) on Unsplash

How does open access support sustainability? I suggest it does this in three ways: Firstly, universities are contributing to their own sustainability by meeting funder mandates for open access requirements. Even though we are trying to steer away from seeing open access in a REF-centric way, it’s important to acknowledge this.

Secondly, open access research helps to facilitate the sustainability of future research and innovation – it enables anyone who wants to access research to read and build upon it. This should mean fewer instances of duplicated research, and also means that people can see examples of bad research, so they can try to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. In addition, green open access using institutional repositories offers a way of collating and preserving an institution’s research output in an easily accessible centralised place – no more lost manuscripts!

Thirdly, it can be argued that open access publishing systems, such as new university presses and ‘pure’ open access online journals, are more sustainable than the current subscription-based publishing model(s). For example, encompassing justice and sustainability, UCL Press seeks to:

“….change the prevailing models for the publication of research outputs. Grounded in the Open Science/Open Scholarship agenda, UCL Press will seek to make its published outputs available to a global audience, irrespective of their ability to pay, because UCL believes that this is the best way to tackle global Grand Challenges such as poverty, disease, hunger.”

In the same way, those who belong to the Radical Open Access Collective seek to “to offer a radical challenge to free market capitalism and its forces of co-option” (ROAC website). This returns us to Hall’s ideas about what open access could/should be: a means with which to examine, critique and disrupt the status quo in an inclusive way, thus contributing to a just and sustainable future.


About UCL Press. Available at: (Accessed: 9th October 2018).

Adema, J. and Hall, G. (2013) ‘The Political Nature of the Book: On Artists’ Books and Radical Open Access’, New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, 78(78), pp. 138-156. doi: 10.3898/NewF.78.07.2013.

Ansolabehere, K., Ball, C., Devare, M., Guidotti, T., Priedhorsky, B., Van der Stelt, W., Taylor, M., Veldsman, S. and Willinsky, J. (2016) ‘The Moral Dimensions of Open’, Open Scholarship Initiative Proceedings, 1. doi: 10.13021/G8M01K.

Bodó, Balázs, Pirates in the Library – An Inquiry into the Guerilla Open Access Movement (July 6, 2016). Paper prepared for the 8th Annual Workshop of the International Society for the History and Theory of Intellectual Property, CREATe, University of Glasgow, UK, July 6-8, 2016. Available at SSRN: or

Hall, G. (2017) ‘The inhumanist manifesto’, Media Theory, 1(1), pp. 168-178.

Lawson, S. (2017) ‘Access, ethics and piracy’, Insights, 30(1), pp. 25-30. doi: 10.1629/uksg.333.

Meadows, A. (2015) ‘Beyond Open: Expanding Access to Scholarly Content’, The Journal of Electronic Publishing, 18(3). doi: 10.3998/3336451.0018.301.

Willinsky, J. (2006) The access principle : the case for open access to research and scholarship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Yamey, G. (2008) ‘Excluding the Poor from Accessing Biomedical Literature: A Rights Violation That Impedes Global Health’, Health and Human Rights, 10(1), pp. 21-42.