Scholarly publication, open access and the commons

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  • 1 Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, , New Zealand
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The article argues that social work academics, especially critical and radical social work academics, ought to contribute to alternative, open and more collective approaches to academic publication. The prevailing problematic of price gouging, that is, for-profit publishers enclosing scholarly articles behind paywalls, is discussed, along with mainstream liberal responses in the form of open access initiatives that aim to reorient the business models of for-profit publishers towards payment for publication. Mainstream approaches analyse the problem of achieving open access as one of oligopoly and market failure. Other more critical perspectives are introduced, along with the notion of the commons as a site of struggle within higher education. A brief case study of a collective, community-driven approach to transitioning the Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work journal to open access is offered, before concluding with an assessment of open access as just one part of a wider platform of anti-capitalist struggle within higher education.


The article argues that social work academics, especially critical and radical social work academics, ought to contribute to alternative, open and more collective approaches to academic publication. The prevailing problematic of price gouging, that is, for-profit publishers enclosing scholarly articles behind paywalls, is discussed, along with mainstream liberal responses in the form of open access initiatives that aim to reorient the business models of for-profit publishers towards payment for publication. Mainstream approaches analyse the problem of achieving open access as one of oligopoly and market failure. Other more critical perspectives are introduced, along with the notion of the commons as a site of struggle within higher education. A brief case study of a collective, community-driven approach to transitioning the Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work journal to open access is offered, before concluding with an assessment of open access as just one part of a wider platform of anti-capitalist struggle within higher education.


Gair et al (2020: 25) recently argued that ‘open access publishing is a social justice issue that is key to social work research engagement and impact and research-informed practice’. They highlight the value of community engagement with academic research findings and the social benefits that can flow from such engagement. They note that if social work practitioners ‘do not have access to research outcomes and recommendations from partnership research, they would not be aware of this new knowledge and therefore cannot incorporate it into their professional practice’ (Gair et al, 2020: 27). On this view, restricting access to scholarly publication can be construed as an issue of social justice – and one that directly challenges the core values of social work. Therefore, Gair et al (2020: 27) argue that ‘publishing in free, open access journals is a key strategy’. There are, however, many different definitions of open access (OA) and different ways of realising it.

What is OA?

Before discussing the problems associated with the contemporary scholarly publication process, let us first consider what is meant by OA and why it is important. Almost two decades ago, the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOIA, 2002) recognised that OA as regards scientific and scholarly publication was a potential public good made possible by the confluence of two trends: the traditional willingness of scholars to publish their work free of charge; and the emergence of the Internet as an open, accessible, worldwide communication medium. Authors of the BOIA (2002) made the following bold, aspirational statement:

Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.

They offered the following definition of OA:

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.

The reference to literature being open in two different senses should be noticed: it ought to be gratis, or free from costs to end users, but also libre, in the sense that reproduction and distribution would be free from constraints, the only exception being that authors are acknowledged and have control over the integrity of their work (Suber, 2012). It was this desire to achieve the second sense of openness that motivated the movement for Creative Commons licensing. Established in 2001, the Creative Commons movement sought to strike a balance between the default ‘all rights reserved’ approach to copyright and a more open form of licensing that still recognised and gave control to content creators (Geere, 2011). The BOAI statement was followed in the US by the 2003 ‘Bethesda statement on open access publishing’ (Brown et al, 2003) and then in 2003 by the ‘Berlin declaration on open access to knowledge in the sciences and humanities’ (Max Planck Gesellschaft, 2003).

Over time, the BOIA’s original definition of OA has been amended and multiplied by others (Anderson, 2017), as well as by the responses of publishers to manage the demand for OA without harming their income or profits. Several different forms of OA exist today, and we can distinguish between individual OA articles that may be included within, or permitted by, subscription journals, and journals that are completely OA (Hinchliffe, 2020). At the level of the article, it is common to distinguish between Gold, Green and Bronze forms of OA (Hinchliffe, 2020). Gold OA is the version of record of an article made immediately and openly available on the publisher’s platform, usually in return for an article processing charge (APC). So, for example, authors can currently choose to make an article open access on the British Journal of Social Work (an Oxford University Press publication) for a payment of £2,825. Articles published under an APC usually, but not always, allow the author to retain copyright and are published using a Creative Commons licence (usually, the ‘attribution’ license, CC BY).

Green OA is form of OA whereby the publisher makes an agreement with an author to permit publication of a version of an article that is not the version of record (often a version before it has been subject to peer review) in another place, such as an institutional repository. Such publication may be subject to an embargo of a year or another length of time. As Hinchliffe (2020) highlights, ‘Green open access is more slippery to define’ and ‘It is important to recognize that green open access is predicated on the article, the version of record, being published behind a paywall.’ Bronze OA is often not considered to be a form of OA at all. It refers to the practice of publishers promoting a journal in the academic marketplace by releasing select articles as a gift to readers on a temporary or permanent basis at their discretion. A large-scale analysis of the prevalence of OA found that ‘the majority of OA articles are Bronze – hosted on publisher websites, either without a license at all or without an open license’ (Piwowar et al, 2018: 16). In other words, they were gratis but not libre and often used for promotional purposes.

At the level of the journal, we can distinguish between the majority subscription-based journals (which charge institutions and individuals an annual fee to subscribe to content) and journals that are entirely OA. Today, most subscription journals include articles that have gold, green and/or Bronze OA status, but most commentators insist that a journal cannot be truly classified as OA unless it includes Gold OA as an option. Those subscription-based journals that include the option of Gold OA, usually through an APC payment made by the author or their institution, are referred to as hybrid journals (Hinchliffe, 2020). For a journal – rather than an article – to be considered fully OA, all of its content must be open, and those journals are usually categorised as one of two types: Gold OA journals, where all of the content is funded by an APC; and Diamond OA journals, where there are no fees to authors or readers and the journal is funded in some other way, such as by a professional association or scholarly society (I will discuss Diamond OA later when reviewing alternatives to mainstream approaches to promoting OA).

These approaches to OA – promoted by publishers in response to the growing demands of the academic community – have remained a concern for authors, libraries, institutions and research funders. In particular, the hybrid journal type is considered a form of double dipping (Suber, 2012; Geschuhn and Vogler, 2015) since the publisher receives an APC fee (paid by the author, institution or research funder) to release an article on Gold OA but persists in levying subscription fees for the hybrid journal. For that reason, hybrid journals are regarded as especially problematic for the OA movement and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) will not include a hybrid journal in its list. Increases in journal subscription fees have outpaced rates of inflation for decades, at a time when institutional library budgets have been seriously constrained by cuts (Khoo, 2019ba). The steady growth in journal prices in the US is mapped by EBSCO in their regular ‘Five year journal price increase history’ reports. For example, the average journal price for university and college libraries increased by 23.75 per cent between 2016 and 2020 (EBSCO, 2020). This growth in subscription fees is occurring despite publishers’ new income from the APC fee – fees that are also rising faster than the rate of inflation (Khoo, 2019b).

The rise of the publishing oligopoly

Although OA has been advocated for decades and the rise of the Internet seemed to present a unique opportunity for scholars to make scholarly publication open to all, this has not occurred. Why might that be? The history of scholarly communications in the English-speaking world commenced over 350 years ago with the publication of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665. This development ushered in the journal as a ‘structured form, combined with a regular and wide dissemination’, enabling ‘systematic recording and archiving of scientific knowledge’ (Larivière et al, 2015: 2). By the beginning of the 19th century, the journal was established as the most rapid and convenient way of disseminating research results, and the number of scholarly publications rose exponentially (Larivière et al, 2015). Until the end of the Second World War, the overwhelming majority of these scholarly publications were supported by non-profit scholarly societies (Forgues and Liarte, 2013). With the advent of the Internet as a distribution medium, many authors considered that the ease of electronic access would usher in a new era in OA publication. However, others feared that precisely the opposite might occur (Owen, 2007). In fact, since journal distribution became digital and moved online, the for-profit corporate sector has expanded massively into academic publishing, and following a series of acquisitions and mergers, ownership is now concentrated in a few mega-publishers.

In 2015, the top five publishers in the social sciences and humanities were Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Sage Publications. In this domain, between 1973 and 1990, these five publishers accounted for less than 10 per cent of published output; however, by 2013, their share accounted for 51 per cent (Larivière et al, 2015). Larivière et al (2015) attribute this growth in market share to two factors: the steady acquisition of existing journals; and the creation of new journals by these same companies. This concentration of journal ownership is evident in most scholarly disciplines but even more pronounced for social science journals, with commercial publishers accounting for between 54 and 71 per cent of social science journals in 2013 (Larivière et al, 2015). This level of market capture by for-profit publishers is reflected in the growing profit margins of commercial publishers – margins that rival the most profitable pharmaceutical, finance and technology companies (Larivière et al, 2015). For example, in 2013, Elsevier posted profits of 39 per cent, higher than the 37 per cent of profits made by Apple in the same year (Schmitt, 2015). As Larivière et al (2015: 11) put it:

The possibility to increase profits in such an extreme fashion lies in the peculiarity of the economics of scholarly publishing. Unlike usual suppliers, authors provide their goods without financial compensation and consumers (i.e. readers) are isolated from the purchase. Because purchase and use are not directly linked, price fluctuations do not influence demand. Academic libraries, contributing 68% to 75% of journal publishing revenues, are atypical buyers because their purchases are mainly controlled by budgets. Regardless of their information needs, they have to manage with less as prices increase. Due to the publisher’s oligopoly, libraries are more or less helpless, for in scholarly publishing each product represents a unique value and cannot be replaced.

Other business practices on the part of publishers, especially the for-profit publishers, amplified their monopoly power. For example, many publishers moved towards offering libraries bundles of journals, known as Big Deals, which they argued offered better value for money. However, there are several problems with this practice. First, the bundles include a wide variety of journals of differing quality, many of which may not be used by a library’s user community. One study by librarians at the University of Montreal estimated that, ‘at best, barely more than a third of the periodicals included in most Big Deals are truly of use’ (Gagnon, 2017: 6). The university used this data to renegotiate fair prices with publishers or, if they were unwilling to do so, to unbundle the subscription and subscribe only to the most essential journals.

The issue created by price-gouging publishers enclosing publicly funded content behind paywalls is widely recognised within the mainstream academic community, and there have been several initiatives to tackle the problem. The mainstream responses frame the problem as one of market failure – that some dominant publishers have monopolised the marketplace – and propose solutions that consist of changing the business model without displacing the role of academic publishers. Other commentators offer a more critical stance, analysing the issue of publisher exploitation in the context of the neoliberalisation of higher education and, more than this, the political economy of higher education and its subsumption by capital. I will consider each of these perspectives in the sections that follow.

The mainstream response to the publishing oligopoly

The mainstream response to the academic publishing market is to persuade academic publishers to shift their business model away from subscription-based journals and towards APCs. As Geschuhn and Vogler (2015: 10) put it: ‘We need to open the door to a change in the underlying business model of scholarly publishing, making the shift from subscription-based payments to open access services-based payments.’ Geschuhn and Vogler (2015: 11) analysed the funds available inside the academic publishing ecosystem and considered that:

The world’s research organizations, together with their libraries, need to act jointly and with some coordination, with the key aim of shifting the money out of the subscription system and so that it can be re-invested in open access publishing. This coordinated move will also give an unambiguous message to the publishers, so that they themselves can adapt to the new business model with confidence in its financial sustainability for the future. In the end, neither the libraries nor the publishing houses need lose their roles; all the players will be transformed, emerging with new vigour in a modernised publishing system.

Plan S is a prime example of the approach advocated by Geschuhn and Vogler (2015). Plan S is a coalition of national research funding organisations, with the support of the European Commission and the European Research Council (ERC). It is described as ‘an initiative to make full and immediate Open Access to research publications a reality’ and aims to do so by setting a single ambitious target:

With effect from 2021, all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo. (cOAlition S, 2018)

The aspirational nature of that goal is indicated by the fact that, in 2019, approximately 69 per cent of journal articles published in the world appeared in journals that charge readers for access (Piwowar et al, 2018). The primary mechanism promoted to achieve the change sought by Plan S is the promotion of transformative agreements: ‘At its most fundamental, a contract is a transformative agreement if it seeks to shift the contracted payment from a library or group of libraries to a publisher away from subscription-based reading and towards open access publishing’ (Hinchliffe, 2019). Hinchliffe (2019) argues that transformative agreements usually, though not always, include the following components: an intervention to shift from paying subscriptions for access to paying a fee for OA publication; a condition that copyright be retained by the author and the author be required to apply a Creative Commons licence (usually, CC BY); that the terms of the transformative agreement – including costs – be made publicly available; and an explicit intention for the transformative agreement to be considered as a transitional move towards an end state where subscription-based payments cease to exist and publishers rely solely on payment to publish, with access to all articles being gratis and libre.

As Johnson (2019: 2) argues, there are three primary assumptions underlying Plan S and its principles:

  • the research literature should be treated as an intellectual commons;

  • collective action by funders can be effective in creating such a commons; and

  • scholarly publishing services should be delivered, at least in part, by a ‘regulated market’.

The mainstream consensus appears to affirm these assumptions since ‘both the coalition and the publishing community appear in agreement that market-based solutions, based on APCs, will offer the surest way forward’ (Johnson, 2019: 4). However, not everyone in the academic publishing ecosystem is so sanguine. Some commentators have highlighted that the version of OA promoted by Plan S, founded on payments to publish in the form of APCs and the continued existence of for-profit publishers, ‘is being driven by commercialisation, where private benefit is adopting the mantle of public value’ (Holmwood, 2018). Holmwood (2018) highlights that the form of article licensing promoted by Plan S enables unrestricted commercial use of content and that the use of APCs does nothing to enable more inclusive publication since:

publication producers outside the currently-dominant centres of academic production are unlikely to have access to publish their research. We are moving from a system of global open access to publish to one of global open access to read, without paying attention to the new forms of exclusion that will entail for the production of knowledge (emphasis in original).

Academic labour

We academics provide the content for scholarly journals. We evaluate articles as referees, we serve on editorial boards, we work as editors ourselves, yet the journals force us to buy back our work, in published form, at outrageous prices. (Darnton, 2010: 104)

Social work researchers and academic staff depend on the scholarly publication process for the dissemination of their work. Like academic staff from other disciplines, they actively contribute their labour to support the publishing process; additionally, like other academic staff, they tend to engage more with fellow authors, peer reviewers and editors than with the publishing houses that lie behind the journals. This article is intended as a challenge to our unquestioning assumptions about the neutrality of the publication process – a challenge to reflect on how our labour is entangled with the business interests of academic publishers and the value-capturing processes of for-profit, capitalist enterprises. The foregoing discussion of scholarly publication has traced how, with the arrival of online journals and the intense concentration of journal ownership, for-profit publishers have subverted the promise of an open, intellectual commons and successfully exploited the labour of academics as authors, reviewers and editors. As Yoon (1998: 2) bluntly puts it: ‘academia is a paradise for publishers’. Mainstream responses to this predicament consider the problem to be one of market failure and the solution to rely on a shift away from a business model based on subscription fees and towards one based on payments to publish. However, this is not the only perspective on the problem, nor the only solution proposed. I will now turn to consider more critical perspectives based on an analysis of academic labour and the political economy of higher education.

Any analysis of academic labour, according to Winn (2015a: 4), must start with an understanding of the capitalist mode of production and capital’s ‘relentless need to subsume, level, and valorise all aspects of human life’. Many commentators have noted that contemporary life in higher education institutions, even publicly funded institutions, has become thoroughly imbued with the logic of capital with intensified global competition between entrepreneurial institutions, league tables, citation metrics, internal markets, performance management, precarious contracts and the proletarianisation of academic staff (De Angelis and Harvie, 2009; Jessop, 2018). Of course, most institutions of higher education are not fundamentally capitalist in nature, that is, they are not simply or solely about realising value for the capitalist class. However, they are ‘increasingly forced to reproduce the logic of capital accumulation with all its consequences; in other words, to operate and manage academic labour in a way that seemingly resembles the way that capitalists manage their firms’ (Szadkowski, 2016: 14).

Szadkowski (2016) offers a useful account of the Marxist concept of subsumption and how it applies in the context of the academy. Subsumption refers to the way in which the capitalist mode of production develops over time since, ‘In order to accumulate surplus value, and thus to valorise itself as capital, capital must subordinate the labour process to its own ends and, in so doing, transform it’ (Endnotes, 2010). According to Szadkowski (2016), Marx described the process of the subsumption of labour under capital in four ways: formal subsumption, real subsumption, hybrid subsumption and ideal subsumption. The first two – formal and real subsumption – were the primary categories used by Marx and represent two distinct moments in the evolution of capital. Formal subsumption represents the moment when capital takes hold of the labour process, taking ownership of the means of production and employing labour power, thereby making waged labour formally dependent on the capitalist class. Real subsumption, on the other hand, is capitalism proper, that is, when capital transforms the labour process through technologies and other measures to intensify efficiency and the productivity of labour, thus amplifying surplus value. Therefore, real subsumption ‘entails a constant process of revolutionising the labour process through material and technological transformations which increase the productivity of labour’ (Endnotes, 2010). However, as Szadkowski (2016: 17) notes:

only a narrow slice of the global higher education sector could be described as capitalist and oriented exclusively around the processes of valorization based on the employment of wage labour. The purely capitalist and for-profit activity of higher education institutions is indeed a sphere limited to private for-profit universities or the transnational free-market functioning of public institutions.

While most higher education institutions cannot be described in terms of formal or real subsumption, the other forms of subsumption – hybrid and ideal – are very relevant. Ideal subsumption, according to Szadkowski (2016), occurs when the logic of capitalist relations is projected onto non-capitalist sectors of production, even when true capitalist relations do not exist. Ideal subsumption shapes the language, logic and technologies of not-for-profit higher education – and other sectors shaped by the rhetoric of New Public Management – in such a way that academic labour becomes disciplined by the logic of capital (including league tables and publishing metrics) and potentially primed for more formal and real subsumption in the form of private, profit-maximising enterprises. Hybrid subsumption, on the other hand, ‘is a term that defines the way in which capital includes in its horizon of interest a site of productive activities, which it is able to take advantage of, while not yet exercising direct control over its course’ (Szadkowski, 2016: 20–1). From the perspective of academic capitalism, capital sets out to realise value from higher education institutions without entering a formal wage-labour relationship: one example relates to the involvement of financial capital in the creation of student loans; while another points to commercial or merchant capital in the form of academic publishers, as exemplified in the exploitation of academic labour by oligopolistic publishers (Larivière et al, 2015). As Szadkowski (2016: 21) puts it:

The contemporary hybrid subsumption of academic labour by merchant capital is conducted in a more cunning way than it was centuries ago in relation to other sectors of production. The entanglement of academic publishers in a game proper to the academic field, where the objective is the maximization of prestige, makes academic producers willing (or coerced by a national higher education Ministry through a variety of procedures of evaluation) to give the results of their research work to capitalist publishers for free.

This state of affairs can seem especially ironic when the academic labourers in question, including the present author, espouse ideas advocating ‘social transformation as forms of justice and emancipation’ (Webb, 2019: xxxiii) in the pages of publications that serve to realise a massive amount of value for the capitalist class. Of course, like other workers, critical social work academics are compelled to live within the contradictions of the capitalist system, but the argument of this article is that the academic publication process, and our part within it, should not be taken for granted. It too must be critically interrogated as a site of struggle. There are alternatives, ways in which we can resist exploitation – at least some of the time – and reach for more collective and cooperative forms of academic life, including those that contribute to the creation of a genuine intellectual commons.

Considered in the context of this more critical perspective, the struggle to achieve the intellectual commons and open access journal articles is directly related to the exploitation of academic labour and the wider political economy of higher education. This perspective highlights what Winn (2012) refers to as the freedom of people and not just the freedom of things. The classroom is a place where value and surplus value are produced, but it is also a site of struggle in which ‘teachers and students may both refuse capitalist work and create space in order to pursue alternative projects that better meet their own needs’ (Harvie, 2006: 1). One such anti-capitalist project takes the form of the Diamond OA approach to scholarly publication.

The diamond OA approach

Fuchs and Sandoval (2013: 428) coined the term ‘Diamond Open Access’ to refer to a ‘non-profit academic publishing model that makes academic knowledge a common good, reclaims the common character of the academic system and entails the possibility for fostering job security by creating public service publishing jobs’. They argue that Gold OA does nothing to challenge the fundamentally exploitative relationship with publishers and merely shifts the burden from a fee on readers (usually paid for by institutional libraries) to a fee on authors ‘usually borne by the university or research institute to which the researcher is affiliated, or by the funding agency supporting the research’ (Fuchs and Sandoval, 2013: 433). Fuchs and Sandoval (2013) also argue that Gold OA is structurally racist in character, disadvantaging scholars in low-income countries, where funds for APCs are hard to access. Not only that, but the author-pays model has also led directly to the emergence of predatory publishing, where authors are encouraged to pay APCs for OA publications in journals of doubtful quality that publish as many articles as possible to maximise profits (Beall, 2013). As Fuchs and Sandoval (2013: 436) argue: ‘Predatory OAJs [OA journals] have the potential to destroy academic communities by a specific mode of commodification of journal articles, in which an exchange of money for publication space takes place between the publisher and authors.’

Fuchs and Sandoval (2013: 437) argue for an alternative model, one that secures a sustainable future for academic publishing, whereby ‘publishing jobs become public service jobs and academic knowledge a common good that is published by non-profit organizations that obtain state funding and thereby employ publishing workers’. Whereas the definition of Gold OA does not differentiate between for-profit corporates and not-for-profit scholarly publishers, the definition of Diamond OA offered by Fuchs and Sandoval (2013: 438) states that ‘not-for-profit, non-commercial organizations, associations or networks publish material that is made available online in digital format, is free of charge for readers and authors and does not allow commercial and for-profit re-use’.

It should be noted that this model is strictly not-for-profit and that, although the use of Creative Commons licensing is encouraged, Fuchs and Sandoval (2013) insist on forms of licensing that exclude commercial use. The actions recommended by Fuchs and Sandoval (2013) are radical and anti-capitalist, and seek to halt the transfer of massive amounts of public funds into the profits of the corporate sector: ‘Direct and indirect funding of corporate publishing should in our view be completely abandoned and legally forbidden because it supports monopoly-capitalist practices that disadvantage scholars and readers’ (Fuchs and Sandoval, 2013: 439). To make the transition to Diamond OA achievable, they suggest the following steps:

  • public funding should be made available for Diamond OA journals to employ editorial assistants, copyeditors, proof-readers, designers, technicians and so on;

  • academic research evaluation and promotion policies should only take Diamond OA publications into account or give them priority;

  • academic policies should give special consideration to work as editor, managing editor, reviewer or editorial board member for Diamond OA;

  • the role played by the Science Citation Index (SCI), the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index (AHCI) in academic evaluation and promotion policies should be replaced with reference to the DOAJ; and

  • all research councils worldwide should introduce mandatory policies to ensure that scholars in receipt of funding are obliged to publish in Diamond OA journals only.

The primary purpose of the Diamond OA model is to prevent the enclosure of the academic commons and to enable collective control of academic publishing. Fuchs and Sandoval (2013: 441) contend that academic publishing is part of a commons, that academic workers should resist the enclosure of that commons and that Diamond OA publishing is ‘the opportunity to reclaim academic commons’. Of course, arguments about the commons extend considerably beyond the confines of academic publication (Bollier and Helfrich, 2012; Barbagallo et al, 2019; Bauwens et al, 2019; Dardot and Lavall, 2019), and there are global movements to protect the natural commons from enclosure (including movements to protect indigenous lands or resist the privatisation of water) and to create new social commons in the form of time banks, urban gardens, food co-ops and so on (Caffentzis and Federici, 2014). These commoning initiatives are consider by the autonomous Marxists Caffentzis and Federici (2014: 94) to be more than sites of struggle against neoliberalism, but rather ‘the seeds, the embryonic form of an alternative mode of production in the make’. The commons can be construed in different ways, and for some, commons are a sort of third sector complement to the market and the state (Bollier and Helfrich, 2012). Others, however, argue for an anti-capitalist commons concerned with the freedom of people as well as the freedom of things. As Caffentzis and Federici (2014: 101) put it: ‘Anti-capitalist commons, then, should be conceived as both autonomous spaces from which to reclaim control over the conditions of our reproduction, and as bases from which to counter the processes of enclosure and increasingly disentangle our lives from the market and the state.’ The section that follows explores the transition of one scholarly social work publication into a Diamond OA journal.

A collective, community-driven case study

The Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) was founded in 1964 and commenced quarterly publication of the New Zealand Social Worker (now the Aotearoa New Zealand Journal of Social Work) in 1965. Hard copies of the journal were posted to all members – as a benefit of membership – from its inception. From 2005, the journal was published online in partnership with Informit (a brand of the publisher Pearson PLC) and the EBSCOhost database (part of EBSCO Industries Inc), with subscription fees required from libraries. ANZASW retained an ‘all rights reserved’ approach, making the journal neither gratis nor libre. Like other journals, editors and peer reviewers were academic staff, giving their time as volunteers. ANZASW directly arranged and met costs for proofreading, typesetting, printing, postage and other expenses. In 2015, these costs amounted to NZ$63,700, most of which was associated with printing (NZ$28,200) and postage (about NZ$23,000). In other words, the creation and delivery of hard copy was consuming 80 per cent of the budget. These costs were offset to an extent by NZ$8,200 from journal sales and NZ$2,500 in fees from the Copyright Commission (but income was less than 20 per cent of the costs of production).

In 2015, the then editor of the journal resigned and a call was issued for a replacement. In response, a group of ten social work academics from seven different tertiary education institutions offered to edit the journal as a collective and, shortly after being accepted, commenced a process to move the journal to an OA platform. One member of the collective was a member of academic staff at the University of Otago, where library staff had a commitment to the promotion of OA journals and operated an instance of the Open Journal System (OJS). The editorial collective negotiated access to the OJS and reached agreement with the ANZASW to release newly published articles by means of OA with a Creative Commons licence.

In 2016, the first OA issue was released, and in its first editorial, the new editorial collective announced that:

By taking this step we are contributing to a worldwide open access movement and to the foundation of an intellectual commons where the fruits of academic labour are available to all. Our open access platform will also extend the international readership of the journal, increasing the likelihood that authors will have their work read and cited. (Ballantyne and Lowe, 2016: 1)

Additional changes instituted by the collective included: the cessation of the circulation of hard copies on the grounds of expense and sustainability; the use of an online system to manage the submission of articles and peer-review process; the introduction of digital object identifiers; and using Google Analytics to monitor usage. Since the editorial collective began monitoring usage, steady year-on-year increases have been noted, from almost 14,000 unique users in 2017 to almost 40,000 in 2021. The proportion of international visitors has also grown from 43% in 2017 to 49% during 2021. The number of submissions to the journal has also increased, as has the number of articles published. This move to OA was made possible because we were not dependent on a publishing company and could simply divert ANZASW’s costs to support the new OA process. In fact, because we ceased the hard-copy printing and distribution of the journal, the professional association made a significant saving.

Of course, the journal still relies on the contribution of substantial academic labour from the editors (especially the editor-in-chief, elected by the collective) and by peer reviewers and members of the editorial board. However, this labour is not exploited by a commercial publisher. In terms of copyright, the journal is currently using a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence. This is a very open licence that permits sharing and reuse so long as users attribute the creator. However, the licence also permits commercial uses of the content, which is not in keeping with the version of Diamond OA advocated by Fuchs and Sandoval (2013). Nonetheless, the ANZASW journal is an example of Diamond OA in the sense that there are no costs to read or to publish, with what costs there are being met by the professional association.

We must acknowledge that the achievement of this small journal is precarious since it depends on the willingness of a professional association to resource the publishing process; the preparedness of the University of Otago to offer technical support and software maintenance; and the commitment of our editors and peer reviewers to invest their academic labour in a journal that may not be perceived by those who manage the academic promotion process to be as high ranking as corporate OA journals. Ultimately, it relies on the commitment of all these actors to the practice of commoning – a collective, community-based approach to the creation and maintenance of shared resources (Bauwens et al, 2019) – in other words, to the freedom of people as much as the freedom of things (Winn, 2012).


This article has argued that higher education institutions and academic labourers are implicated in capitalist relations. For most institutions, this takes a hybrid or ideal form, with for-profit publishing companies exemplifying the hybrid type using their monopoly power and corporate business practices to secure value from the freely given labour of academic workers. Despite mainstream attempts to manage and regulate corporate publishers – such as Plan S – to date, these efforts seem uncertain of success. A more critical analysis of the scholarly publication process reveals this to be one small part of the broader, relentless operation of the capitalist accumulation process and capitalist business practices adopted in the academic sphere.

Against this dynamic, others have argued for forms of intervention, including scholarly publication practices, that resist capitalist relations. These extend to other forms of struggle, for example, working for the achievement of the cooperative university (Winn, 2015b; Neary and Winn, 2017; Szadkowski, 2019), and to pedagogical models that conceptualise the student as producer (Neary, 2010; 2020). While the mainstream persists with the idea of transformative agreements to manage the market, there is a significant countercurrent of authors and publishers committed to the growth of anti-capitalist commons. The Radical Open Access Collective, for example, works for ‘A future based on experimenting with non-commercial, not-for-profit, scholar-led approaches to publishing in the humanities and social sciences’ (Radical Open Access, 2022), and their initiatives include both high-quality scholarly journals and textbooks. The freedom of things (of articles as academic commodities) can be achieved by any form of OA, including corporate OA, but the freedom of people relies on a commitment to creating anti-capitalist commons: ‘commons [that] are not the end point of a struggle to construct a non-capitalist world, but its means’ (Caffentzis and Federici, 2014: 103). The latter must be an aspiration for critical and radical social work academics.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.


  • 1 Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, , New Zealand

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