Adema & Hall
The political nature of the book: on artists' books and radical open access

The political nature of the book: on artists' books and radical open access
Adema, J. and Hall, G.

Author post-print (accepted) deposited in CURVE September 2013

Original citation & hyperlink:
Adema, J. and Hall, G. (2013). The political nature of the book: on artists' books and radical
open access. New Formations, volume 78 (1): 138-156

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In this article we argue that the medium of the book can be a material and
conceptual means, both of criticising capitalism’s commodification of knowledge (for
example, in the form of the commercial incorporation of open access by feral and
predatory publishers), and of opening up a space for thinking about politics. The
book, then, is a political medium. As the history of the artist’s book shows, it can be
used to question, intervene in and disturb existing practices and institutions, and even
offer radical, counter-institutional alternatives. If the book’s potential to question and
disturb existing practices and institutions includes those associated with liberal
democracy and the neoliberal knowledge economy (as is apparent from some of the
more radical interventions occurring today under the name of open access), it also
includes politics and with it the very idea of democracy. In other words, the book is a
medium that can (and should) be ‘rethought to serve new ends’; a medium through
which politics itself can be rethought in an ongoing manner.

Keywords: Artists’ books, Academic Publishing, Radical Open Access, Politics,
Democracy, Materiality

Janneke Adema is a PhD student at Coventry University, writing a dissertation on the
future of the scholarly monograph. She is the author of the OAPEN report Overview
of Open Access Models for eBooks in the Humanities and Social Sciences (2010) and
has published in The International Journal of Cultural Studies, New Media & Society,
New Review of Academic Librarianship; Krisis: Journal for Contemporary
Philosophy; Scholarly and Research Communication; and LOGOS; and co-edited a
living book on Symbiosis (Open Humanities Press, 2011). Her research can be
followed on

Gary Hall is Professor of Media and Performing Arts and Director of the Centre for
Disruptive Media at Coventry University, UK. He is author of Culture in Bits
(Continuum, 2002) and Digitize This Book! (Minnesota UP, 2008). His work has
appeared in numerous journals, including Angelaki, Cultural Studies, The Oxford
Literary Review, Parallax and Radical Philosophy. He is also founding co-editor of
the open access journal Culture Machine (, and co-


founder of Open Humanities Press ( More
details are available on his website


Janneke Adema and Gary Hall


The medium of the book plays a double role in art and academia, functioning not only
as a material object but also as a concept-laden metaphor. Since it is a medium
through which an alternative future for art, academia and even society can be enacted
and imagined, materially and conceptually, we can even go so far as to say that, in its
ontological instability with regard to what it is and what it conveys, the book serves a
political function. In short, the book can be ‘rethought to serve new ends’. 1 At the
same time, the medium of the book remains subject to a number of constraints: in
terms of its material form, structure, characteristics and dimensions; and also in terms
of the political economies, institutions and practices in which it is historically
embedded. Consequently, if it is to continue to be able to serve ‘new ends’ as a
medium through which politics itself can be rethought – although this is still a big if –
then the material and cultural constitution of the book needs to be continually

Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, 2nd ed., Granary Books, New York, 2004,


reviewed, reevaluated and reconceived. In order to explore critically this ‘political
nature of the book’, as we propose to think of it, along with many of the fundamental
ideas on which the book as both a concept and a material object is based, this essay
endeavours to demonstrate how developments undergone by the artist’s book in the
1960s and 1970s can help us to understand some of the changes the scholarly
monograph is experiencing now, at a time when its mode of production, distribution,
organisation and consumption is shifting from analogue to digital and from codex to
net. In what follows we will thus argue that a reading of the history of the artist’s
book can be generative for reimagining the future of the scholarly monograph, both
with respect to the latter’s potential form and materiality in the digital age, and with
respect to its relation to the economic system in which book production, distribution,
organisation and consumption takes place. Issues of access and experimentation are
crucial to any such future, we will suggest, if the critical potentiality of the book is to
remain open to new political, economic and intellectual contingencies.


With the rise to prominence of digital publishing today, the material conditions of
book production, distribution, organisation and consumption are undergoing a rapid
and potentially profound transformation. The academic world is one arena in which
digital publishing is having a particularly strong impact. Here, the transition from
print to digital, along with the rise of self-publishing (Blurb, Scribd) and the use of
social media and social networks (Facebook, Twitter, to communicate
and share scholarly research, has lead to the development of a whole host of
alternative publication and circulation systems for academic thought and knowledge.


Nowhere have such changes to the material conditions of the academic book been
rendered more powerfully apparent than in the emergence and continuing rise to
prominence of the open access movement. With its exploration of different ways of
publishing, circulating and consuming academic work (specifically, more open,
Gratis, Libre ways of doing so), and of different systems for governing, reviewing,
accrediting and legitimising that work, open access is frequently held as offering a
radical challenge to the more established academic publishing industry. Witness the
recent positioning in the mainstream media of the boycott of those publishers of
scholarly journals – Elsevier in particular – who charge extremely high subscription
prices and who refuse to allow authors to make their work freely available online on
an open access basis, in terms of an ‘Academic Spring’. Yet more potentially radical
still is the occupation of the new material conditions of academic book production,
distribution, organization and consumption by those open access advocates who are
currently experimenting with the form and concept of the book, with a view to both
circumventing and placing in question the very print-based system of scholarly
communication – complete with its ideas of quality, stability and authority – on
which so much of the academic institution rests.

In the light of the above, our argument in this essay is that some of these more
potentially radical, experimental developments in open access book publishing can be
related on the level of political and cultural significance to transformations undergone
in a previous era by the artist’s book. As a consequence, the history of the latter can
help us to explore in more depth and detail than would otherwise be possible the
relation in open access between experimenting with the medium of the book on a


material and conceptual level on the one hand, and enacting political alternatives in a
broader sense on the other. Within the specific context of 1960s and 1970s
counterculture, the artist’s book was arguably able to fill a certain political void,
providing a means of democratising and subverting existing institutions by
distributing an increasingly cheap and accessible medium (the book), and in the
process using this medium in order to reimagine what art is and how it can be
accessed and viewed. While artists grasped and worked through that relation between
the political, conceptual and material aspects of the book several decades ago, thanks
to the emergence of open access online journals, archives, blogs, wikis and free textsharing networks one of the main places in which this relation is being explored today
is indeed in the realm of academic publishing. 2

In order to begin thinking through some of the developments in publishing that are
currently being delved into under the banner of open access, then, let us pause for a
moment to reflect on some of the general characteristics of those earlier experiments
with the medium of the book that were performed by artists. Listed below are six key
areas in which artists’ books can be said to offer guidance for academic publishing in
the digital age, not just on a pragmatic level but on a conceptual and political level

1) The Circumvention of Established Institutions


The relation in academic publishing between the political, conceptual and material aspects
of the book has of course been investigated at certain points in the past, albeit to varying
degrees and extents. For one example, see the ‘Working Papers’ and other forms of stencilled
gray literature that were produced and distributed by the Birmingham Centre for
Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1960s and 1970s, as discussed by Ted Striphas and
Mark Hayward in their contribution to this issue.


According to the art theorist Lucy Lippard, the main reason the book has proved to be
so attractive as an artistic medium has to do with the fact that artists’ books are
‘considered by many the easiest way out of the art world and into the hearth of a
broader audience.’ 3 Books certainly became an increasingly popular medium of
artistic expression in Europe and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. This was
largely due to their perceived potential to subvert the (commercial, profit-driven)
gallery system and to politicise artistic practice - to briefly introduce some of the
different yet as we can see clearly related arguments that follow - with the book
becoming a ‘democratic multiple’ that breached the walls held to be separating socalled high and low culture. Many artist-led and artist-controlled initiatives, such as
US-based Franklin Furnace, Printed Matter and Something Else Press, were
established during this period to provide a forum for artists excluded from the
traditional institutions of the gallery and the museum. Artists’ books played an
extremely important part in the rise of these independent art structures and publishing
ventures. 4 Indeed, for many artists such books embodied the ideal of being able to
control all aspects of their work.

Yet this movement toward liberating themselves from the gallery system by
publishing and exhibiting in artists’ books was by no means an easy transition for
many artists to make. It required them to come to terms with the idea that publishing
their own work did not amount to mere vanity self-publishing, in particular. Moore
and Hendricks describe this state of affairs in terms of the power and potential of ‘the


Lucy R. Lippard, ‘The Artist’s Book Goes Public’, in Joan Lyons (ed), Artists’ Books: a
Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Rochester, New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press,
1993, p45.
Joan Lyons, ‘Introduction’, in Lyons (ed), Artists’ Books, p7.


page as an alternative space’. 5 From this perspective, producing, publishing and
distributing one’s own artist’s book was a sign of autonomy and independence; it was
nothing less than a way of being able to affect society directly. 6 The political potential
associated with the book by artists should therefore not be underestimated..
Accordingly, many artists created their own publishing imprints or worked together
with newly founded artist’s book publishers and printers (just as some academics are
today challenging the increasingly profit-driven publishing industry by establishing
not-for-profit, scholar-led, open access journals and presses). The main goal of these
independent (and often non-commercial) publisher-printer-artist collectives was to
make experimental, innovative work (rather than generate a profit), and to promote
ephemeral art works, which were often ignored by mainstream, mostly marketorientated institutions. 7 Artists’ books thus fitted in well with the mythology Johanna
Drucker describes as surrounding ‘activist artists’, and especially with the idea of the
book as a tool of independent activist thought. 8

2) The Relationship with Conceptual and Processual Art
In the context of this history of the artist’s book, one particularly significant
conceptual challenge to the gallery system came with the use of the book as a
platform for exhibiting original work (itself an extension of André Malraux’s idea of
the museum without walls). Curator Seth Siegelaub was among the first to publish his
artists – as opposed to exhibiting them – thus becoming, according to Germano


Hendricks and Moore, ‘The Page as Alternative Space: 1950 to 1969’, in Lyons (ed),
Artists’ Books, p87.
Pavel Büchler, ‘Books as Books’, in Jane Rolo and Ian Hunt (eds), Book Works: a Partial
History and Sourcebook, London: Book Works, 1996.
Clive Phillpot, ‘Some Contemporary Artists and Their Books’, in Cornelia Lauf and Clive
Phillpot (eds), Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists’ Books, New York, Distributed Art
Publishers, 1998, pp128-9.
Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, pp7-8.


Celant, ‘the first to allow complete operative and informative liberty to artists’. 9 The
Xerox Book and March 1-31, 1969, featuring work by Sol LeWitt, Robert Barry,
Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and other international artists, are
both examples of artists’ books where the book (or the catalogue) itself is the
exhibition. As Moore and Hendricks point out, this offered all kinds of benefits when
compared with traditional exhibitions: ‘This book is the exhibition, easily
transportable without the need for expensive physical space, insurance, endless
technical problems or other impediments. In this form it is relatively permanent and,
fifteen years later, is still being seen by the public.’ 10 Artists’ books thus served here
as an alternative space in themselves and at the same time functioned within a
network of alternative spaces, such as the above-mentioned Franklin Furnace
and Printed Matter.. Next to publishing and supporting artists’ books, such venues
offered a space for staging often highly politicised, critical, experimental and
performance art. 11 It is important to emphasise this aspect of artist book publishing, as
it shows that the book was used as a specific medium to exhibit works that could not
otherwise readily find a place within mainstream exhibition venues (a situation which,
as we will show, has been one of the main driving forces behind open access book
publishing). This focus on the book as a place for continual experimentation – be it on
the level of content or form – can thus be seen as underpinning what we are referring
to here as the ‘political nature of the book’ (playing on the title of Adrian Johns’
classic work of book history). 12


Germano Celant, Book as Artwork 1960-1972, New York, 6 Decades Books, 2011, p40.
Hendricks and Moore, ‘The Page as Alternative Space. 1950 to 1969’, p94.
Brian Wallis, ‘The Artist’s Book and Postmodernism’, in Cornelia Lauf and Clive Phillpot,
(eds), Artist/Author, 1998.
Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 1998.


3) The Use of Accessible Technologies
As is the case with the current changes to the scholarly monograph, the rise of artists’
books can be perceived to have been underpinned (though by no means determined)
by developments in technology, with the revolution in mimeograph and offset
printing helping to take artists’ books out of the realm of expensive and rare
commodities by providing direct access to quick and inexpensive printing
methods. 13 Due to its unique characteristics – low production costs, portability,
accessibility and endurance – the artist’s book was regarded as having the potential to
communicate with a wider audience beyond the traditional art world. In particular, it
was seen as having the power to break down the barriers between so-called high and
low culture, using the techniques of mass media to enable artists to argue for their










possibilities.14 The artist’s book thus conveyed a high degree of artistic autonomy,
while also offering a far greater role to the reader or viewer, who was now able to
interact with the art object directly (eluding the intermediaries of the gallery and
museum system). Indeed, Lippard even went so far as to envision a future where
artists’ books would be readily available as part of mass consumer culture, at
‘supermarkets, drugstores and airports’. 15

4) The Politics of the Democratic Multiple


Hendricks and Moore, ‘The Page as Alternative Space’, pp94-95.
Joan Lyons, ‘Introduction’, in Lyons (ed), Artists’ Books, p7.
Lippard, ‘The Artist’s Book Goes Public’, p48; Lippard, ‘Conspicuous Consumption: New
Artists’ Books’, in Lyons (ed), Artists’ Books, p100. Is there a contradiction here between a
politics of artists’ books that is directed against commercial profit-driven galleries and
institutions, but which nevertheless uses the tools of mass consumer culture to reach a wider
audience (see also the critique Lippard offers in the next section)? And can a similar point be
made with respect to the politics of some open access initiatives and their use of social media
and (commercial, profit-driven) platforms such as Google Books and Amazon?


The idea of the book as a real democratic multiple came into being only after 1945, a
state of events that has been facilitated by a number of technological innovations,
including those detailed above. Yet the concept of the democratic multiple itself
developed in what was already a climate of political activism and social
consciousness. In this respect, the democratic multiple was part of both the overall
trend toward the dematerialization of art and the newly emergent emphasis on cultural
and artistic processes rather than ready-made objects. 16

Artists’ desire for

independence from established institutions and for the wider availability of their
works thus resonated with the democratising and anti-institutional potential of the
book as a medium. What is more, the book offered artists a space in which they were
able to experiment with the materiality of the medium itself and with the practices
that comprised it, and thus ultimately with the question of what constituted art and an
art object. This reflexivity of the book with regard to its own nature is one of the key
characteristics that make a book an artist’s book, and enable it to have political
potential in that it can be ‘rethought to serve new ends’. Much the same can be said
with respect to the relation between the book and scholarly communication: witness
the way reflection on the material nature of the book in the digital age has led to
questions being raised regarding how we structure scholarly communication and
practice scholarship more generally.

5) Conceptual Experimentation: Problematising the Concept and Form of the Book
Another key to understanding artists’ books and their history lies with the way the
radical change in printing technologies after World War II led to the reassessment of
the book form itself, and in particular, of the specific nature of the book’s materiality,


Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, p72.


of the very idea of the book, and of the notions and practices underlying the book’s
various uses.

When it came to reevaluating the materiality of the book, many experiments with
artists’ books tried to escape the linearity brought about by the codex form’s
(sequential) constraints, something which had long conditioned both writing and
reading practices. Undoubtedly, one of the most important theorists as far as
rethinking the materiality of the book in the period after 1945 is concerned is Ulises
Carrión. He defines the book as a specific set of conditions that should be (or need to
be) responded to. 17 Instead of seeing it as just a text, Carrión positions the book as an
object, a container and a sequence of spaces. For him, the codex is a form that needs
to be responded to in what he prefers to call ‘bookworks’. These are ‘books in which
the book form, as a coherent sequence of pages, determines conditions of reading that
are intrinsic to the work.’ 18 From this perspective, artists’ books interrogate the
structure and the meaning of the book’s form. 19

Yet the book is also a metaphor, a symbol and an icon to be responded to. 20 Indeed, it
is difficult to establish a precise definition or set of characteristics for artists’ books as
their very nature keeps changing. As Sowden and Bodman put it, ‘What a book is can
be challenged’. 21 Drucker, meanwhile, is at pains to point out that the book is open
for innovation, although the latter has its limits: ‘The convention of the book is both
its constrained meanings (as literacy, the law, text and so forth) and the space of new

James Langdon (ed), Book, Birmingham, Eastside Projects, 2010.
Ulises Carrión, ‘Bookworks Revisited’, in James Langdon (ed), Book, Birmingham,
Eastside Projects, 2010.
Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, pp3-4.
Ibid., p360.
Tom Sowden and Sarah Bodman, A Manifesto for the Book, Impact Press, 2010, p9.


work (the blank page, the void, the empty place).’ Books here ‘mutate, expand,
transform’. Accordingly, Drucker regards the transformed book as an intervention,
something that reflects the inherent critique that book experiments embody with
respect to their own constitution.22 One way of examining reflexively the structures
that make up the book is precisely by disturbing those structures. In certain respects
the page can be thought of as being finite (e.g. physically, materially), but it can also
be understood to be infinite, not least as a result of being potentially different on each
respective viewing/reading. This allows the book to be perceived as a self-reflexive
medium that is extremely well-suited to formal experiments. At the same time, it
allows it to be positioned as a potentially political medium, in the sense that it can be
used to intervene in and disturb existing practices and institutions.

6) The Problematisation of Reading and Authorship
As part of their constitution, artists’ books can be said to have brought into question
certain notions and practices relating to the book that had previously been taken too
much for granted – and perhaps still are. For instance, Brian Wallis shows how, ‘in
place of the omnipotent author’, postmodern artists’ books ‘acknowledge a
collectivity of voices and active participation of the reader’. 23 Carrión, for one, was
very concerned with the thought that readers might consume books passively, while
being unaware of their specificity as a medium. 24 The relationship between the book
and reading, and the way in which the physical aspect of the book can change how we
read, was certainly an important topic for artists throughout this period. Many
experiments with artists’ books focused on the interaction between author, reader and

Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books.
Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, ‘The Dematerialization of Art’, Art International, 12, 2
Langdon, Book.


book, offering an alternative, and not necessarily linear, reading experience. 25 Such
readerly interventions often represented a critical engagement with ideas of the author
as original creative genius derived from the cultural tradition of European
Romanticism. Joan Lyons describes this potential of the artist’s book very clearly:
‘The best of the bookworks are multinotational. Within them, words, images, colors,
marks, and silences become plastic organisms that play across the pages in variable
linear sequence. Their importance lies in the formulation of a new perceptual
literature whose content alters the concept of authorship and challenges the reader to a
new discourse with the printed page.’ 26 Carrión thus writes about how in the books of
the new art, as he calls them, words no longer transmit an author’s intention. Instead,
authors can use other people’s words as an element of the book as a whole – so much
so that he positions plagiarism as lying at the very basis of creativity. As far as artists’
books are concerned, it is not the artist’s intention that is at stake, according to
Carrión, but rather the process of testing the meaning of language. It is the reader who
creates the meaning and understanding of a book for Carrión, through his or her
specific meaning-extraction. Every book requires a different reading and opens up
possibilities to the reader. 27


We can thus see that the very ‘nature’ of the book is particularly well suited to
experimentation and to reading against the grain. As a medium, the book has the

This has been one of the focal points of the books published and commissioned by UK
artist book publisher Book Works, for instance. Jane Rolo and Ian Hunt, ‘Introduction’, in
Book Works: A Partial History and Sourcebook, op. cit.
Joan Lyons, ‘Introduction’, p7.
Ulises Carrión, ‘The New Art of Making Books’, in James Langdon (ed), Book,
Birmingham, Eastside Projects, 2010.


potential to raise questions for some of the established practices and institutions
surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of printed matter. This
potential notwithstanding, it gradually became apparent (for some this realisation
occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, for others it only came about later) that the
ability of artists’ books to bring about institutional change in the art world, and to
question both the concept of the book and that of art as the singular aesthetic artefact
bolstered by institutional structures, was not particularly long-lasting. With respect to
the democratization of the artist’s book, for example, Lippard notes that, by losing its
distance, there was also a chance of the book losing its critical function. Here, says
Lippard, the ‘danger is that, with an expanding audience and an increased popularity
with collectors, the artist’s book will fall back into its edition de luxe or coffee table
origin … transformed into glossy, pricey products.’ For Lippard there is a discrepancy
between the characteristics of the medium which had the potential to break down
walls, and the actual content and form of most artists’ books which was highly
experimental and avant-garde, and thus inaccessible to readers/consumers outside of
the art world. 28


Interestingly, Carrión was one of the sharpest critics of the idea that artists’ books
should be somehow able to subvert the gallery system. In his ‘Bookworks Revisited’,
he showed how the hope surrounding this supposedly revolutionary potential of the
book as a medium was based on a gross misunderstanding of the mechanisms
underlying the art world. In particular, Carrión attacked the idea that the artist’s book


Lippard, ‘The Artist’s Book Goes Public’ pp47-48.


could do without any intermediaries. Instead of circumventing the gallery system, he
saw book artists as merely adopting an alternative set of intermediaries, namely book
publishers and critics. 29

Ten years later Stewart Cauley updated Carrión’s criticisms, arguing that as an art
form and medium, the artist’s book had not been able to avoid market mechanisms
and the celebrity cult of the art system. In fact, by the end of the 1980s the field of
artists’ publications had lost most of its experimental impetus and had become
something of an institution itself, imitating the gallery and museum system it was
initially designed to subvert. 30 Those interested in artists’ books initially found it
difficult to set up an alternative system, as they had to manage without organized
distribution, review mechanisms or funding schemes. When they were eventually able
to do so in the 1970s, the resulting structures in many ways mirrored the very
institutions they were supposed to be criticizing and providing an alternative to.31
Cauley points the finger of blame at the book community itself, especially at the fact
that artists at the time focused more on the concept and structure of the book than on
using the book form to make any kind of critical political statement. The idea that
artists’ books were disconnected from mainstream institutional systems has also been
debunked as a myth. As Drucker makes clear, many artists’ books were developed in
cooperation with museums or galleries, where they were perceived not as subversive
artefacts but rather as low-cost tools for gathering additional publicity for those
institutions and their activities. 32

Carrión, ‘Bookworks Revisited’; Johanna Drucker, ‘Artists’ Books and the Cultural Status
of the Book’, Journal of Communication, 44 (1994).
Stewart Cauley, ‘Bookworks for the ’90s’, Afterimage, 25, 6, May/June (1998).
Stefan Klima, Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature, Granary Books, New
York, 1998, pp54-60.
Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, p78.


Following Abigail Solomon-Godeau, this process of commercialisation and
incorporation – or, as she calls it, ‘the near-total assimilation’ of art practice
(Solomon-Godeau focuses specifically on postmodern photography) and critique into
the discourses it professed to challenge – can be positioned as part of a general
tendency in conceptual and postmodern ‘critical art practices’. It is a development that
can be connected to the changing art markets of the time and viewed in terms of a
broader social and cultural shift to Reaganomics. For Solomon-Godeau, however, the
problem lay not only in changes to the art market, but in critical art practices and art
critique too, which in many ways were not robust enough to keep on reinventing
themselves. Nonetheless, even if they have become incorporated into the art market
and the commodity system, Solomon-Godeau argues that it is still possible for art
practices and institutional critiques to develop some (new) forms of sustainable
challenge from within these systems. As far as she is concerned, ‘a position of
resistance can never be established once and for all, but must be perpetually
refashioned and renewed to address adequately those shifting conditions and
circumstances that are its ground.’ 33


At first sight many of the changes that have occurred recently in the world of
academic book publishing seem to resemble those charted above with respect to the
artist’s book. As was the case with the publishing of artists’ books, digital publishing
has provided interested parties with an opportunity to counter the existing

Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ‘Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of
Supply-Side Aesthetics’, Social Text, 21 (1989).


(publishing) system and its institutions, to experiment with using contemporary and
emergent media to publish (in this case academic) books in new ways and forms, and
in the process to challenge established ideas of the printed codex book, together with
the material practices of production, distribution and consumption that surround it.
This has resulted in a new wave of scholar-led publishing initiatives in academia, both
formal (with scholars either becoming publishers themselves, or setting up crossinstitutional publishing infrastructures with libraries, IT departments and research
groups) and informal (using self-publishing and social media platforms such as blogs
and wikis). 34 The phenomenon of open access book publishing can be located within
this broader context – a context which, it is worth noting, also includes the closing of
many book shops due to fierce rivalry from the large supermarkets at one end of the
market, and online e-book traders such as Amazon at the other; the fact that the major
high-street book chains are increasingly loath to take academic titles - not just
journals but books too; and the handing over (either in part or in whole) to for-profit
corporations of many publishing organisations designed to serve charitable aims and
the public good: scholarly associations, learned societies, university presses, nonprofit and not-for-profit publishers.

From the early 1990s onwards, open access was pioneered and developed most
extensively in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields,
where much of the attention was focused on the online self-archiving by scholars of
pre-publication (i.e. pre-print) versions of their research papers in central, subject or
institutionally-based repositories. This is known as the Green Road to open access, as


See, for example, Janneke Adema and Birgit Schmidt, ‘From Service Providers to Content
Producers: New Opportunities For Libraries in Collaborative Open Access Book Publishing’,
New Review of Academic Librarianship, 16 (2010).


distinct from the Gold Road, which refers to the publishing of articles in online, open
access journals. Of particular interest in this respect is the philosophy that lies behind
the rise of the open access movement, as it can be seen to share a number of
characteristics with the thinking behind artists’ books discussed earlier. The former
was primarily an initiative established by academic researchers, librarians, managers
and administrators, who had concluded that the traditional publishing system – thanks
in no small part to the rapid (and, as we shall see, ongoing) process of aggressive forprofit commercialisation it was experiencing – was no longer willing or able to meet
all of their communication needs. Accordingly, those behind this initiative wanted to
take advantage of the opportunities they saw as being presented by the new digital
publishing and distribution mechanisms to make research more widely and easily
available in a far faster, cheaper and more efficient manner than was offered by
conventional print-on-paper academic publishing. They had various motivations for
doing so. These include wanting to extend the circulation of research to all those who
were interested in it, rather than restricting access to merely those who could afford to
pay for it in the form of journal subscriptions, etc; 35 and a desire to promote the
emergence of a global information commons, and, through this, help to produce a
renewed democratic public sphere of the kind Jürgen Habermas propounds. From the
latter point of view (as distinct from the more radical democratic philosophy we
proceed to develop in what follows), open access was seen as working toward the
creation of a healthy liberal democracy, through its alleged breaking down of the
barriers between the academic community and the rest of society, and its perceived
consequent ability to supply the public with the information they need to make
knowledgeable decisions and actively contribute to political debate. Without doubt,

John Willinsky, The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and
Scholarship, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 2009, p5.


though, another motivating factor behind the development of open access was a desire
on the part of some of those involved to enhance the transparency, accountability,
discoverability, usability, efficiency and (cost) effectivity not just of scholarship and
research but of higher education itself. From the latter perspective (and as can again
be distinguished from the radical open access philosophy advocated below), making
research available on an open access basis was regarded by many as a means of
promoting and stimulating the neoliberal knowledge economy both nationally and
internationally. Open access is supposed to achieve these goals by making it easier for
business and industry to capitalise on academic knowledge - companies can build new
businesses based on its use and exploitation, for example - thus increasing the impact
of higher education on society and helping the UK, Europe and the West (and North)
to be more competitive globally. 36

To date, the open access movement has progressed much further toward its goal of
making all journal articles available open access than it has toward making all
academic books available in this fashion. There are a number of reasons why this is
the case. First, since the open access movement was developed and promoted most
extensively in the STEMs, it has tended to concentrate on the most valued mode of
publication in those fields: the peer-reviewed journal article. Interestingly, the recent


Gary Hall, Digitize This Book! The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access
Now, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008; Janneke Adema, Open Access
Business Models for Books in the Humanities and Social Sciences: An Overview of Initiatives
and Experiments, OAPEN Project Report, Amsterdam, 2010. David Willetts, the UK Science
Minister, is currently promoting ‘author-pays’ open access for just these reasons. See David
Willetts, ‘Public Access to Publicly-Funded Research’, BIS: Department for Business,
Innovation and Skills, May 2, 2012:


arguments around the ‘Academic Spring’ and ‘feral’ publishers such as Informa plc
are no exception to this general rule. 37

Second, restrictions to making research available open access associated with
publishers’ copyright and licensing agreements can in most cases be legally
circumvented when it comes to journal articles. If all other options fail, authors can
self-archive a pre-refereed pre-print of their article in a central, subject or
institutionally-based repository such as PubMed Central. However, it is not so easy to
elude such restrictions when it comes to the publication of academic books. In the
latter case, since the author is often paid royalties in exchange for their text, copyright
tends to be transferred by the author to the publisher. The text remains the intellectual
property of the author, but the exclusive right to put copies of that text up for sale, or
give them away for free, then rests with the publisher. 38

Another reason the open access movement has focused on journal articles is because
of the expense involved in publishing books in this fashion, since one of the main
models of funding open access in the STEMs, author-side fees, 39 is not easily
transferable either to book publishing or to the Humanities and Social Sciences
(HSS). In contrast to the STMs, the HSS feature a large number of disciplines in
which it is books (monographs in particular) published with esteemed international

David Harvie, Geoff Lightfoot, Simon Lilley and Kenneth Weir, ‘What Are We To Do
With Feral Publishers?’, submitted for publication in Organization, and accessible through
the Leicester Research Archive:
See the Budapest Open Access Initiative, ‘Self-Archiving FAQ, written for the Budapest
Open Access Initiative (BOAI)’, 2002-4:
Although ‘author-pays’ is often positioned as the main model of funding open access
publication in the STEMs, a lot of research has disputed this fact. See, for example, Stuart
Shieber, ‘What Percentage of Open-Access Journals Charge Publication Fees’, The
Occasional Pamphlet on Scholarly Publishing, May 9, 2009:


presses, rather than articles in high-ranking journals, that are considered as the most
significant and valued means of scholarly communication. Authors in many fields in
the HSS are simply not accustomed to paying to have their work published. What is
more, many authors associate doing so with vanity publishing. 40 They are also less
likely to acquire the grants from either funding bodies or their institutions that are
needed to cover the cost of publishing ‘author-pays’. That the HSS in many Western
countries receive only a fraction of the amount of government funding the STEMs do
only compounds the problem, 41 as does the fact that higher rejection rates in the HSS,
as compared to the STEMs, mean that any grants would have to be significantly
larger, as the time spent on reviewing articles, and hence the amount of human labour
used, makes it a much more intensive process. 42 And that is just to publish journal
articles. Publishing books on an author-pays basis would be more expensive still.

Yet even though the open access movement initially focused more on journal articles
than on monographs, things have begun to change in this respect in recent years.
Undoubtedly, one of the major factors behind this change has been the fact that the


Maria Bonn, ‘Free Exchange of Ideas: Experimenting with the Open Access Monograph’,
College and Research Libraries News, 71, 8, September (2010) pp436-439:
Patrick Alexander, director of the Pennsylvania State University Press, provides the
following example: ‘Open Access STEM publishing is often funded with tax-payer dollars,
with publication costs built into researchers’ grant request… the proposed NIH budget for
2013 is $31 billion. NSF’s request for 2013 is around $7.3 billion. Compare those amounts to
the NEH ($154 million) and NEA ($154 million) and you can get a feel for why researchers
in the the arts and humanities face challenges in funding their publication costs.’ (Adeline
Koh, ‘Is Open Access a Moral or a Business Issue? A Conversation with The Pennsylvania
State University Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 10, 2012:
See Mary Waltham’s 2009 report for the National Humanities Alliance, ‘The Future of
Scholarly Journals Publishing among Social Sciences and Humanities Associations’:; and Peter Suber,
‘Promoting Open Access in the Humanities’, 2004: ‘On average, humanities journals have
higher rejection rates (70-90%) than STEM journals (20-40%)’, Suber writes.


publication of books on an open access basis has been perceived as one possible
answer to the ‘monograph crisis’. This phrase refers to the way in which the already
feeble sustainability of the print monograph is being endangered even further by the
ever-declining sales of academic books. 43 It is a situation that has in turn been brought
about by ‘the so-called “serials crisis”, a term used to designate the vertiginous rise of
the subscription to STEM journals since the mid-80s which… strangled libraries and
led to fewer and fewer purchases of books/monographs.’ 44 This drop in library
demand for monographs has led many presses to produce smaller print runs; focus on
more commercial, marketable titles; or even move away from monographs to
concentrate on text books, readers, and reference works instead. In short, conventional
academic publishers are now having to make decisions about what to publish more on
the basis of the market and a given text’s potential value as a commodity, and less on
the basis of its quality as a piece of scholarship. This last factor is making it difficult
for early career academics to publish the kind of research-led monographs that are
often needed to acquire that all important first full-time position. This in turn means
the HSS is, in effect, allowing publishers to make decisions on its future and on who
gets to have a long-term career on an economic basis, according to the needs of the
market – or what they believe those needs to be. But it is also making it hard for


Greco and Wharton estimate that the average number of library purchases of monographs
has dropped from 1500 in the 1970s to 200-300 at present. Thompson estimates that print
runs and sales have declined from 2000-3000 (print runs and sales) in the 1970s to print runs
of between 600-1000 and sales of between 400-500 nowadays. Albert N. Greco and Robert
Michael Wharton, ‘Should University Presses Adopt an Open Access [electronic publishing]
Business Model for all of their Scholarly Books?’, ELPUB. Open Scholarship: Authority,
Community, and Sustainability in the Age of Web 2.0 – Proceedings of the 12th
International Conference on Electronic Publishing held in Toronto, Canada 25-27 June
2008; John B. Thompson, Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and
Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2005.
Jean Kempf, ‘Social Sciences and Humanities Publishing and the Digital “Revolution”’
unpublished manuscript, 2010:; Thompson, Books in the Digital Age, pp. 9394.


authors in the HSS generally to publish monographs that are perceived as being
difficult, advanced, specialized, obscure, radical, experimental or avant-garde - a
situation reminiscent of the earlier state of events which led to the rise of artists’
books, with the latter emerging in the context of a perceived lack of exhibition space
for experimental and critical (conceptual) work within mainstream commercial

Partly in response to this ‘monograph crisis’, a steadily increasing number of
initiatives have now been set up to enable authors in the HSS in particular to bring out
books open access – not just introductions, reference works and text books, but
research monographs and edited collections too. These initiatives include scholar-led
presses such as Open Humanities Press,, and Open Book Publishers;
commercial presses such as Bloomsbury Academic; university presses, including
ANU E Press and Firenze University Press; and presses established by or working
with libraries, such as Athabasca University’s AU Press. 45

Yet important though the widespread aspiration amongst academics, librarians and
presses to find a solution to the monograph crisis has been, the reasons behind the
development of open access book publishing in the HSS are actually a lot more
diverse than is often suggested. For instance, to the previously detailed motivating
factors that inspired the rise of the open access movement can be added the desire,
shared by many scholars, to increase accessibility to (specialized) HSS research, with
a view to heightening its reputation, influence, impact and esteem. This is seen as


A list of publishers experimenting with business models for OA books is available at: See also Adema, Open Access
Business Models.


being especially significant at a time when the UK government, to take just one
example, is emphasizing the importance of the STEMs while withdrawing support
and funding for the HSS. Many scholars in the HSS are thus now willing to stand up
against, and even offer a counter-institutional alternative to, the large, established,
profit-led, commercial firms that have come to dominate academic publishing – and,
in so doing, liberate the long-form argument from market constraints through the
ability to publish books that often lack a clear commercial market.


That said, all of these reasons and motivating factors behind the recent changes in
publishing models are still very much focused on making more scholarly research
more accessible. Yet for at least some of those involved in the creation and
dissemination of open access books, doing so also constitutes an important stage in
the development of what might be considered more ‘experimental’ forms of research
and publication; forms for which commercial and heavily print-based systems of
production and distribution have barely provided space. Such academic experiments
are thus perhaps capable of adopting a role akin to, if not the exact equivalent of, that
we identified artists’ books as having played in the countercultural context of the
1960s and 1970s: in terms of questioning the concept and material form of the book;
promoting alternative ways of reading and communicating via books; and
interrogating modern, romantic notions of authorship. We are thinking in particular of
projects that employ open peer-review procedures (such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s
Planned Obsolescence, which uses the CommentPress Wordpress plugin to enable
comments to appear alongside the main body of the text), wikis (e.g. Open


Humanities Press’ two series of Liquid and Living Books) and blogs (such as those
created using the Anthologize app developed at George Mason University). 46 These
enable varying degrees of what Peter Suber calls ‘author-side openness’ when it
comes to reviewing, editing, changing, updating and re-using content, including
creating derivative works. Such practices pose a conceptual challenge to some of the
more limited interpretations of open access (what has at times been dubbed ‘weak
open access’), 47 and can on occasion even constitute a radical test of the integrity and
identity of a given work, not least by enabling different versions to exist
simultaneously. In an academic context this raises questions of both a practical and
theoretical nature that have the potential to open up a space for reimagining what
counts as scholarship and research, and of how it can be responded to and accessed:
not just which version of a work is to be cited and preserved, and who is to have
ultimate responsibility for the text and its content; but also what an author, a text, and
a work actually is, and where any authority and stability that might be associated with
such concepts can now be said to reside.

It is interesting then that, although they can be positioned as constituting two of the
major driving forces behind the recent upsurge in the current interest in open access
book publishing, as ‘projects’, the at times more obviously or overtly ‘political’ (be it
liberal-democratic, neoliberal or otherwise) project of using digital media and the
Internet to create wider access to book-based research on the one hand, and
experimenting—as part of the more conceptual, experimental aspects of open access
book publishing—with the form of the book (a combination of which we identified as

See Peter Suber, SPARC OA newsletter, issue 155, March 2, 2011:


being essential components of the experimental and political potential of artists’
books) and the way our dominant system of scholarly communication currently
operates on the other, often seem to be rather disconnected. Again, a useful
comparison can be made to the situation described by Lippard, where more
(conceptually or materially) experimental artists’ books were seen as being less
accessible to a broader public and, in some cases, as going against the strategy of
democratic multiples, promoting exclusivity instead.

It is certainly the case that, in order to further the promotion of open access and
achieve higher rates of adoption and compliance among the academic community, a
number of strategic alliances have been forged between the various proponents of the
open access movement. Some of these alliances (those associated with Green open
access, for instance) have taken making the majority if not indeed all of the research
accessible online without a paywall (Gratis open access) 48 as their priority, perhaps
with the intention of moving on to the exploration of other possibilities, including
those concerned with experimenting with the form of the book, once critical mass has
been attained – but perhaps not. Hence Stevan Harnad’s insistence that ‘it’s time to
stop letting the best get in the way of the better: Let’s forget about Libre and Gold OA
until we have managed to mandate Green Gratis OA universally.’ 49 Although they
cannot be simply contrasted and opposed to the former (often featuring many of the
same participants), other strategic alliances have focused more on gaining the trust of
the academic community. Accordingly, they have prioritized allaying many of the


For an overview of the development of these terms, see:
Stevan Harnad, Open Access: Gratis and Libre, Open Access Archivangelism,
Thursday, May 3, 2012.


anxieties with regard to open access publications – including concerns regarding their
quality, stability, authority, sustainability and status with regard to publishers’
copyright licenses and agreements – that have been generated as a result of the
transition toward the digital mode of reproduction and distribution. More often than
not, such alliances have endeavoured to do so by replicating in an online context
many of the scholarly practices associated with the world of print-on-paper
publishing. Witness the way in which the majority of open access book publishers
continue to employ more or less the same quality control procedures, preservation
structures and textual forms as their print counterparts: pre-publication peer review
conducted by scholars who have already established their reputations in the paper
world; preservation carried out by academic libraries; monographs consisting of
numbered pages and chapters arranged in a linear, sequential order and narrative, and
so on. As Sigi Jöttkandt puts it with regard to the strategy of Open Humanities Press
in this respect:

We’re intending OHP as a tangible demonstration to our still generally
sceptical colleagues in the humanities that there is no reason why OA
publishing cannot have the same professional standards as print. We aim to
show that OA is not only academically credible but is in fact being actively
advanced by leading figures in our fields, as evidenced by our editorial
advisory board. Our hope is that OHP will contribute to OA rapidly becoming
standard practice for scholarly publishing in the humanities. 50


Sigi Jöttkandt, 'No-fee OA Journals in the Humanities, Three Case Studies: A Presentation
by Open Humanities Press', presented at the Berlin 5 Open Access Conference: From Practice
to Impact: Consequences of Knowledge Dissemination, Padua, September 19, 2007:


Relatively few open access publishers, however, have displayed much interest in
combining such an emphasis on achieving universal, free, online access to research
and/or the gaining of trust, with a rigorous critical exploration of the form of the book
itself. 51 And this despite the fact that the ability to re-use material is actually an
essential feature of what has become known as the Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin (BBB)
definition of open access, which is one of the major agreements underlying the
movement. 52 It therefore seems significant that, of the books presently available open
access, only a minority have a license where price and permission barriers to research
are removed, with the result that the research is available under both Gratis and Libre
(re-use) conditions. 53


Admittedly, there are many in the open access community who regard the more
radical experiments conducted with and on books as highly detrimental to the
strategies of large-scale accessibility and trust respectively. From this perspective,
efforts designed to make open access material available for others to (re)use, copy,

Open Humanities Press ( and Media Commons Press
( remain the most notable exceptions on
the formal side of the publishing scale, the majority of experiments with the form of the book
taking place in the informal sphere (e.g. blogbooks self-published by Anthologize, and
crowd-sourced, ‘sprint’ generated books such as Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt’s Hacking
the Academy:
See Peter Suber on the BBB definition here:, where he also states that two
of the three BBB component definitions (the Bethesda and Berlin statements) require
removing barriers to derivative works.
An examination of the licenses used on two of the largest open access book publishing
platforms or directories to date, the OAPEN (Open Access Publishing in Academic
Networks) platform and the DOAB (Directory of Open Access Books), reveals that on the
OAPEN platform (accessed May 6th 2012) 2 of the 966 books are licensed with a CC-BY
license, and 153 with a CC-BY-NC license (which still restricts commercial re-use). On the
DOAB (accessed May 6th 2012) 5 of the 778 books are licensed with a CC-BY license, 215
with CC-BY-NC.


reproduce and distribute in any medium, as well as make and distribute derivative
works, coupled with experiments with the form of the book, are seen as being very
much secondary objectives (and even by some as unnecessarily complicating and
diluting open access’s primary goal of making all of the research accessible online
without a paywall). 54 And, indeed, although in many of the more formal open access
definitions (including the important Bethesda and Berlin definitions of open access,
which require removing barriers to derivative works), the right to re-use and reappropriate a scholarly work is acknowledged and recommended, in both theory and
practice a difference between ‘author-side openness’ and ‘reader-side openness’ tends
to be upheld—leaving not much space for the ‘readerly interventions’ that were so
important in opening up the kind of possibilities for ‘reading against the grain’ that
the artist’s book promoted, something we feel (open access) scholarly works should
also strive to encourage and support. 55 This is especially the case with regard to the
publication of books, where a more conservative vision frequently holds sway. For
instance, it is intriguing that in an era in which online texts are generally connected to
a network of other information, data and mobile media environments, the open access
book should for the most part still find itself presented as having definite limits and a
clear, distinct materiality.

But if the ability to re-use material is an essential feature of open access – as, let us
repeat, it is according to the Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin and many of other influential
definitions of the term – then is working toward making all of the research accessible


See, for example, Stevan Harnad, Open Access: Gratis and Libre, Open Access
Archivangelism, Thursday, May 3, 2012.
For more on author-side and reader-side openness respectively, see Peter Suber, SPARC
OA newsletter:


online on a Gratis basis and/or gaining the trust of the academic community the best
way for the open access movement (including open access book publishing) to
proceed, always and everywhere? If we do indeed wait until we have gained a critical
mass of open access content before taking advantage of the chance the shift from
analogue to digital creates, might it not by then be too late? Does this shift not offer
us the opportunity, through its loosening of much of the stability, authority, and
‘fixity’ of texts, to rethink scholarly publishing, and in the process raise the kind of
fundamental questions for our ideas of authorship, authority, legitimacy, originality,
permanence, copyright, and with them the text and the book, that we really should
have been raising all along? If we miss this opportunity, might we not find ourselves
in a similar situation to that many book artists and publishers have been in since the
1970s, namely, that of merely reiterating and reinforcing established structures and

Granted, following a Libre open access strategy may on occasion risk coming into
conflict with those more commonly accepted and approved open access strategies (i.e.
those concerned with achieving accessibility and the gaining of trust on a large-scale).
Nevertheless, should open access advocates on occasion not be more open to adopting
and promoting forms of open access that are designed to make material available for
others to (re)use, copy, reproduce, distribute, transmit, translate, modify, remix and
build upon? In particular, should they not be more open to doing so right here, right
now, before things begin to settle down and solidify again and we arrive at a situation
where we have succeeded merely in pushing the movement even further toward rather
weak, watered-down and commercial versions of open access?



We began by looking at how, in an art world context, the idea and form of the book
have been used to engage critically many of the established cultural institutions, along
with some of the underlying philosophies that inform them. Of particular interest in
this respect is the way in which, with the rise of offset printing and cheaper
production methods and printing techniques in the 1960s, there was a corresponding
increase in access to the means of production and distribution of books. This in turn
led to the emergence of new possibilities and roles that the book could be put to in an
art context, which included democratizing art and critiquing the status quo of the
gallery system. But these changes to the materiality and distribution of the codex
book in particular – as an artistic product as well as a medium – were integrally linked
with questions concerning the nature of both art and the book as such. Book artists
and theorists thus became more and more engaged in the conceptual and practical
exploration of the materiality of the book. In the end, however, the promise of
technological innovation which underpinned the changes with respect to the
production and distribution of artists’ books in the 1960s and 1970s was not enough
to generate any kind of sustainable (albeit repeatedly reviewed, refashioned and
renewed) challenge within the art world over the longer term.

The artist’s book of the 1960s and 1970s therefore clearly had the potential to bring
about a degree of transformation, yet it was unable to elude the cultural practices,
institutions and the market mechanisms that enveloped it for long (including those
developments in financialisation and the art market Solomon-Godeau connects to the
shift to Reaganomics). Consequently, instead of criticising or subverting the


established systems of publication and distribution, the artist’s book ended up being
largely integrated into them. 56 Throughout the course of this article we have argued
that its conceptual and material promise notwithstanding, there is a danger of
something similar happening to open access publishing today. Take the way open
access has increasingly come to be adopted by commercial publishers. If one of the
motivating factors behind at least some aspects of the open access movement – not
just the aforementioned open access book publishers in the HSS, but the likes of
PLoS, too – has been to stand up against, and even offer an alternative to, the large,
profit-led firms that have come to dominate the field of academic publishing, recent
years have seen many such commercial publishers experimenting with open access
themselves, even if such experiments have so far been confined largely to journals.57
Most commonly, this situation has resulted in the trialling of ‘author-side’ fees for the
open access publishing of journals, a strategy seen as protecting the interests of the
established publishers, and one which has recently found support in the Finch Report
from a group of representatives of the research, library and publishing communities
convened by David Willetts, the UK Science Minister. 58 But the idea that open access

That said, there is currently something of a revival of print, craft and artist's book
publishing taking place in which the paperbound book is being re-imagined in offline
environments. In this post-digital print culture, paper publishing is being used as a new form
of avant-garde social networking that, thanks to its analog nature, is not so easily controlled
by the digital data-gathering commercial hegemonies of Google, Amazon, Facebook et al. For
more, see Alessandro Ludovico, Post-Digital Print - the Mutation of Publishing Since 1984,
Onomatopee, 2012; and Florian Cramer, `Post-Digital Writing', Electronic Book Review,
December, 2012:
For more details, see Wilhelm Peekhaus, ‘The Enclosure and Alienation of Academic
Publishing: Lessons for the Professoriate’, tripleC, 10(2), 2012:
‘Accessibility, Sustainability, Excellence: How to Expand Access to Research Publications,
Report of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings’, June
18, 2012: For one overview of some of the problems that can be identified from
an HSS perspective in the policy direction adopted by Finch and Willetts, see Lucinda
Matthews-Jones, ‘Open Access and the Future of Academic Journals’, Journal of Victorian
Culture Online, November 21, 2012:


may represent a commercially viable publishing model has attracted a large amount of
so-called predatory publishers, too, 59 who (like Finch and Willetts) have propagated a
number of misleading and often quite mistaken accounts of open access. 60 The
question is thus raised as to whether the desire to offer a counter-institutional
alternative to the large, established, commercial firms is likely to become somewhat
marginalised and neutralised as a result of open access publishing being seen more
and more by such commercial publishers as just another means of generating a profit.
Will the economic as well as material practices transferred from the printing press
continue to inform and shape our communication systems? As Nick Knouf argues, to
raise this question, ‘is not to damn open access publishing by any means; rather, it is
to say that 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.’ 61

With this idea of providing a radical challenge to the current scholarly communication
system in mind, and drawing once again on the brief history of artists’ books as
presented above, might it not be helpful to think of open access less as a project and
model to be implemented, and more as a process of continuous struggle and critical
resistance? Here an analogy can be drawn with the idea of democracy as a process. In
‘Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and Their Contemporary Relevance for
Citizenship’, the political philosopher Etiènne Balibar develops an interesting analysis
of democracy based on a concept of the ‘democratisation of democracy’ he derives

For a list of predatory OA publishers see:
This list has increased from 23 predatory publishers in 2011, to 225 in 2012.
See the reference to the research of Peter Murray Rust in Sigi Jöttkandt, ‘No-fee OA
Journals in the Humanities’.
Nicholas Knouf, ‘The JJPS Extension: Presenting Academic Performance Information’,
Journal of Journal Performance Studies, 1 (2010).


from a reading of Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière. For Balibar, the problem
with much of the discourse surrounding democracy is that it perceives the latter as a
model that can be implemented in different contexts (in China or the Middle East, for
instance). He sees discourses of this kind as running two risks in particular. First of
all, in conceptualizing democracy as a model there is a danger of it becoming a
homogenizing force, masking differences and inequalities. Second, when positioned
as a model or a project, democracy also runs the risk of becoming a dominating force
– yet another political regime that takes control and power. According to Balibar, a
more interesting and radical notion of democracy involves focusing on the process of
the democratisation of democracy itself, thus turning democracy into a form of
continuous struggle (or struggles) – or, perhaps better, continuous critical selfreflection. Democracy here is not an established reality, then, nor is it a mere ideal; it
is rather a permanent struggle for democratisation. 62

Can open access be understood in similar terms: less as a homogeneous project
striving to become a dominating model or force, and more as an ongoing critical
struggle, or series of struggles? And can we perhaps locate what some perceive as the
failure of artists’ books to contribute significantly to such a critical struggle after the
1970s to the fact that ultimately they became (incorporated in) dominant institutional
settings themselves – a state of affairs brought about in part by their inability to
address issues of access, experimentation and self-reflexivity in an ongoing critical


Etienne Balibar, ‘Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and Their Contemporary Relevance
for Citizenship’, Rethinking Marxism, 20 (2008).


Certainly, one of the advantages of conceptualizing open access as a process of
struggle rather than as a model to be implemented would be that doing so would
create more space for radically different, conflicting, even incommensurable positions
within the larger movement, including those that are concerned with experimenting
critically with the form of the book and the way our system of scholarly
communication currently operates. As we have shown, such radical differences are
often played down in the interests of strategy. To be sure, open access can experience
what Richard Poynder refers to as a ‘bad tempered wrangles’ over relatively ‘minor
issues’ such as ‘metadata, copyright, and distributed versus central archives’. 63 Still,
much of the emphasis has been on the importance of trying to maintain a more or less
unified front (within certain limits, of course) in the face of criticisms from
publishers, governments, lobbyists and so forth, lest its opponents be provided with
further ammunition with which to attack the open access movement, and dilute or
misinterpret its message, or otherwise distract advocates from what they are all
supposed to agree are the main tasks at hand (e.g. achieving universal, free, online
access to research and/or the gaining of trust). Yet it is important not to see the
presence of such differences and conflicts within the open access movement in purely
negative terms – the way they are often perceived by those working in the liberal
tradition, with its ‘rationalist belief in the availability of a universal consensus based
on reason’. 64 (This emphasis on the ‘universal’ is also apparent in fantasies of having
not just universal open access, but one single, fully integrated and indexed global
archive.) In fact if, as we have seen, one of the impulses behind open access is to
make knowledge and research – and with it society – more open and democratic, it


Richard Poynder, ‘Time to Walk the Walk’, Open and Shut?, 17 March, 2005:
Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, London, Routledge, 2005, p11.


can be argued that the existence of such dissensus will help achieve this ambition.
After all, and as we know from another political philosopher, Chantal Mouffe, far
from placing democracy at risk, a certain degree of conflict and antagonism actually
constitutes the very possibility of democracy. 65 It seems to us that such a critical, selfreflexive, processual, non-goal oriented way of thinking about academic publishing
shares much with the mode of working of the artist - which is why we have argued
that open access today can draw productively on the kind of conceptual openness and
political energy that characterised experimentation with the medium of the book in
the art world of the 1960s and 1970s.


Mouffe, On the Political, p30.



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