Why does a geographical perspective on Open Access matter?

Christoph Schimmel

Geographer, University of Innsbruck

15. Jan.



Key Words:

open access
open science

When I’m asked what I am focussing on in my PhD research, more than a few of my counterparts initially don’t understand why my focus as a geographer is the transition of the scholarly publishing system, or what the whole thing has to do with geography. But when I start to reflect upon what kind of issues relate to an open access to knowledge, it becomes quite clear why geographers, and geography as a scholarly discipline, should care. In this blog post I will explain why.


Unequal access to scientific knowledge

First of all, the Open Access (OA) movement addresses existing inequalities regarding access to scientific knowledge that are related to the place from which one is trying to gain access. Let me give you an example: when you try to read an article you are interested in, your first step would probably be to search for it on the internet or at your local library. If you are located in a city in an industrialized country or you are at one of the global top universities, you will have hardly any difficulty gaining access to an article. You will probably not even think about problems of access to scientific knowledge, since such access seems almost taken for granted. But if you are located in an economically and infrastructurally deprived area – which could also be the case in rural areas of Germany, Wales, or the North East of Great Britain (Blank et al. 2018: 98) – you will most likely encounter problems with internet access or speed. Furthermore, if the internet connection is sufficient, you will most probably witness second-level barriers: either the article you are searching for is not accessible at your local library (physically and/or digitally), or it is “paywalled”, which means you will have to pay a certain amount to gain access. Usually national, university, research, and other bigger libraries have collective orders, so they pay for a majority of scientific publications in order to make them accessible to their members. In most cases, they have temporary agreements with publishers in bundled schemes. So far, so good – or bad – depending on your geographical or institutional location.
So, the accessibility of scientific articles is – first and foremost – a question of funding, which is unevenly distributed across the globe. Libraries – or library consortia – do have funds in order to buy a certain amount of scientific publications to make them available for their affiliated members. Whether scientific content is accessible to a broader audience or not depends on their financial capacities. Most libraries are government-funded, so it is the government – or, more precisely, the taxpayers – who are financing both the production and the consumption of research results. Ultimately, this was one of the main arguments of the OA movement for freeing scientific knowledge from paywalls, as its production has already been paid for by society. Many different models of OA publishing have been elaborated and established since the advent of the “three B’s” (see infobox). The socio-spatial inequalities that come along with these models lead me to the next question: why geography matters with Open Access.


The "Three B's" of Open Access
The “Three B’s” are fundamental developments with reference to the definition of and transition to Open Access. The most basic and most cited definition of Open Access was released with the launch of the Budapest Open Access initiative in February 2002, demanding “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”. Based on that, the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (April 2003) refined this definition in support of it by additionally mentioning the right to make derivative works. Finally, in accordance with – and partially citing – the previous two B’s, the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge (October 2003) expanded the definition to include works of cultural heritage, and emphasizes the use of appropriate Open Access licenses.
Inequalities in participation in the academic research and publishing system

There are two main OA publishing models: Gold Open Access, and Green Open Access. The Gold route provides full open access to a scientific publication without any barriers except the necessity of an internet connection, while the Green route permits self-archiving by authors. As with Gold Open Access, the “publication costs” are completely transferred to the author or the author’s affiliated institution. This brings us back to inequalities in funding schemes: only if you are lucky or privileged enough to be affiliated with an institution capable of paying, or do research in a well-funded discipline, or have your own funds, the Gold route does seem viable. In some cases there are waivers given to deprived authors, but in reality marginalized authors face so many barriers before they might get the opportunity to publish in a prestigious journal that the numbers of fee waivers stay quite low.
Not only does Gold Open Access perpetuate unequal structures of power, but it also might open doors for even more exploitative structures: the author-pays publishing model is being abused by so-called predatory publishers (Grudniewicz et al. 2019, Nature 576, 210-212) – primarily in marginalized countries, where scholars are trying to get more visibility for their research. Hence, authors that have fallen prey to such predators are paying money for a service they’ll never get: quality checks, and editorial and publishing processes.
With Green Open Access, authors themselves archive a version of their article and can make it accessible on a website or an (institutional) repository. Whether and how authors may do so depends on the publisher’s policy and on the technical infrastructure available. Here “technical infrastructure” refers to institutional repositories, as they are usually more open than proprietary scholarly network websites like or ResearchGate. Institutional repositories need to be set up; they need server space, software, and human labor to manage them, which means sufficient funds are required. As you might guess by now, there are enormous inequalities with reference to the technical infrastructure that is essential for Green Open Access.
Even though these established Open Access models are important with regard to (socio-spatial) inequalities, there are many other issues also affecting these inequalities, such as for instance the Anglophone domination of research output, and the Global North’s influence on relevant research issues (Harle 2016).
While Open Access seems to be a massive change globally, its established models do not challenge existing power structures.

Placemaking strategies on a broader scale and the politics of Open Access

Just as authors and publishing houses are being challenged by the digital transformation, national governments and supranational communities are also being challenged to strengthen their competitiveness in the academic marketplace. Special deals are being prepared and negotiated between big publishers (e.g. Wiley, SpringerNature, Elsevier, Taylor & Francis) and representatives of a majority of (supra-)national scientific communities. In the process, academic institutions unite as a consortium in order to represent the most privileged members of the scientific community. Their goal is not only to make the transition to open access more calculable, it’s also about setting their own agenda for publishing open access and shaping (supra-)national identities within the research community. The German program “Projekt DEAL”, for instance, is mainly about securing possibilities for authors that are affiliated with German member institutions (about 700, see Sander et al. 2019: 1) to publish Gold Open Access articles in a journal that is owned by one of the big publishers. Therefore, its foundations are political strategies to defend Germany as a scientific location on a global scale. As Professor Horst Hippler, the spokesperson of the project’s steering committee, states:

[…] What is for sure: Change will happen and the question is, if you are not creative and participating, you are out of business. The same is true for institutions, but the same is also true for publishers.“ (Horst Hippler 2019, press release 15 January 2019)

This statement was made shortly after signing a contract with Wiley, which is estimated to cost around € 26 Million per year, plus an extra consolidation access fee of € 2 Million (€ 2,750 per article, with 9,500 articles estimated to being published, see Sander et al. 2019:73). The whole DEAL project does not only make the transition to Open Access more calculable for German research institutions (and for publishers), it also excludes scientists that are either affiliated with non-member institutions or are not affiliated with any institutions at all. Alongside this process, there is an European initiative supported by European academic institutions and funders under the umbrella of Plan S that is planning to make the entirety of European research funded by supporting institutions Open Access.

Open Access in the Global South

Apart from European or “Western” initiatives, there is also a great diversity of alliances and collaborative projects in the Global South. In South America for instance, the Brazilian-based bibliographic database SciELO has been providing and promoting Open Access publications mostly from South American Countries for more than two decades. Since its inception SciELO has established its own citation index – also covered by the Web of Science (WoS) – and is setting up its own preprint server (Packer et al. 2017, Spinak 2019). Furthermore, its scheme is considered a model for other research communities in the Global South, as its ideas have been transferred to South Africa for example. Similarly, Redalyc was established in 2002 by the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Mexicó in collaboration with other institutions as a bibliographic database and digital library improving the research visibility of Latin American scholars worldwide.
What’s more, there are a lot of regional alliances worldwide (e.g. INA-Rxiv; AfricArXiv; Delhi Declaration on Open Access, see Das 2018; Open Access India, Gutam 2018) supporting Open Access infrastructures and competing with other players like big publishers in the global marketplace of scholarly publishing. It is a struggle in which collaboration and solidarity are key to not becoming even more marginalized.
Sometimes, especially in times of change, reactionary forces are trying to close their borders, shut their doors, and refer to their national territories and/or identities. And that’s exactly what is being discussed for example in the United Kingdom: to nationalize Open Access licenses (Price et al. 2015). As Martin Paul Eve stated in the headline of his blog entry on the LSE Impact Blog, this proposal goes completely against the fundamentals of Open Access:

If we choose to align open access to research with geo-political borders we negate the moral value of open access“ (Eve 2019)

Even if the discussion in the United Kingdom is entangled with the Brexit debate, and even in a context in which there are global tendencies towards regaining national strength, it is absurd to think of closing access to knowledge again, as research should rely, as it always has, on being open and collaborative. But openness itself is not the cure for an exploitative system that is continually creating inequalities. A geographical perspective, in this connection, may sharpen our senses to the fact that all that glitters is not gold.


Blank, G., Graham, M. & Calvino, C. (2018): Local Geographies of Digital Inequality. – Social Science Computer Review, 36: 82–102.

Das, A.K. (2018): Delhi Declaration on Open Access 2018: An overview. – ALIS, 65.

Eve, M.P. (2019): If we choose to align open access to research with geo-political borders we negate the moral value of open access.

Gutam, S. (2018): Strengthening South-South Cooperation for Advancing Open Access in India & South Asia (Zenodo).

Harle, J. (2016): Who drives research in developing countries?

Packer, A.L., Santos, S. & Meneghini, R. (2017): SciELO Preprints on the way.

Price, G.D., Chaytor, S. & Hillman, N. (2015): Open access. Is a national licence the answer?, Oxford (Higher Education Policy Institute).

Sander, F., Hermann, G., Hippler, H., Meijer, G. & Schimmer, R. (2019): Projekt DEAL – John Wiley & Son Publish and Read Agreement.

Spinak, P.E. (2019): Acelerando la comunicación científica vía preprints.

More than 10,000 predatory journals

… currently exist across the globe, according to numbers from various lists (source: Grudniewicz et al. 2019)
This Blog is published under a CC BY 4.0 license. You are allowed to share and adapt this content under these conditions.
Christoph is a geographer focussing his current research on the system of academic knowledge production and the publishing industry with a detailed perspective on the Open Access transition. 


Christoph Schimmel

Geographer, University of Innsbruck

Related Posts

Sustainability through or despite of digitalisation?

This audio blog (in German) features a research talk of Prof. Dr. Martina Fromhold-Eisebith who is a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) which recently released its flagship report on digitisation and sustainability.

by Prof. Dr. Martina Fromhold-Eisebith
Geographer, University of Aachen (RWTH)

© 2024
Research Group Transient Spaces & Societies

Geographisches Institut Innsbruck
Innrain 52, 6020 Innsbruck



Transient Spaces and Societies
University of Innsbruck Logo

Follow us

Logo of Twitter X
Transient Spaces and Societies