Open Access for All? Think Again

Open Access for All? Think Again

[Jan Klabbers is the Deputy Director of the Erik Castren Institute of International Law and Human Rights.]

Almost all governments are almost always engaged in rewriting almost all of the national histories of their states. What should come as an unpleasant surprise though is that Cambridge University Press proves to be a willing accomplice. The Guardian reported last Saturday that CUP blocked access in China to over 300 articles published in The China Quarterly (and here’s a follow-up). This is not just any journal; its editor is based at SOAS, and its website proudly claims that it is ‘the leading scholarly journal in the field’. The blocked articles have in common that they all deal with awkward political issues, ranging from the Cultural Revolution to the 1989 Tiananmin Square masacre, as well as the situation in Tibet – international lawyers may be interested in hearing that among the blocked pieces is an analysis of the Tibet question under international law by Alfred Rubin, published in 1968, nearly fifty years ago.

The upshot of all this is rather disturbing: Chinese historians, lawyers and social scientists get access to parts of The China Quarterly, but not to all of it. They might think they have the entire repository available to them, but they do not. The history accessible to them does not include the Cultural Revolution, nor Tiananmin Square, nor Tibet: to Chinese researchers – and the public at large – these events may simply never have taken place. It is troubling, but to be expected, that governments rewrite history; but when academic institutions collaborate, things really start to unravel. Academic institutions somehow stand for independence of thought and research, for neutrality, for objectivity, and are among the few institutions capable of providing a counterbalance to the airbrushed narratives governments may wish to endorse.

CUP acknowledges that it blocks articles, and justifies itself with the familiar consequentialist logic: pragmatically, a limited amount of articles is blocked, in order for others to remain available. This is the kind of logic that may work when encountering a mugger in a dark alley, but it is less persuasive in reiterative settings: you give in once, and you may never be able to turn the situation around. What is also troubling, on a different level, is that procedural decisions such as these are far less innocent than they may seem. Caving in to censorship demands ultimately undermines everything academia stands for, yet is breezily presented as a pragmatic solution.

All this would be bad enough when done by a cut-throat commercial publisher. What somehow makes it worse though is that it is precisely CUP that is involved, the oldest academic publisher in the world, whose website highlights a commitment to doing business responsibly and proudly speaks of delivering ‘the best learning and research solutions’. Well, no, not to Chinese readers. Most of my own books are published by CUP, and I have always felt that CUP would be a natural fit, precisely because of its academic orientation. In light of the above, however, I’m not so sure anymore.

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