On SAGE Insight: The moral economy of open access

Special Issue on Moral economies of the digital

Guest Editor: Dave Elder-Vass

From European Journal of Social Theory

Access to and profit from scientific publications have become one of the defining issues in contemporary knowledge production. Public attention has been drawn to examples of conflict between more traditional modes of knowledge production and challenges posed by its massification and digitalization. Digital technologies have freed communication from the limitations of paper as a medium; as a result, there has been a shift in this economy, from one based on scarcity to one based on abundance. Just as paper journals are increasingly obsolete, so is the subscription model of funding journals. For many, including the UK and US governments, open publishing has become a progressive goal, if not an economic and social imperative. However, it would be a mistake to interpret open access (OA) as the de-commodification of scientific knowledge.

The incumbent publishers of the subscription era, along with a plethora of new firms, are constructing an ‘economy of openness’ where the commodity is not necessarily knowledge per se, but data and information about that knowledge, the demand for which is driven in part by the creation of abundance. Debates over OA are not just reactions to a pre-existing ‘digital revolution’ or presumed economic imperatives. Rather, these debates frame the actors, institutions, and relationships central to academic knowledge production, in part influencing how academics think about their own labour and, thus, how or whether they contribute to the expansion of digital forms of academic knowledge.

This article shows how a specific community (or group of actors) constructs a moral economy in the context of digital capitalism. This context has, on the one hand, enabled the free circulation of products of academic knowledge, no longer impeded by physical limitations in the same way ‘traditional’ books or papers in academic journals have been. On the other hand, it has also posed substantial challenges to academic labour, in particular through increasing demands for accountability and the demonstration of value of research.


Digital technologies have made access to and profit from scientific publications hotly contested issues. Debates over open access (OA), however, rarely extend from questions of distribution to questions of how OA is transforming the politics of academic knowledge production. This article argues that the movement towards OA rests on a relatively stable moral episteme that positions different actors involved in the economy of OA (authors, publishers, the general public), and most importantly, knowledge itself. The analysis disentangles the ontological and moral side of these claims, showing how OA changes the meaning of knowledge from a good in the economic, to goodin the moral sense. This means OA can be theorized as the moral economy of digital knowledge production. Ultimately, using Boltanski and Thévenot’s work on justification, the article reflects on how this moral economy frames the political subjectivity of actors and institutions involved in academic knowledge production.

Table of contents for the special issue

Read the article in full here

Article details
The moral economy of open access
Jana Bacevic, Chris Muellerleile
First Published June 28, 2017
DOI: 10.1177/1368431017717368
European Journal of Social Theory



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