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  • Julie Brittain

Openness is good but not simple

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Julie Brittain, who has recently become the Executive Director of the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP). She reflects on openness and what it means in the context of INASP’s work. This post was originally published at INASP’s blog Practising Development.]  

I’m now two months into my new job as Executive Director of INASP and I’ve been thinking a lot about openness. It’s partly prompted by an event I attended in February to launch the IDS Bulletin as an Open-Access (OA) journal – a decision that I applaud, particularly as IDS is obliged to subsidize the cost of the journal to keep it genuinely OA, with no author fees.

Our belief within INASP in everyone’s right to access and to contribute to the world’s collective knowledge, irrespective of geography, wealth, race, ethnicity or gender, shapes the decisions we make about the work that we do. And ‘openness’ is at the heart of this.


I was pleased to see in a recent ‘values’ discussion with INASP staff members that openness and transparency continue to be high on the list of values that matter to us as an organization (others include respect, integrity, commitment and participation).

Of course, openness has several meanings, particularly in contemporary development.

For INASP, it’s about ‘opening up’ our materials – all of our training courses are made freely online to be used by others across the globe with a Creative Commons licence. And it’s also about enabling others to ‘open up’ theirs. But it’s also about opening up other sources of knowledge – and this includes helping people to access content that may already be open but is hard to reach.

We negotiate with publishers so that more than two million students and researchers in developing countries can access international journals either freely or in a more affordable way.

And through INASP’s Journals Online work, past and present, almost 1000 locally published journals in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Honduras and Mongolia are freely accessible full-text online.

Openness isn’t simply about content though, but about conversations. We encourage a free exchange of ideas and learning through our AuthorAID discussion list and promote citizen engagement with evidence via Knowledge Cafés in Zimbabwe with our EIPM work. We also facilitate peer-to-peer knowledge sharing across borders throughout all of our projects. And we freely and openly share our learning via our case studies and Learning, Reflections & Innovation publications.

Yet there is a double edge.

IDS’ first fully OA journal special is on ‘openness and governance’, and it’s clear from reading that the definition of ‘openness’ is a pretty murky and contested one. More thoughtfulness is required in scrutinizing how true ‘openness’ applies to our work. For example, although INASP promotes openness and full-text availability of subscription content, we stop short of actively promoting OA to our publishers. You might ask why.

We believe strongly that open access is a good thing; in fact INASP is frequently asked to speak and write about OA at forums such as the Frankfurt Book Fair and ISMTE and in this recent articlepublished in EON magazine. However, we also recognize that in the competitive market in which publishers operate, true ‘openness’ is hard to come by and even harder to live by as an organization. In many cases, OA journals are free to read, but charge authors to publish. As many have pointed out before, ‘open’ certainly doesn’t mean ‘free’.

Researchers face similar pressures – the choice whether to share data openly, in the interest of scientific progress and thorough scrutiny, is weighed against the risks of somebody getting to a discovery before them or, worse, somebody misrepresenting the data. And INASP, with learning and sharing at the heart of our approach, faces similar tensions.

For small organizations like INASP to continue to do important work, and to survive in this increasingly competitive marketplace, we are obliged to ask ourselves how open we can actually be in the future. If we are to remain financially secure, should we be more cautious about freely sharing our knowledge and expertise?

Yet we know from all of our work that to promote openness is a good thing. I am reminded of a quote from one of our Learning, Reflections and Innovation papers about a project we are supporting in the Philippines to bring evidence-informed approaches to educational policy in local government: “This is important in policy making because openness is a good indicator of transparency…..To be willingly engaged in an exchange of ideas and accepting critique from peers…is an important feat”.

To continue to do important work we need to find a way to reconcile our deep instinct for openness and knowledge sharing with our peers with the increasing need to work in a competitive environment. I am committed to finding a way to do this – and through this blog, I want to discuss those challenges openly too.

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