Internalizing “Open for Whom?”: Unpacking the Connection Between Equity & Open

As this year’s Open Access Week kicks off, we at SPARC continue to grapple with the question: “Open for Whom?” -- the theme for this year’s international week of awareness. The advisory committee responsible for selecting the theme wanted to emphasize that it’s not enough to simply focus on whether we reach a fully open access system of sharing knowledge—we also have to consider how we get there. The questions of who is included and whose interests are prioritized are central to this process.

At SPARC, we view “open” as an enabling strategy for building a more equitable system of sharing knowledge—not as the end goal in itself. This has been an important consideration for us  since the founding of the open movement, and is reflected in foundational documents of both the Open Access and Open Education communities. In 2002, the Budapest Open Access Initiative eloquently expressed this functional connection, calling for the community to consider opening up access to information in order to: 

“...accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”

Five years later, the Cape Town Open Education Declaration outlined a similar commitment to equity, calling for the use of “open” as a strategy to contribute to:

“...creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge.”

Openness itself does not ensure equity, but it can be used to advance it by opening up participation in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. It can remove cost as a barrier, empower local communities to adapt resources to their context, and enhance the relevance of educational materials.   

But this can only happen if we carefully and deliberately consider equity implications at every critical decision point—from what business models we choose to support, to how we build our technology, to how we design our governance bodies. Our choices need to include sustainability models that ensure everyone has the ability to fully participate in the scholarly conversation—and not be relegated to reading a conversation meant for someone else. It’s through these countless individual decisions that equity gets built into the foundation of a system. Without consistently practicing this kind of intentionality, we run the risk of having a system of sharing knowledge that might be more open, but that continues to reinforce current inequities.  

On a more fundamental level, open can also advance equity by creating the opportunity to reassess and change the underlying structures in the research and education systems. For example, the transition to open research has already prompted some institutions to review the incentive structure of their promotion and tenure process. What we value in scholarship may shift away from brand name traditional journals and a fixation on impact factors that prioritize research questions primarily in North America and Europe over those from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Instead, we have the opportunity to recognize a much broader set of outputs that are generated by more fundamentally equitable structures.

At SPARC, building a better understanding of what this means for our own organization and work has been the focus of an internal review process that started earlier this year. With the support of DeEtta Jones and her team, we’re examining how we are working with our membership, the broader community, and our own team to examine whose voices are missing, how well our programs align with the needs of the community we seek to serve, and what barriers may be preventing broader participation. A first step in this assessment involved a survey of member and nonmember institutions and in-depth interviews with members of the SPARC team and wider open community. While the survey provided us with a number of valuable insights, one important theme stood out: the need for SPARC to help more clearly articulate the connection between equity and open.

This resonated deeply with this year’s Open Access Week theme, and we’re pleased to be able to use this week as an opportunity to begin to address this challenge. As we continue our efforts to ensure that equity and inclusion are at the core of SPARC’s work, we look forward to engaging with the community and working together to put what we learn into practice. We encourage all members of the community to reflect on this challenge, consider the impact of our individual decisions in ensuring equitable outcomes, and join us in this effort, this Open Access Week and every week.

This Open Access Week post was a collaborative effort by the SPARC team.

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