Analysis & counterpointsOpen access to scholarly knowledge

Open access to scholarly knowledge in the digital era (chapter 5.1): Infrastructural experiments and the politics of open access

This article is chapter 5.1 in section 5 of a series of articles summarising the book Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access.

In the first chapter of the infrastructures and platforms section, Jonathan Gray explores how scholarly communication infrastructures reflect, enact, and configure different ways of making research public, including both “formal” outputs (e.g., books, articles) and “informal” spaces and channels within, across, and beyond research fields.

The widely cited Budapest Open Access Initiative suggests that open access entails:

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, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.

Barrier-removal talk might be taken as a sign that open access advances a “negative” conception of openness focusing on the removal of constraints, rather than a more substantive “positive” conception. However, Gray alerts that there are many ways in which open access is mobilized, advocated, and practiced in the service of a range of different kinds of social, cultural, political, and economic values and visions of the future.

Gray advises that previous research on knowledge and information infrastructures suggests that we should consider how our social, cultural and political values are braided into the wires, coded into the applications and built into the databases which are so much a part of our daily lives.

Open scholarly communication infrastructures may also be characterized by their potential to multiply and organize relations through digital technologies in specific ways. As such, they are involved in making many different types of objects and activities commensurable, comparable, and quantifiable.

In what follows, Gray explores “infrastructural experiments” that make different aspects of the politics of open access and scholarly communication visible and actionable. These experiments may facilitate collective inquiry into who and what research is for.

1. Who has access?

The Open Access Button was started as an advocacy device to “make this invisible problem of research paywalls visible” and to “help change the system”.

It is a socio-technical device that records a variety of interactions across space and time in order to make individual incidents of encountering paywalls visible as cases of a broader systemic “paywall injustice” and being “denied access”. It uses a browser extension to draw attention to under-recognized alternatives to accessing articles, and facilitates and records requests for access to research.

There are several mechanisms offering alternative access routes to paywalled research, including legal aggregators and “pirate” sites. The Open Access Button is distinctive because it documents and datafies access issues.

2. What counts?

There are infrastructural experiments around what is recognized and counted as research work and research outputs, and the different forms that these can take. The Zenodo project based at CERN aims to make many different kinds of work easier to discover, cite, and institutionally recognize.

The Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) journal publishes “all outputs of the research cycle”, and the Figshare project carries the tagline “credit for all your research”, thus aspiring to surface and recognize different aspects of research work which may traditionally be overlooked.

There are infrastructural experiments in recognizing and supporting existing and emerging forms of scholarly work, including living books and collective authorship models.

3. What matters?

Infrastructural experiments may serve to explore the dominant forms of quantifying, valuing, measuring, assessing, and metrifying research. They may also serve to address the reactive and performative effects of such practices.

Altmetrics, or alternative metrics, are a response to established scientometric measures, and explore other ways of measuring the value of research publications beyond metrics based on citation counts. They include the use of web and social media data, and provide aggregated counts.

Impactstory Profiles use web and social media data to provide different analytical functions and “badges” for researchers, including “Hot Streak” (the degree of ongoing online discussion around a publication), “Global South” (the percentage of online engagement that comes from countries in the south), and “Wikitastic” (the number of Wikipedia articles which cite a researcher’s publications).

The Leiden Manifesto argues that quantitative valuation should support qualitative assessment, that research should be considered in relation to institutions, fields and researchers, and that assessment practices may be required for different fields.

4. How are relations reconfigured?

Infrastructures can be considered sites for experimentation in reassembling and reconfiguring relations between different actors around research, including non-academic publics such as advertisers, data flows, startups, algorithms, and activists.

Platforms are a way of configuring and organizing relations around research. They accommodate different economic models, such as multisided markets, and may shape user practices and the forms of mediation that platforms afford.

Though their economic models and material organization may differ, platforms such as, ResearchGate, Mendeley, and Google Scholar aim to organize and monetize relations in and across research communities to suit their respective business models.

Alternative projects have arisen in response to and parallel to such platforms, including ScholarlyHub, PubPeer, and Hypothesis. The Directory of Open Access Journals is positioned as a potential mechanism to address inequities in access and knowledge production.


In concluding the chapter, Gray states that the examples provided suggest how infrastructural work may be brought into the foreground not only to enact dominant regimes of quantification, valuation, and interactivity, but also to question them and to explore alternatives.

Infrastructural experiments may serve not only to optimize existing systems, but also to interrogate their operations, to better understand their specificities and limitations, and broaden involvement around them.

Gray alerts that this task will surely become even more vital as the plurality and variety of actors involved in scholarly communication increases, from platform companies to third-party analytics services, text-mining bots, citizen scientists, digital knowledge cultures, research startups, relevance algorithms, and artificial intelligence projects, along with all of their attendant imaginaries, economic models, practices, and publics.

Next part (chapter 5.2): The platformisation of open.

Article source: This article is an edited summary of Chapter 171 of the book Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access2 which has been published by MIT Press under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.

Acknowledgements: This summary was drafted by Wordtune Read with further corrections and edits by Bruce Boyes.

Article license: This article is published under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.


  1. Gray, J. (2020). Infrastructural Experiments and the Politics of Open Access. In Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press.
  2. Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) (2020). Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press.
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Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and education professional with over 30 years of experience in Australia and China. His work has received high-level acclaim and been recognised through a number of significant awards. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. He is also the editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and teaches in the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) Certified High-school Program (CHP).

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