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The Open Access Opportunity: Building the Third Space

  • 6 July 2022
  • By Matt Flinders

See our ‘Open Access 101’ by Dr Fiona Counsell, Head of Open Access Operations & Policy at Taylor & Francis, here.

In her recent blog, Victoria Gardner explored whether open access was ‘the end or the means’? In this blog Matt Flinders argues that open access represents little more that the latest stage of a complex and ongoing shift in the architecture of knowledge. Open access is definitely not ‘the end’ of anything – it signals the need to think more systemically and ambitiously about knowledge translation and therefore the ‘third space’. 

Like motherhood and apple pie, it’s pretty hard to argue against the principle of open access. Publicly funded research should, by definition, be openly available to the public that paid for it. But as Victoria Gardner recently highlighted in a HEPI blog we know very little about how open access might facilitate evidence-informed policy-making or help wider public engagement with research. This post explores these issue from the standpoint of someone who works across the intersection between research and policy (and vice versa).

The main argument of this piece revolves around the notion of ‘the third space’ which is not some form of intergalactic territory but simply the sphere that exists between knowledge-creation and knowledge-mobilisation. 

This space matters because without thinking about the architecture needed to facilitate effective mobility across this space, then we risk any additional public investment in research, development and innovation going to waste.

Putting the same point slightly differently, if the transformational ambition contained within the new UKRI Strategic Plan is to be realised then it will demand equally transformative thinking, and investment at the intersection between research and research-users. Phrased in this way, the open access agenda is just one element of a broader shift in the wider ecosystem with alignment, mobility and co-ordination emerging as key themes (hence the ongoing Nurse II report).

The open access challenge is this: simply making vast seams of science available to the public is meaningless unless accompanied by some way of making that scholarship accessible. Science is, by definition, esoteric. It is specialised. Researchers dedicate their lives to exploring intricate topics or theoretical questions, many of which offer no clear or direct relevance to the ‘everyday’ lived experience of most people.

That is not to say that the research is irrelevant but simply that the connection between that science and the public needs to be set out in a more accessible fashion. Michael Burawoy’s wonderful phrase, ‘communicating with multiple publics in multiple ways’, offers food for thought (apologies if an ironic paywall stops you accessing this account). 

The situation for policymakers is no different. Simply making academic journals available to policymakers is not the solution to the problem they face. What they lack is the time to read and synthesise the existing research in order to see how the existing body of knowledge informs a specific policy challenge. Access to 8,000 peer-reviewed articles – or a million different journals – risks creating an infodemic that could be just as troublesome as lack of access. The existence of fake science or ‘shadow science’ itself adds a troubling dynamic. 

The third space is where high-quality knowledge synthesis and translation takes place. It is a third space between the traditional academic sphere and that of the conventional university administrative structures. This is where the professional knowledge brokers and intermediaries live (or at least work) as they focus on:

  1. synthesising the existing knowledge base;
  2. dealing with the ‘so what?’ question; and
  3. reacting to the knowledge needs of the public (broadly defined and including policymakers).

This notion of the ‘third space’ is not new but has generally developed around the trials and tribulations of those professional knowledge-brokers who work within universities. A more expansive conception might include those staff but also think more systematically about the organisational architecture of knowledge and how to build bridges across the intersection between research and policy. 

This is an architecture that has clearly developed in recent years with the creation of ‘what works’ centres, ‘catapults’, and new observatories, plus a huge amount of activity and investment in mobility focused fellowships and funding schemes.

A recent review of this activity charts a breathtaking welter of activity but concludes by highlighting two concerns:

  1. there is a lack of evaluatory evidence on the practical value or impact of this investment; and
  2. there appears to be a lot of fragmentation and possibly duplication in this space. The notion of a ‘rudderless mass of activity’ captures this concern.

Have I moved too far from the topic of open access?

No. Open access raises critical issues about how the knowledge that is unlocked (or ‘opened-up’) might actually be utilised – possibly even ‘democratised’, if this is not too dramatic a term. 

The open access opportunity is therefore one that hinges on facilitation, flow and fresh thinking. It demands that intermediary structures are built (cultural, institutional, skills and talents) in the space between researchers and research-users if the potential of open access is to become a reality. 

Think big, think third space.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield. He is also Vice President of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom, and Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network. Matthew is available on Twitter @politicalspike.

Tomorrow, HEPI is hosting a webinar to launch its new report on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller access to higher education. Book your free place here.

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