Openwashing in Open Spaces: A Review of the Literature

4:10 PM, Wednesday 27 Apr 2022 EDT (30 minutes)
  Virtual session
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Courtney Waugh, Research & Scholarly Communication Librarian 
Emily Carlisle-Johnston, Research & Scholarly Communication Librarian, Western Libraries, Western University

Openwashing, or “spin[ning] a product or company as open, although it is not,” first originated as a term when coined by Michelle Thorne in 2009. Since then, scholars and practitioners working in the Open have evolved the definition to more explicitly situate vendors and commercial publishers as the entities responsible for openwashing (Farrow, 2017; Finley, 2011). Through their writings, it has become clear that when an act of openwashing is called out, it is to signal that despite claims suggesting otherwise, a product, service, or company does not fulfill the necessary and established requirements to be Open. While claims of openwashing are scattered throughout scholarly communication literature, there are few studies dedicated to synthesizing the phenomenon across the various spaces of ‘Open’. Therefore, there is likewise an absence of literature that could be used to guide practitioners on what to look out for, or be wary of, when working with or for vendors and publishers that claim to support or enable Open. This gap in the literature is stark, given that for greenwashing–the more commonplace term from which openwashing was derived–there are several frameworks that aim to classify and characterize corporate greenwashing strategies (de Freitas Netto et al., 2020). These frameworks have enabled consumers to distinguish sincere eco-friendliness from greenwashing–a skill that is similarly important for librarians and information professionals, especially when working with or responding to vendors and publishers whose interpretations of Open serve only to further their profit. Given this gap, we conducted a review and synthesis of the existing literature on openwashing. Our presentation will explore our findings, outlining prominent definitions, characteristics, tactics, and drivers as they are operationalized by commercial publishers. These early findings suggest that openwashing is most commonly deployed as an intentional marketing tactic used by publishers and others to co-opt the values of Open for profit. It is mobilized through subtle methods such as appropriating the language of Open to redefine its meaning, and appealing to the public perception of ‘open equals good’. Scholars have also called out more explicit publisher and vendor tactics like ‘open wrapping’, freemium services, and ‘fauxpen access’ (Freshwater 2014; McLaughlin et. al. 2021; Smith 2019). Our presentation will culminate by connecting findings back to the field of librarianship, highlighting their relevance to LIS practitioners, and especially those who work to advance or support open access. This work is important, because in order for libraries to advance Open, we must be able to identify the ways in which vendors and publishers co-opt the language and values of Open to ultimately do Open a disservice. By highlighting the openwashing tactics and strategies that have most commonly been critiqued in current literature –albeit sporadically– we have taken a key step in empowering library practitioners to identify and resist these tactics in everyday practice–individually and as a collective. Further, our work has laid the groundwork for future research to analyze and classify publisher openwashing strategies, perhaps surfacing a new range of tactics that have yet to be identified or critiqued.


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