The recent controversy about Cambridge University Press and the Chinese attempts to censor their content on China has raised questions about the potential for open access publishing to bypass this kind of censorship. This story took off first in the academic community and then in the press, indicating the level of public concern about censorship of the Internet more generally and the compromises made by those who publish content. For the area studies community it is of particular relevance for researchers who expect to be able to engage with and be read by scholars and others in the countries they are writing about. The singling out of the area studies journal China Quarterly on this occasion left its authors and editors fighting for the principles of academic freedom against both the commercial interests of CUP and the political interests of the Chinese government. In the end it was the principle of academic freedom that won the argument, although there is no victory yet for students in China, who remain cut off from this content.
How far is open access the answer for those who want to bypass censorship by repressive regimes? The answer seems to be complex and to depend on the particular type of censorship in place in each country, and the model of open access publishing allowed by the publisher. In this particular case the Chinese asked CUP to remove content from their site. The original press statement from CUP says that it was the Chinese importer who asked for the restrictions, which seems to be in line with stories that the Chinese authorities enforce censorship by the threat of sanctions on local ISPs and content providers. CUP initially agreed and then were persuaded by the public outcry to refuse, in a follow up statement, joining the likes of the Economist in being blocked entirely in China. The onus was put on the publisher to make their content acceptable, something which they were eventually persuaded not to do. Whether the articles in question were only accessible on subscription or were available via gold open access on the CUP site would be unlikely to make any difference, if the site as a whole were blocked. Gold open access therefore seems to offer little in the way of a solution to state censorship.
Green open access is a different matter. The fact that the publishers were asked to remove their content indicates that the filters in place would not automatically block the offending articles on the basis of keywords. Had they done so, there would have been no reason to ask in the first place. That seems to give the potential for articles in institutional or subject repositories to be more easily accessible in countries that do not simply block all external sites, such as North Korea. Presumably as CUP does allow green open access for the journal articles it publishes there is a possibility that the articles in question might remain accessible in China via this route. There is one potential barrier to the success of this approach, and that is the digital object identifier, or DOI, which is designed specifically to bring together scattered examples of the same article. Implemented with good intent, it is potentially as helpful to repressive regimes in identifying troublesome material wherever it is as it is to academics checking their references, although censorship would have to operate at the level of the individual item rather than the service provider. If the DOI does prove to be an inadvertent obstacle to true open access across the world, then the only way to bypass it would seem to be for academics to retain their copyright and post multiple copies of their articles in web services which do not use a DOI, and to move them as often as necessary. That would make tracking individual publications much harder for all parties, wherever they are located.
It would be interesting to see an analysis of how far scholars in countries which censor use of the Internet are able to access articles in OA repositories, and how this changes with different types of censorship regime. That would be a telling indicator of the impact of the open access movement worldwide.