Open access

In 2013, Kembrew McLeod asked me to pinch-hit for him on a roundtable panel — “Open Access Publishing and the Future of Scholarship: A Conversation Between Stakeholders” — at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association. On the downside, this was because Kembrew wasn’t able to attend the conference, and so I didn’t get to hear the undoubtedly smart things he would have said had he been there. On the upside, I got to poke the proverbial bear a bit. And though this was a decade ago, most (all?) of what I said then still feels relevant to the current moment. :/

I want to talk about institutions and structures, and to recognize that most of us work in institutions that do things we don’t like, for reasons we don’t like.  I have issues with institutions — including my own — that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the people who work in/for those institutions.

1.  I think open access is great.  I want to see more of it. So I think the question of whether open access work can get people tenure and jobs is — or should be — a red herring.  If someone is being denied tenure or promotion or a job because they’ve published essays in open access journals rather than in closed access journals, then their tenure/hiring committees aren’t doing their jobs right. They should be reading the work, not just the business profiles of the journals where that work appears. Open access is about how copyright gets enforced, not about how easy it is to do research or get it out into the world. Open access isn’t incompatible with peer review. It is not the same thing as vanity publishing.

2.  Whether it’s purely about ego (my ideas matter) or, more nobly, about the cultural and political value of our work (my ideas matter), most of want to see our written work read and circulated and quoted and debated as widely as possible.  Paywalls and steep subscription prices and DRM (etc.) are barriers to that sort of broad circulation of our intellectual work.

3.  When I hear people talk about how open access would make it impossible for journals to be profitable enterprises, I break out in hives.  Not because I have some twisted faith that “free” journals would make money hand over fist.  I don’t, and they wouldn’t.  But because the current system of journals is profitable largely because it already depends heavily on two things:

  • Unpaid labor from peer reviewers and editorial board members
  • Taking over the copyrights of the scholars whose work appears in those journals

As a reviewer, and as an author, I’m already giving away the fruits of my intellectual labor all the time.  Under the current model, I’m doing so in ways that generate profits for other people and institutions.  And I’m not convinced that the primary purpose of journals should be to generate profits or revenue streams.

4.  When I hear institutions (like NCA) talk about how the revenues generated by journals need to be maintained because they fund all sorts of useful programs, I feel like I’m being blackmailed.  Keep giving us your labor to help our journals make money so that we can do all sorts of wonderful things . . . but when did journals become the primary funding mechanism for wonderful things?  More importantly, why did they do so?  Journals didn’t used to be intended (much less required) to be profit-generating machines.  Someone made that happen, it didn’t have to be that way, and it shouldn’t have to stay that way simply because that’s become the way things are.

5.  I don’t mind giving away my intellectual labor if I’m doing so in a context where it circulates freely — in both senses of the term.  I’m less happy about giving away my intellectual labor in contexts where it winds up becoming a revenue stream that helps to line other people’s bank accounts, and where I have little to no control over that end of things.

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