Do ‘the Risky Thing’ for Open Access

Posted by Roger Whitson on October 26th, 2012

A little over a year ago, Kathleen Fitzpatrick wrote “Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities,” in which she recounted a graduate student who asked about whether she should do a digital project for her dissertation or something more conservative. Fitzpatrick responded “Do the risky thing,” but qualified it with “[m]ake sure that someone’s got your back, but do the risky thing.”

Towards the middle of the argument, Fitzpatrick notes how a huge mentoring problem is emerging for younger scholars who are being hired as digital humanists. These scholars are yet not receiving adequate support for a kind of scholarship that many campuses may not know how to support.

Too many young digital humanists find themselves cautioned away from the very work that got them hired by well-meaning senior colleagues, who now tell them that wacky digital projects are fine on the side, or once the work necessary for tenure is complete. In giving that advice, we run the risk of breaking the innovative spirit that we’ve hoped to bring to our departments. And where that spirit isn’t broken, untenured digital scholars run the risk of burnout from having to produce twice as much—traditional scholarship and digital projects—as their counterparts do.

I bring up Fitzpatrick’s argument because I believe this kind of advice applies equally well to open access publishing. Last night, David Parry gave a provocative and fiery talk about open access and knowledge cartels at Washington State University. Parry argued that all publishers who publish underneath a paywall represent a knowledge cartel: something that makes money not by producing new value, but by limiting access to information. If you are at a public institution, he argued, this is particularly problematic. Public money goes to fund your salary. If you use the public money to produce scholarship that is then (via gated journals or book publications) sold back to public institutions, you have basically allowed these publishers to make money by producing nothing. In fact, Universities have to pay money for your scholarship twice: first, in the form of your salary and second, in the form of purchasing the journal. Parry said that we should not only refuse to write for closed access journals, we should refuse to sit on their peer review boards, and (furthermore) we should stop reading them. When asked about why young scholars would risk tenure for open access publishing, his response was less satisfying. “If you have to sell your soul to get tenure,” he says “then maybe tenure isn’t worth having.”

I think that’s the wrong kind of argument to make, despite the fact that Parry is up for tenure this year and has been quite consistent about publishing open access. Tim Morton has written about what he calls “beautiful soul syndrome,” and defines it in terms of the boycotter who thinks they’ve exited a certain system of consumerist exploitation by simply refusing to take part in it. “You, having exited this world, are good. Over there is the evil object, which you shun or seek to eliminate. Over here is the good subject, who feels good precisely insofar as he or she has separated from the evil world.” The problem? For Morton and Hegel, this type of thinking describes evil itself. It’s the same thinking that leads to religious fundamentalism. “Evil is the materialism that sees evil as the lump of nasty stuff over there that I should be hell bent on eliminating. There are really only two options then: quietism, which is to withdraw passively from the evil world; and terrorism, which is to fly a plane into it.” Instead of purifying ourselves, Morton suggests that we all realize that “we are hopelessly entangled in the mesh of interconnectedness, without any possibility of extricating ourselves.”

I don’t believe that open access is an all-or-nothing scenario that must be resisted completely and immediately, or not at all. Further, I think the path to more younger scholars publishing open access is not appealing to their guilt or giving them a beautiful soul to measure themselves by. What we need, rather, is a series of experiments, people willing to take risks, and faculty and administration members willing to back them. What if we had an Open Access Month, where scholars signed up and – during that month – refused to publish in closed access journals, peer review for them, or cite or even acknowledge any research published in them? The experiment might even more effective or interesting if we extended that month to a year. What would happen if we could gather together a large group of scholars in various fields, have them stop work on gated publications, and publish as much as they could in open access venues for an entire year? Would anything change in that year? Would the visibility of these scholars create the desire for further experiments in open access publishing? I don’t know. I’m convinced that a certain amount of risk taking is necessary if people are to understand the stakes and the benefits of publishing open access. What I do know is that we need more awareness. We need administrators, senior faculty, and junior faculty to come out and sign a pledge to support open access publishing. The pledge would recognize the moral imperative of public universities to produce publicly accessible knowledge, note that this moral imperative deserves independent recognition in hiring, tenure, and grant applications, and offer support for colleagues looking to publish either partly or exclusively in that area. No one should have to feel that they are fighting the good fight alone.

I’d be the first to admit that the problem of open access and public scholarship is a complicated one. As we all know, funding for the humanities is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Patty Erricson directed me to this article from 2010, with an interesting quote from AAUP head Cary Nelson who suggests that “incremental state funding for public higher education is basically over.” “For the foreseeable future,” he said, “the traditional battles for higher state appropriations are bound to be losing ones.” It is difficult to disagree with Nelson, especially when a task force in Florida has recently suggested that students majoring in English and other humanities disciplines should pay more for their tuition than those in STEM-related disciplines. While Dale Brill, the chair of the task force, is quoted in the article as saying that his “purpose [is not to] exterminate programs or keep students from pursing them,” it’s hard to believe that humanities departments who depend upon undergraduate major enrollments won’t be decimated by a policy like this one. If we can’t depend upon public funding for open access, where will the funding come from?

Even if it is complicated, the fight for open access to knowledge is an important one — perhaps the most important academic fight of our time. Scholars need to step out of their comfort zone and take risks. We’re all part of the same system that leads to knowledge cartels. I’ve published in gated venues. I’ve peer-reviewed for journals seeking to make a profit off of scholarly production. I even interviewed and trained with the for-profit University of Phoenix. I’m implicated, entangled, and I have no illusion that I’ll ever transcend the complications of living in postindustrial America. There’s nothing beautiful about my soul, even if my friends might find it pretty at times. But I also want to experiment with open access. I realize that, as a junior scholar within a field (19th Century British Literature) that only has a limited number of OA venues, I can’t be successful alone. I need support from colleagues, mentors, and administration. The question is not whether tenure is worth it for me, but what are we as a scholarly community willing to do for each other?

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