Open Access and Ivory Rot

Recently, Phil Cohen, a sociologist studying families, highlighted a statement by the American Sociological Association more or less defending the current academic publishing model against open access, in part because it generates revenue for disciplinary organizations like theirs. As Phil points out (and I’m definitely putting words in his mouth here), that’s utter crazytalk, because it prioritizes internal disciplinary stuff over the mission of spreading knowledge.

That argument – economics vs. mission – is an important one. But I wanted to make a semi-related point based on my (now three years in the past, thankfully!) time in academia. Which is that I don’t think all the logical advocacy for a new system is going to make as much of a dent as it should, because so many academics are invested in another aspect of the current journal system:

They will never say it, but many academics like the fact that nobody can see their work.

 (Note: What I’m about to write is based on my experience in the social sciences. If it resonates further, fine, but I’m not extending the claims).

I’ll cite just three quick experiences to support that assessment, though there are more.  The first came in my third or fourth year of grad school. At Iowa, we had a weekly department seminar where grad students and faculty shared rough drafts of their works in progress, to an audience of other grads and profs.

I’d later find out that even this was a remarkably open setup – many academic departments don’t have any formal collaboration or sharing process at all. But it occurred to me that encouraging undergrads to attend the seminar might help open their eyes to some of the bigger stakes of the field, particularly since many of them picked Communications as a kind of vanilla default, unaware that it was actually a big and robust intellectual tradition. I made a suggestion publicly that we should do things like put up flyers around the department, and encourage students in our classes to attend the seminar.

This was met with a wave of withering scorn and venom that it still pains me to recall to this day, with long email rants about how undergrads weren’t prepared to process what we were doing, would ruin the atmosphere of the seminar, etc. Very condescending stuff. It was hard for me to understand why grad students at an elite program – who I should remind you are adult professional teachers – would not want to draw out their students, push them, and learn from them. But there was clearly a sense that sharing our work outside of a very select circle was extremely intimidating to many.

And this isn’t just a mindset shared by graduate students. Several years later, I was tangentially involved in organizing a conference. A suggestion had been made (this time, not by me) that the proceedings should be recorded and provided online for those who couldn’t make it to the event.

Cue a stream of invective almost identical in tone to my earlier encounter. This time, there was a slightly more valid point being made – that publicizing the proceedings of a conference violated a safe zone of intellectual exploration. But in retrospect, even that seems like a silly, fearful objection – a lot of professional conferences are made public, some VERY public, and there is at once a sense of exploration and a sense of responsibility for what is said. And people who are willing to speak their minds still do.

For me, both of these cases felt like a group of professionals rising up in resistance to what is their basic social function – to create and spread knowledge. My most generous interpretation is that academics tend to think that the ‘final’ form of their knowledge – a journal article – is the extent of their responsibility to that calling.

The less generous interpretation is that many academics don’t actually want anyone to see their work, in progress or complete, at all, because they have no confidence in its inherent worth.

One final example helps illustrate why this feeling may actually be perfectly rational. At a conference on globalization, I was lucky enough to hear an unimpressive little man, an assistant professor at an unspectacular but perfectly respectable school, outline his so-far-successful strategy for career success.

“You just take something someone else has written, and you find a problem with it. And you write a paper about that. Or you take someone else’s big idea, and you break it down into a dozen little parts, and you publish a paper on each one.”

I was gutpunched. At that point I was a postdoc, and I’d published I think three big papers, each one an attempt to tackle a large question head-on, dive deep, and come up with not just something new and significant to say, but a complex array of related things to say. I had spent upwards of a year on each one, and I had, according to a guy who outranked me, been wasting my time. It was maybe one of the most stomach-churning exchanges I ever had as an academic.

Of course, there’s something to be said for the approach he describes, not just as a career path, but intellectually – sometimes problems are small but interesting. But that’s not an approach for a 25 or even 15 page, densely-cited and heavily peer-reviewed journal article. That’s something that needs to be public, part of an ongoing dialogue, part of the path towards something bigger.

But (and I know this has been said before) the structure of journals and academic careers discourage that public, collaborative approach. Journals themselves are so little read even by academics that nothing resembling a dialogue emerges from them. And guys like my unimpressive interlocutor are happy for that, because in that setting the content of their work matters not a tiny bit. All that matters is that they can write it into their C.V.

The whole thing is a giant waste of some genuinely gifted minds.

So, open access journals wouldn’t just be a financial boon for university libraries, and they wouldn’t just give the public more access to the work they are, after all, paying for. They would change the tenor of academic work by making it available – and thus accountable – to an indefinite but large audience.

While there are many vocal academics pushing for open access, there is pretty clearly a silent majority doing nothing to make them happen. And when I think about that, I think about all the people I’ve met over the years who are very happy to have a “PhD” next to their name, without ever having to show their work to anyone beyond a roomful of conference attendees and a half-dozen editors.

And it’s not these people’s fault, per se. They’ve been born and bred into that insularity. In fact, they’re victims here, because really successful academics don’t tend to fall into their camp – people who really love their work, and therefore truly excel at it, also tend to look for opportunities to spread their ideas around, get them dirty, mix it up.

Open access journals would make doing that more normal, and bit by bit, less frightening. Would work be misconstrued and misused by the media? Almost certainly. And then academics would have to engage with that misuse, publicly defend themselves, help people understand.

I know – the horror.

I’m being snarky, but of course I do understand that this fear is real, and justified. I now write a huge amount, for a large national publication, and making mistakes in that context is gut-wrenching, terrifying, tear-jerking. But the fact is that everyone makes mistakes, and honest mistakes rarely end careers. It’s part of the social contract when you’re part of an ongoing dialogue – you’re allowed to get things wrong. But that’s not how academics think now, or are trained to think by their context. Because there is no dialogue, everything has to be final and perfect and right before anybody sees it, and so there is no dialogue.

And round and round forever.

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