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Opinion & Commentary

Or, Remembering Aaron Swartz

Note: This post is published in collaboration with Scholastica and Academic-Led Publishing Day.

I work as the journals coordinator for Michigan Publishing, but I am also an academic. I am a critic, reviewer, and editor trained in literary and cultural studies; my specializations are in science fiction, comics, and popular culture broadly. Much of my research tries to think about how popular texts enact (or subvert) radical politics of social justice, equality, and inclusion. My dissertation is about how science fiction writers in the 1950s used the genre to consider the ramifications of the Korean War and the larger array of Cold War policies it represented. I edit books on popular culture and politics to bring together diverse voices to ask how we combat issues like racism and the destructive ideology of whiteness. I edit one academic journal, manage another, was book reviews editor of a third, and editorial assistant to a fourth–in all of these roles I’ve viewed my editorial position as political.

What goes into a journal, who writes that content, and what it says, are all political decisions that stand to shape the future of academia and the future of thought in our society. It has been clear for decades, for example, that when women’s or queer or black or indigenous voices are not heard in the academy, their perspectives are not represented in the scholarship and thus not taught to students; history, supposedly commonsense beliefs, and interpretations of literature and film remain perversely skewed to one narrative or another that excludes the realities of the quieted, the oppressed, the minority, the subaltern, the othered.

Academic-led publishing means nothing if we do not recognize that the act of publishing is deeply political. So, too, is who gets to access what gets published. Outside of academic libraries, which have to pay for access to journals either through institutional subscriptions to individual journals or through packages provided by content providers like Muse and JSTOR, a great deal of content published in academic journals sits behind a paywall. This is especially the case with the hundreds of journals owned and published by companies like Wiley-Blackwell and Elsevier. While most universities provide guest accounts to member of the public, significant problems of access still remain.

First, not everyone lives near a university or library with access to journals; most universities and libraries are in urban centers, and while in the U.S. over 80% of people live in or near urban centers, globally the number is closer to 55%. Second, even is one does live near a university, that university might not have access to a large number of journals, since libraries have limited budgets they can spend on either print subscriptions or purchasing digital access to serials and ebook content. My own undergraduate alma mater had significantly low levels of access to online journals content, as did my master’s alma mater; I either had to request multiple articles a semester through Interlibrary Loan (which costs the university money), or had to ask folks at other universities with better access packages to send me PDFs of what I needed for research. Not until I entered my PhD program at a major state research university did I get access to most serials research available behind paywalls. Third, even assuming a publishing landscape in which most research is available as no-fee online open access content, 53.6% of the global population (as of 2017) does not have easy, regular access to the internet—and that number obscures significant inequalities across regions, since the data for developing and least-developed nations is significantly offset in the global percentage by that of the developing world, where 84.4% of the population has household access to the internet.

The benefits of open access will always be weighed against the larger inequalities of global capitalism, but open access still remains an important goal for combating global information inequality. This was recognized as early as the 1970s, when Michael S. Hart founded Project Gutenberg to provide widespread access to public domain materials, and reiterated throughout the 1980s and 1990s as the Free Software Movement and development of arXiv pushed for the free sharing of information and academic publications, giving birth to the contemporary open access movement by the early 2000s. At the end of the second decade of the 21st century, open access has been embraced by many publishers and government agencies. Europe clearly leads the rest of the world in open access. Science Europe and the European Research Council’s Plan S, for example, has pushed to have all government-funded academic research made open access by 2020, and many European governments and universities provide researchers with open access funds earmarked for publisher subventions that make monographs open access (my first edited collection benefited from such funds provided by Utrecht University). American academic publishers have also begun to emphasize open access for monographs, and the landscape for journals publishing—especially questions of venue prestige that reflect on tenure and promotion—is swiftly changing.

Michigan Publishing and other library publishers are major forces behind the push for open access journals publishing. With the exception of two journals whose issues are under six month embargoes, all of our 46 serials (30 of which are actively publishing) are available open access as soon as they are published. The goal is to provide anyone who wants to view journal content the ability to do so for free. Of course, the creation of journal content and the labor that goes into copyediting, typesetting, and coding the articles for HTML are not free. Cost of journal creation is and always will be the major barrier to making scholarship open access, meaning that journals and/or publishers dedicated to open access have to eat the cost of providing labor, materials, and the final journal products to their audience. Because labor must be paid, and because labor and materials will always be involved in the production of scholarly publications, it is inevitable that open access will always cost someone something. Some journals, particularly in the sciences, make up for this by requiring authors to pay article processing charges; though this is a solution to the necessary costs of open access, it raises other concerns about who has access to the funds required to pay APCs.

Journals, the institutions behind them, and publishers have to make an ethical commitment both to repay the labor put into academic knowledge production and to make it as accessible to a global readership as possible. Publishers can work to reduce costs to journal partners who provide open access content by providing services as close to cost as possible and encouraging journals and book authors to pursue institutional subventions and grants to pay toward the cost of production. This is the model we follow at Michigan Publishing. Not only are we dedicated to open access and to meeting online accessibility standards, but we strive to make our services affordable to journals partners so that a broad and diverse range of freely available scholarship thrives.

The bottom line is, people shouldn’t have to belong to or have access to the academy to read our work. If, as many in literary and cultural studies believe, our work is meant to have some appreciable influence on the world—if we are truly scholar-activists—then our scholarship needs to be publicly available at no cost to readers. The global information market is a symptom of global capitalist inequalities caused by centuries of colonialism and wealth extraction; by providing information and research open access, we can combat these inequalities. As academic, editors, and publishers, we have an ethical obligation to do this. Academic-led publishing means recognizing what Aaron Swartz knew: we aren’t really helping to make the world a better place if only the most privileged have access to the work we do.

Academic-led publishing matters because it stands to take back the means of scholarly production and puts the labor academics and publishers do back where it matters: in the hands of readers.

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