A Scholar’s Regrets

Danah Boyd is happy to be part of a special issue of Convergence, a journal devoted to new media technologies. But she’s sad that the only people who can read it will be those who subscribe (or whose libraries subscribe – she notes that the institutional subscription is over $500 a year.) Certainly, there’s some irony in using old media to explore new media. From it won’t happen again, because from here on out, Boyd plans to only publish in journals that allow open access – and she urges other scholars to join her boycott.

I should probably be sympathetic to academic publishers. They are getting their lunch eaten and the lack of consistent revenue from journals makes it much harder for them to risk publishing academic books and they are panicked. Yet, frankly, I’m not humored. Producing a journal article is a lot of labor for scholars too. Editing a journal is a lot of labor for scholars too. Academic publishers expect authors to do both for free because that’s how they achieve status. At the same time, they are for-profit entities that profit off of all of the free labor by academics. Some might argue that academics are paid by universities and this external labor is part of their university job. Perhaps, but then why should others be profiting off of it? Why not instead publish with open-access online-only journals produced as labors of love by communities of volunteer scholars (i.e. many open-access journals)? Oh, right. Because those aren’t the “respectable” journals because they don’t have a reputation or a history (of capitalizing off of the labor of academics). The result? Academics are publishing to increasingly narrow audiences who will never read their material purely so that they can get the right credentials to keep their job. This is downright asinine. If scholars are publishing for audiences of zero, no wonder no one respects them.

She recommends that tenured faculty focus on open access-friendly journals, that libraries add open access journals to their catalogs, and that tenure and promotion committees take open access into account. She also suggests funding agencies follow NIH’s lead and mandate open access. And that publishers “wake up or get out.” In an addendum, she points out that patterns have changed; in the past, publication in a top journal meant everyone would read an article, but now younger scholars are less deferential to the idea of prestige – partly because they don’t browse a handful of journals now, they seek out relevant material that they identify by other means.

Boyd is pointing toward a shift in how authority is defined among scholars, but I suspect there’s a practical, technical reason for this change as well: the disaggregation of a journal’s contents into individualized articles that can be discovered by means other than following a particular journal is changing the way people keep up with and discover scholarship.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

2 thoughts on “A Scholar’s Regrets

  1. Danah Boyd over-simplifies a complex set of issues. Many publishers, particularly university presses, are non-profits. Many open access journals not only rely on the free labor of scholars but also on their financial contributions to pay for the costs of publication. Open-access journals are not necessarily produced as labors of love (there are for-profit companies that publish only open access journals) and many OA journals have high impact factors and excellent reputations (consider PLOS).

    Boyd’s over-stated rhetoric (which she acknowledges in her post is “simplistic”) diminishes her case. Open access is a business model, not an ideology. Publishing has costs. It is certainly possible for anybody with an internet connection to make their work available for free, or for a group of like-minded people to create an OA journal as a labor of love. But for most scholars, those are not good long-term options. Publishing well requires consistency, quality control, and either time or money.

    I sympathize with her wish to move us away from dependence on high-priced journals from corporate publishers, but believe that her boycott won’t strike a chord with those who see the problem as more complex than Boyd does.

    We’re certainly in a period where authority metrics are changing, and online disaggregated access to scholarship has played a role in that. But scholars still rely on the reputation of the journal as a measure of its quality. But there’s no clear formula (OA=labor of love, subscription=profit-driven).

  2. Monica McCormick mentions that “Many open access journals not only rely on the free labor of scholars but also on their financial contributions to pay for the costs of publication,” and certainly this is true: somebody has to pay for everything since it cannot be done for free.

    Institutions have been paying these high costs for a long time through outrageously high subscription prices. At the same time, the scholarly journals demand all rights from their authors. I believe institutions are beginning to see that the money they pay for subscriptions can just as easily go to providing open access, so that everyone can save a lot of money by cooperating.

    The reputation of a journal is based on its own history of publications and who publishes in it, not on the quality of its publishing house, which is often far removed from any of its scholarship. As more scholars want to publish in some of these open-access journals, it will simultaneously become more prestigious.

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