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.