Open Access 2: The Revenge

Posted: August 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm, Last Updated: August 28, 2013 at 5:07 pm

by Rob Gehl, Assistant Professor of New Media at University of Utah

As readers of this new blog know, there’s quite a conversation happening about open access, student dissertations, the American Historical Association (AHA), and embargoes. As an alumnus of the GMU Cultural Studies program, a student who posted his dissertation online (and still managed to get a book contract), and as someone who studies social media and user-led production, I’d like to participate in this discussion.

What I want to talk about is Open access (OA) as an explicitly political tool: something that can further the sorts of economic and social justice goals we’re taught to pursue when we do cultural studies.

My argument is premised on the fact that OA is not an automatic good. It is in fact a political-economic tool, and it must be wielded thoughtfully. In the wrong hands, it can do precisely what Roger Lancaster fears: further undermine the ability of knowledge workers to benefit from their own labor. In the right hands, it can dissolve the empires built out of exploiting the labors of love of knowledge workers. Used poorly, it can destroy the traditional, non-profit publishers of academic books. Used well, it can undermine private, for-profit corporations that are taking over academic publishing.

Thus, in order to assess something like the AHA embargo policy, we have to consider all the players involved in the OA ecology: journal publishers, university repositories, intellectual property offices, faculty, students, and university book publishers. We have to see who benefits and who loses due to different uses of the OA political tool.

Where Open Access can lead to better conditions: Before discussing book publishing, I want to diverge and talk about journal publishing. Some different options emerge if we shift the discussion from dissertations and monographs to the equally important area of scholarly articles.

As both Ted Striphas and my doctoral advisor, Hugh Gusterson, have argued, the current system of academic journal publishing (led by publicly-traded, highly profitable firms like Sage and Taylor-Francis) is predicated on a doubly-exploitative system of free labor. It first draws on the freely given labor of the author of the manuscript, who often gives away material to journals now run by highly profitable corporations, and the freely given labor of reviewers, who do the onerous and necessary work of peer review gratis. These articles are then packaged together and sold to university libraries for extremely expensive subscription fees.

Here, the open access movement can be a highly effective tool to right this wrong. It is time to wrest back academic publishing from these companies. If we push the effective cost of reading academic articles as close to zero as possible, then perhaps the Sages and Taylor-Francises of the world will move on to greener pastures like MOOCs or for-profit education.

The way we can do this is to publish in open access journals and support those who do during tenure and retention review. I myself am dedicated to publishing as much as possible in OA journals; so far (knock on wood) I’ve been retained by my university and I am on track to get tenure in a few years. I figure that if I and as many of my colleagues as possible eschew journals published by Sage in favor of ones like First Monday, Computational Culture, Ephemera, Lateral, Enculturation, and Fibreculture, it might just drive Wiley-Blackwell et al out of academic publishing.

Who will publish journals if not for-profit conglomerates? Perhaps this is where we can ally with OA advocates in university libraries. Journals might shift (back) to being sponsored and published by universities or professional associations rather than published by Elsevier. Such a change will not affect reviewing, serving on editorial boards, or even editing, since all these tasks are already either done for free or subsidized by universities or associations. Publishing these journals might shift from paper to electrons, but that sort of shift is going to happen regardless.

Where Open Access can deepen exploitation and precarity: As theorists such as Marilyn Strathern and Claire Birchall have convincingly argued, openness is not always good. The increasing calls for accountability, the push for metrics, and organizational surveillance are all well-known methods of control. All of these managerial tactics are brought about under the benevolent umbrella of openness. This is, as Strathern aptly puts it, the “tyranny of transparency.”

This is where I tend to agree with Roger and the AHA: universities requiring graduating students to post their materials openly online in institutional repositories can in fact lead to the precarity of academic knowledge workers. Make it optional. Don’t require students to do the wide-open performance of dissertating for the world. Give them time to grow as scholars first.

In my case, although I posted my dissertation on my personal Web site, I still took time to revise it radically into a book manuscript. I didn’t mind have my dissertation online, but I can imagine students who want to keep their theses under wraps until they’re ready for readers beyond their doctoral committees and mothers. I certainly look back on my diss and see many faults!

Moreover, let’s not suggest putting the diss out and relying on Google citations is the way to go. Citations can be gamed, and they don’t necessarily indicate engagement with the work. (My dissertation has been cited a few times, but mostly by people who claim that Web 2.0 is a wonderful, beneficial, “revolutionary” system – a bit different from what I argue in my work!). They are also easy measures, and easy measures tend to miss many forms of value. Again, give students time to develop and revise their work, rather than dangling Google’s i10-index as a sort of prize.

In addition to protecting students from the tyranny of transparency, we have to be very careful when dealing with university repositories, because as just such repositories are growing, so too are the tentacles of university intellectual property claims. With tech transfer being a major source of revenue for research universities, universities are often pushing for every written word, line of code, and research notebook be digitized and handed over to the school for analysis to see what’s patentable and what’s not. Requiring new doctoral dissertations to be in open repositories is part of this larger push for acquisition of intellectual property. I am certainly not suggesting university librarians are rapaciously gathering up IP – I love librarians with all my heart –  but I am suggesting that when the push for open access is added to an intellectual land-grab planned from an administrator’s office, it’s a bad combination.


In sum, I would argue that the OA movement, if it has a sense of the political economy of knowledge work, should put its energy towards dissolving the for-profit academic journal publishing system. That system just does not square with our traditional role as public knowledge producers. As Gusterson puts it, “The life of the mind is not billable.”

And for now, railing against the AHA policy might be the wrong hill to die on, because ultimately embargoes of dissertations can protect students from the tendency of universities to claim and command how their work is distributed, and they can give students time to revise their theses and dissertations. Reviewing what the AHA actually said, it’s clear they’re advocating for students, not universities, making the choice to post their works online or not.

Finally, I wonder if the embargo system should be defended because of another group it protects: university presses. Such presses are very often non-profits, holdouts from a time when such publishing was an academic service. They are not like Wiley-Blackwell, Elsevier, and Taylor-Francis, the for-profit publishers of many academic journals. However, like many traditional publishers, university presses are in trouble due to digital publishing and, indeed, open access. If an embargo of a student’s dissertation can help them sell a few more books, is that a bad thing? I guess it depends on if you value books from Duke, Minnesota, NYU, and Temple, as I do. I can distinguish between a non-profit university press and an organization like Sage; I would prefer to protect the former and undermine the latter.



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Gravatar Image for Jack Censer Jack Censer writes:

I really appreciated this blog, which was very thoughtful and took a very complex look at the problem. And first and foremost, I share the view that it’s very important for graduating students to make the most they can out of the intellectual property they produce. In the past, that absolutely meant revising one’s dissertation and using it to get or hold a job and to make one’s mark in the academic world. Although in a different system, one might have shared immediately and equally, it was brand new doctoral students who would have paid the price of such sharing.
But now that world is in a state of radical dissolution. Individuals simply do not buy most books. A few books are purchased by individuals, but publication runs are very small to accommodate mainly library purchases. This has sharply undercut university press revenues. Likewise in journal publishing, most articles are read on line for free through library purchase of JSTOR licenses, etc. What stands against the collapse of scholarly publishing are library purchases.
Thus, we as individuals are all getting very accustomed to not paying ourselves and to reading even books on line. I believe this tendency will only accelerate. What we really need to think hard about, I think, are three things: how can faculty get into the mix as soon as possible and retain credit for their contributions; how can the profession substitute a system of evaluation for the vetting done by publishers; and how can a nonprofit system of publishing be created as a viable alternative to for-profit publications.

Gravatar Image for Anderson Anderson writes:

Athabasca University Press (see link below, and note their “Cultural Dialectics” series), a small academic press at a public university in Canada, is attempting to make the open-source model work. I do not know how well this is performing, but it may merit a more-than-cursory look for those who are interested in this issue.

Robert W Gehl: Blog writes:

[…] The second piece is a contribution to a new blog, Edges, hosted by my alma mater, the Cultural Studies program at George Mason. The blog kicked off with a piece by Roger Lancaster about the debate over the AHA’s dissertation embargo policy. I was asked to pitch into the discussion, because I had to decide whether to post my own dissertation openly or not (and I chose openly). Thinking about that got me to thinking about open access as a political-economic tool: […]

Gravatar Image for Jack Censer Jack Censer writes:

An extremely relevant article on the Library of Congress adjusting to the digital connected to the discussions in this blog.

Gravatar Image for Robert W Gehl Robert W Gehl writes:

Jack –

“What stands against the collapse of scholarly publishing are library purchases.”

Precisely. Libraries spend oodles of money on journal subscriptions. My thinking is: why not instead have them spend that money publishing journals? In other words, they could support OA journals, staffed with academic editors and (unpaid) reviewers, filled with articles from (unpaid) authors. All of this would be non-profit and paid for by libraries, so the end user (the student or faculty member) could read them for free. As a bonus, *anyone else in the world could read them for free.*

Gravatar Image for Jack Censer Jack Censer writes:

Worth considering as part of our discussion

Gravatar Image for Dina Copelman Dina Copelman writes:

Perhaps tangential, but, as someone who was on the editorial board of a number of journals (Radical History Review, Feminist Studies) it’s hard for me to envision the kinds of communities that produced those journals starting out as the project of a library or set of libraries. Those journals did often originate in universities; they were often housed in universities; and, for the most part, ended up being published by major (often university) presses. But they emerged at the intersections of politics, scholarship and pedagogy. Digital communication may make it easier to form new sorts of communities and maybe a new model can be designed where resources (money, labor…) could be provided by libraries and other institutions. But I would want to be sure such communal efforts remain central to the emergence of new publications, new forms of intellectual exchange.

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