Save Scholarly Ideas, Not the Publishing Industry (a rant)

The scholarly publishing industry used to offer a service. It used to be about making sure that knowledge was shared as broadly as possible to those who would find it valuable using the available means of distribution: packaged paper objects shipped through mail to libraries and individuals. It made a profit off of serving an audience. These days, the scholarly publishing industry operates as a gatekeeper, driven more by profits than by the desire to share information as widely as possible. It stopped innovating and started resting on its laurels. And the worst part about it? Scholars have bent over and let that industry continuously violate them and the university libraries that support them.

In the last few decades, a new tool for information distribution has emerged: the internet. People can share over long distances with unprecedented speed. And the cost for sharing 1,000 copies of something isn’t any greater than sharing 1. Some scholarly publishing institutions have embraced this and started experimenting with new ways to leverage existing tools to maintain their mission of informing broad audiences. But many more have resented this development bitterly, working hard to tighten their reins and maintain their turf. They’ve become the perennial Scrooge, munching on scholars’ ideas to turn Christmas into a pile of coal.

Don’t get me wrong: I think that the scholarly publishing industry is in the midst of complete turmoil. Its business model is getting turned upside down and some of these organizations are going to die. So I get why their lawyers are trying to grab any profit by any means necessary, letting go of the values and purpose that drove their creation. And I admit that I don’t have a lot of patience for industries who aren’t willing to go back to their mission and innovate. But what pisses me off to no end is that the same Marxist academics who pooh-pooh corporations justify their own commitment to this blood-sucking process with one word: tenure. Not like that is the end of the self-justifications. Even once scholars get tenure, they continue down the same path – even when not publishing with students – by telling themselves it’s for promotion or because grants require it or because of any other status-seeking process.

WTF? How did academia become so risk-adverse? The whole point of tenure was to protect radical thinking. But where is the radicalism in academia? I get that there are more important things to protest in the world than scholarly publishing, but why the hell aren’t academics working together to resist the corporatization and manipulation of the knowledge that they produce? Why aren’t they collectively teaming up to challenge the status quo? Journal articles aren’t nothing… they’re the very product of our knowledge production process.

Ironically, of course, it’s the government who is trying to push back against the scholarly publishing’s stranglehold on scholarly knowledge. The Science and Technology Policy Office has a current Request for Information” out (due January 2!) about providing public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications that result from federally-funded research. They get the hypocrisy of funding research so that corporations can lock it down. Why don’t most scholars? This is, of course, only one part of the puzzle because only a small fraction of what we produce as scholars is funded by federal agencies.

But what I want to know is this:

  1. What are *you* doing to resist the corporate stranglehold over scholarly knowledge in order to make your knowledge broadly accessible?
  2. What are the five things that you think that other scholars should do to help challenge the status quo?

Please, I beg you, regardless of whether or not we can save a dying industry, let’s collectively figure out how to save the value that prompted its creation: making scholarly knowledge widely accessible.

82 thoughts on “Save Scholarly Ideas, Not the Publishing Industry (a rant)

  1. danah,

    A clarification question. When you write:

    What pisses me off to no end is that the same Marxist academics who pooh-pooh corporations justify their own commitment to this blood-sucking process with one word: tenure.

    Do you mean that junior scholars claim they have no choice but to publish in traditional scholarly journals because that is the only way they can gain tenure, or that senior scholars continue to to use publications in scholarly journals as the primary tenure requirement?

    Both are true, obviously. But depending on what you mean, the onus of action is on different groups.

    1. OK, thanks.

      So for junior scholars like myself, what we’re dealing with here is a pretty basic collective action problem, right? Until the requirements for tenure dramatically change- or until tenure is eliminated- the vast bulk of “rational” junior scholars hoping for tenure are going to spend the vast bulk of their time playing the traditional academic game and contributing their research to locked-down, expensive, corporately controlled, esoteric journals. Won’t they? Without the reassurance that every single junior scholar in the world is going to rebel, the risks are too high for any one of us to entirely strike off on our own (*I’ll get to what some of us DO do in a moment) (** and I’ll get to the tenure question in a second, too).

      For senior scholars, I’ll be honest, the question seems like entirely one of bureaucratic rigidity and conflict avoidance. A lot of the time, its amazing to me that academic departments, colleges, universities can agree on ANYTHING, and dramatically overhauling the requirements for tenure seems, for many of them, like a bridge too far. They’ve been doing this the same way for decades. Why would they change?

      The only answer to the second problem, the senior scholar problem, it seems to me, is for a leading institution like Harvard or Princeton or Stanford to make as public a case for changing tenure requirements as they have for open access. And then put their money where their mouth is and actually change. Imagine if the chair of the Harvard sociology department or the Stanford computer science department got up in front of everyone and said:

      “folks, you know what, we’re going to recommend to our colleagues that we place as much emphasis on [pick web 2.0 digital publishing technology here] as we do on publications in print peer reviewed journals. And I know it’s going to be tough to figure it out how all these metrics are going to work, but you know what, we’re al smart people here and we’re going to do it.”

      To me, if that happened, then everyone else might start to change. It is kind of like the New York Times putting up a paywall- a lot of smaller, poorer, more traditional newspapers want to know it works, of course, but more than that they want to know that somebody with enough cultural capital DID it.

      * as far as junior scholars go, you ask what we’re doing to hack the system. Given the collective action problem I mentioned above, and given that many of us still desire tenure(**), what basically happens is that those of us who care about this stuff end up just doing more work. Personally, I put (ahem) “pre-print” (ahem) versions of most of my publications up on my website. But more than that, I strive to make my ideas and research more broadly accessible in a manner that actually intelligent human beings can understand . I blog for Nieman Journalism Lab, occasionally write for the Atlantic Online, tweet like a mofo, blog on my own site, etc. As much as possible, see this as an extension of my teaching and scholarship.

      But then- THEN- I log off, shut the internet down, and revise for a third time that paper which was reviewed by the people who might not know the most about it for a publication written in obtuse language, controlled by a giant multi-national conglomerate, which will site behind an expensive paywall. Is it entirely a waste of time? No way. I learn a lot. I refine my ideas. Being forced to interact with the traditional scholarly apparatus does me good. But- it is more work. There is little doubt the academic workload has expanded in the past 15 years, and this is partly the reason why. Let’s not feel too bad for ourselves, most people doing far more shitty jobs work more for less pay these days. But, it is happening.

      ** I do all this, of course, because I do care about getting tenure, and I say that knowing that I may never get it because it might not exist in another decade. But changing that system would be an even longer bridge -it would require adjusting the academic work contract in a fundamental way and making it a higher-risk, higher-reward industry. Get paid significantly more, work on 7 year contracts. And while that might work for places like Harvard, it’s hard seeing the College of Staten Island, where I teach, having the resources to compete in that high-risk, high-reward world. And I don’t know if that’s a world I want.

      OK, sorry this comments is, like, twice as long as your actual post.


      1. This is what I call the “what about my mortgage” question. That is whenever I talk about these issues with other academics the first response I get is “well that is all well and good, but I like my job and want to continue to have it so I can pay the bills.

        Chris gets a lot of the main points here that I would see as pieces of the puzzle. Institutional intractability being the largest one. But really as he suggests this is a collective action problem.

        As academics we could sit around and say the institution ought to change but as a junior scholar I am in no position to change it, so for now I will play by the rules. But this strikes me as a serious cop-out. Better than anyone else academics should understand this. As you say:

        “What pisses me off to no end is that the same Marxist academics who pooh-pooh corporations justify their own commitment to this blood-sucking process with one word: tenure.”

        It’s pretty hard to justify publishing in a closed system without saying, “well I need it for tenure.” If we all just stopped doing this, stopped giving them our stuff for free, stop editing their journals for free, sopped evaluating scholarship on this ground, institutions would be forced to accept this as legitimate scholarship. And I will twist the knife a little more here and say, academics more than any one should know that we don’t “own” our ideas that they are collectively produced and public goods, locking them away is unethical.

        The choice is simple either you are for promoting scholarship and knowledge as a public good or you are trying to privately benefit from locking away knowledge. So be honest, when you say, it’s about tenure, what you really mean is it’s about my own personal monied interests (my mortgage) and be honest that that is what you are picking.

        So here is what academics should do, simple:

        1. Creative Commons license all work. And call out scholars who don’t. This should be done independent of rank. The I am a junior scholar trying to get tenure exploited by a system that needs to change, is just another way of not taking responsibility for one’s part in the system. As a junior scholar I am willing to live and die on this hill.

        2.Negotiate for this right when you accept the job. When I took my current job I negotiated for the right to publish in “alternative venues,” and made it clear none of my scholarship is going to be locked away.

        3. Inform graduate students. To be fair I have a few older pieces that were accepted for publication while I was a graduate student, and before I understood all of this. I wish someone would have explained it to me then. Now when asked to serve on a commmittee I make it a condition that the work is going to be made publicly available. If you aren’t a good citizen of the knowledge community I am not spending my time helping you with your work.

        4. Tell the publishers to buzz off. I get requests monthly to review this or that for one of these paid journals, frequently these are paid gigs. I delete these emails, and occasionaly write snarky responses.

        5. Decline to work on projects that aren’t open. As academics we only have a limited amount of time to dedicate to projects, by only working on ones that are open we can force this to become the standard. Like NEH grants which force open access, voting with our time can do the same thing.

        Thanks for the rant.

      2. I agree with almost all the rant –and in fact, have railed against this– and will be giving a talk at my own university to scholarly communication people pretty soon exactly on this topic. Part of the reason I moved this year was to have more flexibility about where and how I could publish. This issue is very dear to my heart.

        But. I’m more with Chris and will disagree with Dave a bit. It would be foolish to dismiss people’s concerns abt tenure or even their mortgages. I don’t know about y’all but I don’t have a trust fund. In truth, I could maybe go back to being a programmer if I did not get tenured but how many people in academia have those options? People who spend 10 years getting a humanities degree, ending up with 40K debt and a 4-4 teaching job which barely pays the bills are supposed to lead the charge and risk the only job they will ever get in academia?

        And, danah, your own high-risk, high-reward strategy worked for you (hurrah!) but it is not an option for even 1% of academics. I mean how many can actually end up working at Microsoft Research?

        It’s either tenure or fight for jobs at Starbucks. And even that might be a risk worth taking–but one then has to give up the idea of having a family or kids or ever getting sick. I mean, imagine if you did not have health insurance these past few years?

        There are, however, many things untenured folks *can* do now. As Chris says, put all , pre-prints, , on websites. Blog. Tweet. Write in mix of journals, some open-access, some for tenure.

        And most importantly, as one moves up the ranks, one can swear to actually never forget this issue or become complacent.

        Again, I’m with y’all in general and I’m trying to organize around this issue on my own campus. I have many ideas on how this could work — a multi-university consortium that pulls from *all* bundled, over-priced for-profit journals at once unless terms of access are drastically changed, tenure requirements that take into account open-access publishing, educating senior faculty on how to value such publications, etc. I just don’t think blaming people for wanting to put food on the table and have health insurance for their family is the way to go on this.

  2. Brian S. McGowan PhD (@BrianSMcGowan)

    Colleagues and I recently presented novel data at Medicine 2.0:

    Leading up to the conference our research team decided to pilot a completely open access model, turning over our data and the research instrument to the community – still downloadable as zip folder. We then, along with the meeting organizers, went about blogging and advocating for people to use the data and use the instrument and extend our findings…our hope was that we could have a broad, prolonged peer-review that would accelerate the science….but nobody cared…

    Sure, there may have been better ways to promote access to the data and instrument, but the fact that traffic and downloads were nearly non-existent suggests that our’s was not as much an awareness problem as a problem with the communities interest in open/raw data. This was confirmed after uploading our ‘packaged’ presentation on slideshare – it received > 9000 views, embeds, and downloads.

    I should state that our research was unique in that it was largely a side project for each investigator, we were each intrinsically motivated to complete the research and none of us saw this as integral to our promotion or tenure…so we were not constrained to follow a traditional publishing model…but the experience suggest that we are a long way to shuttering the publishing companies and the archaic mode of peer-review, copy-right, and control

  3. Andrew Wilson

    Until recently I was Art Director at the French Education ministry’s publishing house where we produced teaching materials (mostly print-based) for sale to teachers. The reach was minuscule, perhaps less than 1% of the teachers in France. This state-funded white elephant refuses to modernize, preferring to retrench invoking spurious arguments such as “quality”, “authority” and “tradition”.

    French tax-payers and their children continue to be ill-served because of bureaucracy and individual empire building. Embracing the new technologies of delivery is fundamentally a political and managerial problem here in France.

  4. Well, one easy and low-cost step is making your publications available from your personal Web page or elsewhere; increasingly, there are institutional (and other) repositories that provide this service to scholars. Of course, while this is easy for more technical researchers like myself, many faculty still do not know how to go about doing that.

    Second, given the forces in play, an institutional policy could help shift this climate, and the more prestigious the institution to start with such policy, the better. Imagine 10 top schools get together and say “publications only count if they are open access”. Within months, either 1) open-access journal submissions go through the roof, or 2) major publishers make their journals open access. As MIT, Stanford and others open up courses online, why not do the same for research? This would be even less risky for the bottom line of these universities; journal paywall hardly contribute to university bottom lines (actually, they have a cost as the university later pays for access to these journals…).

    Of course, this path leaves little in the way of “what could us faculty do” other than pressuring deans, provosts and presidents to take action (what’s the best way to do that? ). It would be nice if we could take effective direct action, in addition (or instead). Options exists but demand collective action that is harder to achieve.

  5. Thanks, danah, for using your high profile and influence to discuss this issue. I could not agree more.

    What I’m doing, to answer question one, is that even as a non-tenured scholar, I spend a lot of time blogging and sharing information, including my research findings and that of others, via social media. A small, probably pitiful effort I’m sure, but it does take time, which is my most valuable commodity. Also, even though most/some of the powers-that-be won’t care, I spent some time documenting this activity in my tenure materials, not only for the thin hope that it might help me in some tiny way, but simply to make the point that I consider this kind of activity to be vital to free and open sharing of knowledge. I’m sure this does little or any good in terms of solving the larger problem you raise here, but I figure you have to start somewhere. If I hope to continue to make a living at this gig, I’ll still have to also try to publish in non-open access journals for now, but I think too many academics are so cowed they won’t even speak out about the process. I’m continually shocked by how rules-obsessed and deferential-to-authority many academics are. I think we need to be working much harder collectively to change things.

    There’s also movement afoot in various quarters to restrict academics from using tools like Google Docs, Facebook, etc. etc., especially in teaching; apparently at one university, the administration threatened to take over personal Facebook accounts of all employees. Obviously universities have to protect certain private student data for legal reasons, aka Ferpa, but beyond that, those kinds of policies are absolutely unacceptable and should be actively resisted, as they are just one more step toward keeping knowledge in walled gardens.

  6. A colleague — and good friend of mine — has already answered to you on Twitter pointing towards a work of mine.

    I would like to share a collection of works (writings and speeches) related to the concept of the “personal research portal” here:

    A quite visual, condensed and practical version of those works can be consulted at “How can eResearch contribute to enhance Research?” (

    My apologies if that looked as self-promotion (feel free to delete the comment if, after following the links, still looks so 🙂

  7. Amit Kothari

    This is somewhat like the big banks, which are meant to provide financial services, being in control of ….everything including the politicians ,,money supply via the Fed and the mainstream media.

  8. It is only puzzling because you think academic researchers are focused on the research, but once you realize that they are in the business of publishing something, anything, in the pursuit of prestige and self-promotion… then it all makes sense.

    They don’t care about being read, if they did, more than 1% of them would have blogs. They care about prestige by association: publish where good people publish and some of their prestige rubs on you.

    People who really care about scholarship have adopted Open Scholarship.

  9. I would like to add another dimension to the vicious cycle: Most of us are funded through NSF or NIH (or other public source of funding), which is obviously taxpayers’ money. We publish in journals that are exclusively sold to University libraries and regular citizens or even the practitioners we used as subjects to produce our insights have no access to the final product. Instead, Universities pay and individuals/practitioners pay per article in case they really want to have access to it. In my mind, taxpayers are paying twice: 1) to fund the research, and 2) to get access to the research. We should have a system where we make our research insights available in plain language to our subjects, so that they can learn from it (and their peers) as well.

    This being said, I know I need to keep sending out articles to the journals in my field to get tenure – there is no way around it. I do value the peer review process, if done well (which is not often the case). I would appreciate a public peer review process much more than the current closed process, where there is no accountability on the side of the reviewers.

  10. Ines’ remarks point to one approach, which I think (but may be wrong) the NHS is already working toward – a political solution in which tax-payer funded research is required to be shared freely (or at reasonable cost) with the public.

  11. As long as the production of knowledge is conducted within a capitalist framework this kind of problem is unavoidable. There must be public institutions rebuilt or constructed for the storage and transmission of scholarly work. These institutions must be democratically administered. Part of this project would require the reform of higher education from top to bottom to end the pernicious influence of corporations on our universities. Private universities will need to be made public as part of this process – which is largely a rhetorical shift since virtually all private universities are taking huge amounts of public funds in the United States … in much the same way that virtually all significant corporations owe their existence to huge public levies and tax breaks. And to publicly funded research – which corporations are allowed to privatize for the gain of their stockholders and management, instead of using the resultant knowledge for the benefit of the society that paid for it. Universities that are already public will need to remove the various parasitic entities, like boards of trustees controlled by capitalists, that have hampered their ability to run democratically – and fully funded in the public interest.

    Regarding the tenure system, it is built on the model of a medieval capitalist guild. The point of tenure is not therefore to “protect radical thinking”, but rather to protect the jobs of guild members by controlling the number of people allowed to enter the professoriat. As opposed to the more egalitarian model of an industrial labor union that – in general, and at best – works to expand the number of people within its ranks, and to work towards democratic control of its industry. Which would go hand-in-hand with an expanded public higher education sector and a cradle-to-grave system of publicly funded education. With job security for tenured professors predicated more on conformity to the thinking of their local guild masters than to the generally more democratic decision-making of a faculty union (where such exists), it is no surprise at all that even Marxist professors (although I have much to say contra many so-called “radical” academics) feel pressure to go along to get along within their profession.

    Looking at the problem from this perspective, it’s no surprise at all that it’s a government agency – the Science and Technology Policy Office – that’s trying to improve the situation. They represent the public interest over private interest. So they’re just doing what a good public agency is supposed to do. Kudos to them. After all, individual solutions to social problems rarely work – even when they’re bundled (think boycotts). Action by the highest collective authority – in this case, the US government – is usually required to enact broad social reform. And if that’s gone out of fashion, it’s more because of the death of a thousand cuts inflicted on the body politic by corporations than from any deficiency ostensibly inherent in government itself.

    If Danah wants to talk more about these issues with local radical intellectuals inside and outside the academy, I am happy to work with her to arrange a meeting. I was glad to see the piece above. Sign of the times, I think.


    Jason Pramas
    Open Media Boston
    Boston, MA

  12. Kenneth Camargo

    The Brazilian government started a few years ago a major undertaking, SciELO, a journal portal with free access for a large, and increasing, number of journals. There’s no charge for authors or readers, available at
    (disclaimer: I’m the editor of one such journals)

  13. Kenneth Camargo

    Just an afterthought: a similar rant could (and should) be made about how the software industry is wielding patents as a club to stifle innovation and to scare people away from open source solutions.

  14. What did I do? I published an opinion piece in the national daily Libération about this publishing issue, and gave talks on the topic.

    One problem is that parts of the academic world are deep in a race for publications in “established” journals (my impression is that the worst offender is molecular biology). Furthermore, some open-access journals (e.g. PLoS) have high publication fees.

  15. The basic truth is that the academic journal system is currently mostly a (pretty bad) mechanism for grading research and researchers. We may argue whether this kind of grading is good, bad, or ugly, but the current system will stay unless we develop an alternative to this grading, an alternative to which there is an incremental transition path. Many have made such proposals but none has “worked” yet. Certainly it will not take long before one will.

  16. As Open Access brings an increased citation impact, a citation in an openly accessible article is a wonderful present. Why should open access authors advertise the closed access journals for free and without reciprocity, for the sake of the profit of academic publishers? We should learn to use our force.
    This article ( suggests a way to leave closed access authors alone and to quote their works – if it is really necessary – without increasing their impact.

  17. Victoria Reeve

    Danah–you don’t mention open access, although minimacademia does in the comments. I wouldn’t endorse any insistence on reciprocity as this will only impoverish the open access publications. But by wholeheartedly encouraging open access, the benefits to scholarship might gradually bring about some of the changes you call for. So I would encourage all scholars to spread their work across closed and open access journals and by doing so open access journals might gradually come apace with the prestigious closed journals and increase their profiles amongst early career academics. Their availability also gives them scope for attracting diverse approaches to scholarship–by encouraging interdisciplinarity, in particular–which might result in innovative ideas about their subjects and about how to extend their readership.
    Collaboration is another issue. I would suggest that we need to begin the practice ourselves and lead by example. By developing collegiality in terms of establishing connections with our own students through reading groups, conferences and publishing, early career academics and PhD candidates might spread the incentive around and up through the ranks to higher level academics when they see the benefits of our collaborative efforts. If not, then we at least establish the habits that will benefit scholarship in the long run. Not the easy answer we might want: it means taking on the responsibility for change, but owning that responsibility might just empower and effect the changes that are needed.

  18. Outsider’s perspective. I did some graduate work but never entered the career path because of the issues being discussed here, and pursued writing/research outside of academia with the pluses and minuses that entailed. (Once upon a time, in fact, I worked for the company sponsoring this blog.)

    It seems to me that there needs to be some movement on the part of the senior, prestigious scholars that are around today: if people wait for junior faculty to be winnowed and made senior faculty in the next 10-20 years, it will be too late given the economic conditions that exist today. There is only a small subset of academic faculty superstars with the power to exert any pull whatsoever over university administrations. Usually this boils down to various demands being made when universities are making competing offers to them. If these academics-in-demand (I won’t name names, but everyone can imagine who I’m talking about) were to lay down some principles for the sake of junior faculty and graduate students that would serve as anything resembling a code of conduct pushing back against publishing and administrative demands, there would be a chance of moving the current lines. It’s hard for me to see action by junior faculty alone causing movement.

    Unfortunately, I think that such action would require solving the scarcity problem, which means far less cheap grad student/adjunct labor about. And that taps into the structural problems facing university today. If you haven’t read Anthony Grafton’s recent article, please do: — scholarly publishing is merely exploiting contingencies forced by these larger problems.

    Zachary Ernst’s recent paper may also be of interest:

  19. We don’t have tenure anymore in the UK, but we do have the dreaded “REF” (Research Excellence Framework) coming up again in 2014. During this process, a selection of our research outputs is assessed by panels of experts in our discipline (if we’re lucky) or in related disciplines. And guess what… we are told, repeatedly, that only publications in certain journals count for anything, and I’m sure you can imagine who the publishers of these journals are.

    I wholeheartedly agree with a number of people above who’ve said that we should do what we can to fight this regressive system by what means we can, but for me and many of my colleagues near the beginning of their careers, to opt out completely at this stage would be career suicide.

    I have recently started being much more proactive about putting my own work on the web in an accessible format, and have started a blog, but like Victoria Reeve suggests, I think for now the answer for must of us is to aim for a mixture of “traditional” and more innovative ways of sharing our research. After all, it might be easier to bring the system down from within than from outside.

    To those who can avoid this unfortunate compromise, you have my utmost respect.

  20. “What are *you* doing to resist the corporate stranglehold over scholarly knowledge in order to make your knowledge broadly accessible?”

    my first publication is coming out in the next couple months. i got an email from the grad student organizer who was acting as liaison to the publishing company, John Benjamins, asking for me to sign over copyright. i refused, and asked to license it to them under Creative Commons. i expected to get a “yeah, right” response, but a few days later i heard back that they agreed to publish it under CC Attrib-NoDerivs. i was thrilled and wrote the John Benjamins rep a _very_ nice response, affirming the license.

    so, for everyone fighting dumb copyright systems, at least ask. it can’t hurt. and if they’re willing to work with modern, open standards, be appreciative.

  21. I publish in PloS One everything that doesn’t make it into a journal that’s actually noticed on my CV – which cuts down on the journals I could potentially publish in from 20 or more to about seven. If everyone would do that, the industry would feel it. I intend to try and boycott for-profit closed access publishers if I get tenure, but don’t know how realistic that will be.

    I also try to educate my colleagues on why we need a new way of scholarly communication:

    Which does get noticed:

    I hope that this helps at least a little to change things.

  22. I see that @AcademicDave has already made most of my arguments for me. I understand people’s reluctance to put their jobs or mortgages in jeopardy, but … getting a mortgage and “settling down” also means settling for the system in place, and for academics that includes (for now anyway) the private publishing cartel. The cartel and other entrenched institutions (including the universities many of us work for) bind scholars to the status quo with pay and tenure. Once you take out a mortgage or make tenure a priority, your interests are aligned with the cartel’s.

    (That’s easy for me to say since I’ve never held a job more than 6 years and don’t have one now, of course.)

    That’s why I’m glad so many of us are supporting open access: It gives us other options besides starving and selling out.

  23. Pingback: The Closed Academic Journals Call to Arms « Morsels

  24. As a non-tenured junior faculty member (and academic), I can totally agree with what danah is raising here (it’s been raised elsewhere and discussed at length, and there’s a whole gamut of responses of why Open Access isn’t working *yet* – I have high hopes, for a whole sort of reasons, some selfish because I do want my research to be widely disseminated, and also because yeah I’d like tenure). Anyways…

    I agree with everyone on the structural problems. To me, it comes down to 3 problems, not one:

    1) Everyone in your department/discipline expects you to publish in Journal X which is closed. “But worry not! you are affiliated with Y university and since it has institutional access, you can always read the articles you need!”. The latter statement (in quotes) is is a fallacy that it’s hard to dispel. But if we all convinced our departments that publishing in the Open Access Journal Z is as good as American Political Science Review, and everyone wanted as badly to publish in Open Access Journal Z because it’s as good as APSR, then we would have a change within the system.

    2) The structural problem of tenure, which is associated with the expectation of what scholarly outlets you are supposed to publish through. Books have been written on how to change the tenure system. Nobody has a definite answer.

    3) The structural problem of discipline and outlet. In your discipline, danah, perhaps publishing in First Monday (which from my understanding is open access) is considered of the highest quality and thus can compete with any other closed access journal. In my discipline(s) it’s not as easy. I’m working hard at compiling a list of Open Access journals with high impact and citation factors that I can publish through.

    I too use the tools discussed above: I blog about my research, tweet, network with scholars, share my papers, etc. But I think the structural problems are always ones of paradigms. Once we convince the powers-that-be that publishing in alternate, open access outlets is actually better for the discipline, we’ll be on our way to improving scholarship.

    Canada (where I teach) has now released a policy that encourages open access (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council specifically). In my next project (fingers crossed it gets funded), my collaborator and I specifically indicated we would make our research and dataset open access.

    Sorry if this post is long, if it’s not terribly coherent. I’m really sick and overdosed on cold medicines.

  25. Ingi Runar Edvardsson

    There is a lot going on in open source publishing, especially in Europe. Just got this announcement: From 2011 DOAJ is one of the partners in a 2-year project, funded by the European Commission’s IST-PSP programme – Europeana Libraries. All together 19 leading European research libraries are participating and will provide their different content – articles, books, films, images etc. 5 million digitized objects will be put online and made searchable within the project. All journals in DOAJ that have provided metadata on article level will be included and searchable on the Europeana Libraries portal at the end of the project.

    More information can be found on the Europeana Libraries homepage:

    The participation of DOAJ in this project will increase the visibility and usage of the articles in your journal(s) even more. Please make sure the metadata you have provided is correct and that the links to the full text is working.

  26. As a PhD candidate, I try and publish my papers in open source journals.I would rather have my work easily and freely accessible than have it locked behind a gated system. However, having been on the editorial board of an open source journal myself (Platform Journal of Media and Communication) I have firsthand experience of the issues: firstly, it is very difficult to sustain an open source journal if there are no sources of income for menial tasks that no one wants to do (such as web publishing).

    Secondly, academic journal ranking systems are an obstacle for attracting authors and viewers for emerging open source journals. Most academics (including emerging scholars) will always attempt to publish in A-ranked journals first, which are still (mostly) in the domain of the corporate publishers.

  27. I see that @AcademicDave has already made most of my arguments for me. I understand people’s reluctance to put their jobs or mortgages in jeopardy, but … getting a mortgage and “settling down” also means settling for the system in place, and for academics that includes (for now anyway) the private publishing cartel. The cartel and other entrenched institutions (including the universities many of us work for) bind scholars to the status quo with pay and tenure. Once you take out a mortgage or make tenure a priority, your interests are aligned with the cartel’s.

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  29. That is exactly one of the points I will highlight in my PhD research.

    It’s a difficult game though when you have universities demanding their staff to publish in high impact journals. The prestige of publications is linked to closed journals…so that kind of helps perpetuate the power of publishers . Plus you have research assessment exercises such as the REF in the UK that also argue their case about publication in closed journals. Although the Minister of State for Universities and Science has come to say it doesn’t matter where people publish as long as they publish, informal conversations with scholars across disciplines lead me to think this is not what will happen. Everyone thinks (knows?!) that where you publish will indeed count and universities are desperate to get their research fund (preferable a big sum) so the pressure is on.
    Moreover, research assessments guidelines do not mention any other forms of contemporaneous publication such as blogging, etc. You would think this would matter in terms of impact…apparently it doesn’t!

    Then many people don’t give a s**t where they publish… They have always published this way. They kidda got used to the “game”!
    This obviously creates even bigger differences between Universities (Ivy league and Russel group Unis get to subscribe to most of the journals whereas the rest gets to perpetuate their status as second league institutions as they don’t have access to that knowledge. It’s a matter of power and interest too)

    So what I am doing about it? I (try to ) inform and mentor staff about new forms of doing research, communicating it and publishing it online. I blog about it too. basically I share my frustrations with them … LOL but only very few buy into it. At the end of the day, they need to keep their jobs.

    As for myself, I have vowed to publish more and more in open access and am also trying to interest some colleagues in creating Open Access Journals. I fear this might cost me my next job though. So far I have not got a full time lectureship – although I have been short-listed for some – allegedly for not having finished my PhD. When I do, it will be because my publications are not in 4 star journals cause I’m publishing in open access and that does not bring kudos, and especially money, to the institution, given the low rate, short tradition of such journals. A look at today’s will let us know that too.

    What scholars should be doing:
    – publishing only in Open Access Journal (some are already. e.g. Prof. Martin Weller)
    – creating their own Open Access journals – bring the control of knowledge back to the place where it is forged. After all, the first journals were launched by research societies and were sold so cheaply that even the reading lay community could, and would, buy them.
    -should be advising HR/Admin to get Open Access practices as part of their annual appraisal

    Sorry for the long comment. Could go on and on! Already gave you half of my diss in here! :-)))))

  30. Very glad to see this justifiable piece.

    My organisation ( is towards the end of the tricky process of making our journal Research in Learning Technology into an Open Access publication. is a guide deriving from the early part of the process, and is a summary of the current position.

    In another guise I had a hand in “A further exploration of the views of chemists and economists on Open Access issues in the UK” for the Centre for Research Communications at the University of Nottingham. (It includes a short quote from danah boyd on page 16.)

    I’ve pasted the report’s (UK-oriented) conclusions, though I know that some proponents of Open Access take strong issue with these.

    Seb Schmoller

    1. Changing incentive frameworks within institutions and within disciplines so that OA publishing (green or gold) is rewarded in promotion criteria, and in recruitment specifications. Without this, institutional commitments to OA in principle are largely worthless.

    2. Giving much stronger emphasis in funding agreements to OA publishing (green or gold), so that researchers are in no doubt about any requirements of the funder for outputs to be made open, whether by publisher, institution or individual.

    3. It would be helpful if HEFCE were to make an unequivocal statement supporting OA and guaranteeing that judgements would be made on article quality and not on the basis of where those articles appeared. The REF (what used to be the RAE) clearly drives much of the thinking about publications at the institutional level. In the medium term, one comment we received questioned the continued importance of the REF, now that the research councils are to provide an increasing percentage of research funding, probably a change which would take time to be reflected in institutional culture.

    4. Opening a dialogue at discipline level, and in particular with scholarly societies and not for profits about the long term benefits of Open Access and the important role of opinion formers and leading academics within each discipline in leading efforts to insist on Open Access, whether green or gold, for all their publications.

    5. Campaigning and advocacy among leading academics to create a vanguard who not only commit to publishing all major and important works in Open Access (green or gold) but who, in the words of the Harvard panel discussion, refuse to publish, review, or otherwise engage with closed access publications.

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  32. Hi Danah,

    I have just started my doctoral (PhD) research on social media for development alongside my work as ICT contract manager for Dutch higher education. I am well aware of the stranglehold of publishers and academia where one thinks it is required to be assessed on the number of publications in tier 1 journals (high journal impact factor).

    However as I am operating rather independently (partly self-funded) I try to make a contribution both in scientific terms (okay tier 1 is way too high for me right now) where I am proponent of Open Access (see Dutch site and more access for the less privileged (e.g. in developing countries with limited budgets), as well as looking at the applicability of my research in society (kind of engaged scholarship). The latter is precious to me and I wish the societal relevance would be taken into account as well as research is reviewed on its merits.

    Don’t get me wrong I do like fundamental research (I started by studying astrophysics) but the traditional way of publishing and reviewing for publication in tier 1 plus its general “inaccessibility” does not promote real high spreading. My idea is that keeping an independent financial position helps me to steer a bit.

    Some suggestions I came up with:
    1. Mitigate financial dependency on donors wo demand publications in only closed journals by telling that is only tier 1.

    2. Advocate for openness as science is emant for a braoder audience and not for an elite. See for this the article on Open Access at–1.html

    3. Transform your work in non scientific language that can be shared with others and will not violate the existing copyright legislation. Anyway, working papers can often be used for sending out ideas that are out crystalized in the actual submitted paper.

    By no means I am pretending to already have contributed significantly in the scientific community ( I am a novice with a few publications so for sure I can say I have a negligible contribution so far) but for sure I have an idea what I want to achieve and that is reaching out to a wider audience when my research is relevant for them.

  33. This makes a lot of sense, Danah. Thank you for ranting.

    Why do we research? To create new knowledge.

    Why do we publish? To share newly acquired knowledge.

    Why shouldn’t this “shared” knowledge be readily available? Good question…

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  35. I would like to add to your rant that after a scholar publishes their work in that peer-reviewed journal, they no longer own there own words or ideas. (Look up “self-plagiarism” in the APA manual -6th edition,, if you don’t believe me.) Every time I get an article published, I have to sign over my copyright to the journal. So if I repeat something I previously wrote, I must cite it.

    Then there are the journals that will publish manuscripts – for a price (to the author). I have received several emails from publishers telling me that my first manuscript can be published at half the usual price.

    The publication/tenure game is a numbers game. It seems to matter very little about the quality of the research, only the number of articles that have been published when you ask to receive tenure.

    The system is broken. Yes, we need to pay the rent, but we need to fix the system too.

    1. My problem with that pledge is that it’s naive. For example, Nancy Baym and I negotiated a deal with JOBEM. We agreed to co-edit a special issue for them under the provision that they do an OA trial run. Our special issue will be open but the journal itself is not OA. I’m willing to work with journals who are willing to experiment, which means that I cannot in good faith sign that petition.

      I don’t feel like this pledge puts the pressure in the right place. We all hate reviewing. All opting out does is make editors jobs harder. It doesn’t send a message to publishers. My goal is to come up with alternative ways to use leverage to make a difference. My goal with JOBEM is to produce a phenomenal special issue so that the publisher can see the goodness that can come from OA. That’s a win-win approach rather than a fuck-you approach. I’m more interested in the former because I think that it does more good. (That said, I will not review for Elsevier journals out of principle.)

      1. Heya danah! The research without walls pledge is definitely not intended to be a “fuck you approach” and signatories are encouraged to make up the difference in normal reviewing burden by specifically seeking out OA venues to review for and, as you suggest, negotiate OA deals for special issues. While I’m sure some people sign it with the intent to use it as an excuse not to review, that’s a total cop-out… if you read the short FAQ it describes well how the design of this effort is meant to be more about collective action, both in the refusal to review for non-open venues, but also in creating a high-caliber pool of OA reviewers that would have otherwise had to many closed reviews on their plate to participate in OA requests. Anyway, I appreciate, as always your engagement here… and offer a virtual hug and an “I miss you”. Have a freakin blast on your holiday! ::)

  36. Thank you for the post. As a medical librarian by profession…I realize that there are costs to biomedical publishing and there is a need for peer review at some level to ensure the standards of scientific inquiry are followed.
    However, the high costs of publishing and, well, gatekeeping are large factors in scientific information not being disseminated well. And this hinders innovation and scientific inquiry in general.

    Look forward to the day when all people can access scientific articles easily because the costs are born equitably. (Wish I had an answer as to how).

    Then librarians can focus more on working with scientists to find information rather than locating articles.

    (and the need to post items as “How to obtain free/low cost medical articles in medical and scientific journals”

    Again, thank you,

    Janice Flahiff

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  38. A plea from the woebegone:

    Buy your books from small, innovative bookstores
    Publish your books and papers with small, innovative publishers

    You can guarantee that both are run by people who are earning far, far less than you and who value what you are doing and want to help disseminate knowledge.

    Michelle Smith

  39. Sam Ladner

    This issue has been kicking around for some time, now, and even the big brains like John Willinsky haven’t solved it. I worked with John on the Public Knowledge Project and the Open Journal System. It’s made some progress, but the tools themselves need to updated. I was embarrassed recently submitting my own article to a journal that uses OJS — it is so woefully out of date.

    So the Open Access movement really must stay bleeding edge in terms of user experience, and that costs beaucoup de dough.

    I liken the whole situation to what’s happening to comedy. Look at Funny or Die. It was pretty much nothing more than an independent Youtube in concept, but them Will Ferrell did a few famous sketches, got beaucoup de links, and voila! A new comedy “channel.” The SNL digital short is another interesting parallel, it’s YouTube-ability has driven traffic and built profile for the old-school TV show.

    So can we get an academic Will Farrell to come outside the walls online in a meaningful way? Can we enhance, say, Work, Employment and Society, by “youtubing” it some traffic or profile?

    Sure we *can,* but that’s when the structural aspects (the “What about my mortgage?” problem). So the solution is to fund these things completely outside the academy and tenure. I’m non-tenured with an mortgage, so I think I know what I’m talking about here.

  40. HCL

    I assume that this is directed at “for-profit” scholarly publishers. What you’re saying about “corporate greed” is hard to reconcile with the actual day-to-day operations, and ideals, of a not-for-profit university press.

    Several things to note: Publishers of all ilk offer more than dissemination. There is a whole suite of services that come with publication in a “traditional” journal, whether print or digital or both. From peer review and copy editing to xml coding, and all the additional costs that come with digital distribution, maintaining content platforms, and etc. There are certainly ways for open access journals to provide such services — PLoS (as another commenter points out) charges its aus, who bear the cost of publication rather than the end-user. That might work in the sciences, where grants can cover the expense of publishing one’s research, but not in the humanities where research is largely self-funded and/or assumed to be covered by one’s salary or stipend.

    There is a real crisis in scholarly publishing, but not one driven blindly by greed – rants like this, with blanket assertions about the field of scholarly publishing, serve to obscure the innovative thinking happening in response, both at university presses, society presses, small independent publishers, and library publishing programs.

    Why not shift this conversation so as to talk about what would add value to the act, and artifacts, of publication – things like open annotation, platforms for social reading, etc . . . These are the things most publishers are thinking about.

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  42. Paul Krombholz

    My rant:
    I feel very strongly that, if the taxpayers (that is all U.S. Citizens) funded the research, the resulting papers should be available on the internet for download at no cost.

    When I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, I browsed happily in the library for research articles. There was never an article that I couldn’t get. A lot of my library research was based on my research project, but by no means all of it. Often I looked up articles just because they were interesting. That kind of free-browsing has supplied me with a lot of information that I use in teaching to this day, more than 40 years later.

    Now I am teaching at a small private college that can not afford more than a few journals in its library. Journal costs have gone up even faster than medical costs and many libraries, even those of large state institutions can no longer afford to subscribe to everything they used to be able to afford. My school can not afford expensive reference journals such as Science Citation Index or Bio Abstracts, but Google Scholar is getting pretty good as a reference site. However, when I find an interesting article, all I can get is the abstract. If I want to see the article I have to pay $20 to $40 to download it. I can’t do that.

    I have read recently that there is a revolt at the University of California system over the costs of Nature Publishing Group journals being raised in one step by 400%. ( Science publishers charge the author heavy page costs, and then they charge the libraries prohibitively high subscription rates. Science publishers have become the troll under the bridge.

    There is no competition between publishers; each publisher is a monopoly selling access to its journals at prices as high as the market can bear. This is analogous to the government paying for the extracting and refining of oil, and then giving it to a single, unregulated monopoly to retail it.

    There is a lot of hand-wringing these days about how badly educated American citizens are in the sciences, about how easily they are being misled by anti-science propaganda denying global warming, denying evolution, denying vaccination, promoting alternative medicine, promoting astrology, promoting witchcraft, alien visitation and any kind of woo woo nonsense. The Bush Administration prevented the launch of a satellite that would accurately measure the heat budget of the earth and answer the question whether or not global warming is occurring. Congress dismantled the Office of Technology Assessment about 10 years ago because they didn’t want any advice from scientists any more. There are strong and well-funded anti-science movements in this country. Perhaps if our citizens had more access to science, they might vote for more sensible people to represent them.

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  45. Jeremy Yuille

    Wrt the knowledge thing it requires more than just posting your papers. The us govt & k-12 are innovating in this arena: check out

    But wrt the actual thrust of your post: (imvho) academia is a very different field than it was when Snow wrote about the two cultures. Caveat: im an .au academic, so our ‘tenure’ system is different, but I get the feeling that academia as a whole is far more risk averse than it used to be, for many reasons. One of the main ones being the way edu has scaled over the last two decades, and the increasing casualisation of the workforce (at least here in au). More academics are (average) managers now, and that changes the way universities recruit, and the culture of their programs. Again, ymmv, but this has been my experience, and one suggestion for your perception of risk aversion.

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  47. What access monkey wrote is correct: it s of outmost importance to write in to the White House and answer their Open Access questions! The publishers are winning right now and we have to outnumber them!

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