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.