Making Knowledge Available

The media of generous scholarship

A few weeks ago, shortly after reading that Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, had made over €1 billion in profit in 2017, I received notice of a new journal issue on decolonization and media.* “Decolonization” denotes the dismantling of imperialism, the overturning of systems of domination, and the founding of new political orders. Recalling Achille Mbembe’s exhortation that we seek to decolonize our knowledge production practices and institutions, I looked forward to exploring this new collection of liberated learning online – amidst that borderless ethereal terrain where information just wants to be free. (…Not really.)

Instead, I encountered a gate whose keeper sought to extract a hefty toll: $42 to rent a single article for the day, or $153 to borrow it for the month. The keeper of that particular gate, mega-publisher Taylor & Francis, like the keepers of many other epistemic gates, has found toll-collecting to be quite a profitable business. Some of the largest academic publishers have, in recent years, achieved profit margins of nearly 40%, higher than those of Apple and Google. Granted, I had access to an academic library and an InterLibrary Loan network that would help me to circumvent the barriers – yet I was also aware of just how much those libraries were paying for that access on my behalf; and of all the un-affiliated readers, equally interested and invested in decolonization, who had no academic librarians to serve as their liaisons.

I’ve found myself standing before similar gates in similar provinces of paradox: the scholarly book on “open data” that sells for well over $100; the conference on democratizing the “smart city,” where tickets sell for ten times as much. Librarian Ruth Tillman was struck with “acute irony poisoning” when she encountered a costly article on rent-seeking and value-grabbing in a journal of capitalism and socialism, which was itself rentable by the month for a little over $900.

We’re certainly not the first to acknowledge the paradox. For decades, many have been advocating for open-access publishing, authors have been campaigning for less restrictive publishing agreements, and librarians have been negotiating with publishers over exorbitant subscription fees. That fight continues: in mid-February, over 100 libraries in the UK and Ireland submitted a letter to Taylor & Francis protesting their plan to lock up content more than 20 years old and sell it as a separate package.

My coterminous discoveries of Elsevier’s profit and that decolonization-behind-a-paywall once again highlighted the ideological ironies of academic publishing, prompting me to tweet something half-baked about academics perhaps giving a bit more thought to whether the politics of their publishing venues – their media of dissemination – matched the politics they’re arguing for in their research. Maybe, I proposed, we aren’t serving either ourselves or our readers very well by advocating for social justice or “the commons” – or sharing progressive research on labor politics and care work and the elitism of academic conventions – in journals that extract huge profits from free labor and exploitative contracts and fees.

Despite my attempt to drown my “call to action” in a swamp of rhetorical conditionals – “maybe” I was “kind-of” hedging “just a bit”? – several folks quickly, and constructively, pointed out some missing nuances in my tweet. Librarian and LIS scholar Emily Drabinski noted the dangers of suggesting that individual “bad actors” are to blame for the hypocrisies and injustices of a broken system – a system that includes authors, yes, but also publishers of various ideological orientations, libraries, university administrations, faculty review committees, hiring committees, accreditors, and so forth.

And those authors are not a uniform group. Several junior scholars replied to say that they think a lot about the power dynamics of academic publishing (many were “hazed,” at an early age, into the Impact Factor Olympics, encouraged to obsessively count citations and measure “prestige”). They expressed a desire to experiment with new modes and media of dissemination, but lamented that they had to bracket their ethical concerns and aesthetic aspirations. Because tenure. Open-access publications, and more-creative-but-less-prestigious venues, “don’t count.” Senior scholars chimed in, too, to acknowledge that scholars often publish in different venues at different times for different purposes to reach different audiences (I’d add, as well, that some conversations need to happen in enclosed, if not paywalled, environments because “openness” can cultivate dangerous vulnerabilities). Some also concluded that, if we want to make “open access” and public scholarship – like that featured in Public Seminar – “count,” we’re in for a long battle: one that’s best waged within big professional scholarly associations. Even then, there’s so much entrenched convention – so many naturalized metrics and administrative structures and cultural habits – that we’re kind-of stuck with these rentier publishers (to elevate the ingrained irony: in August 2017, Elsevier acquired bepress, an open-access digital repository used by many academic institutions). They need our content and labor, which we willing give away for free, because we need their validation even more.

All this is true. Still, I’d prefer to think that we can actually resist rentierism, reform our intellectual infrastructures, and maybe even make some progress in “decolonizing” the institution over the next years and decades. As a mid-career scholar, I’d like to believe that my peers and I, in collaboration with our junior colleagues and colleagues-to-be, can espouse new values – which include attention to the political, ethical, and even aesthetic dimensions of the means and media through which we do our scholarship – in our search committees, faculty reviews, and juries. Change can happen at the local level; one progressive committee can set an example for another, and one college can do the same. Change can take root at the mega-institutional scale, too. Several professional organizations, like the Modern Language Association and many scientific associations, have developed policies and practices to validate open-access publishing. We can look, for example, to the MLA Commons and the Manifold publishing platform. We can also look to Germany, where a nationwide consortium of libraries, universities, and research institutes has been battling Elsevier since 2016 over their subscription and access policies. Librarians have long been advocates for ethical publishing, and as Drabinski explains, they’re equipped to consult with scholars and scholarly organizations about the publication media and platforms that best reinforce their core values. Those values are the chief concern of the HuMetricsHSS initiative, which is imagining a “more humane,” values-based framework for evaluating scholarly work.

We also need to acknowledge the work of those who’ve been advocating for similar ideals – and working toward a more ethically reflective publishing culture – for years. Let’s consider some examples from the humanities and social sciences – like the path-breaking Institute for the Future of the Book, which provided the platform where my colleague McKenzie Wark publicly edited his Gamer Theory back in 2006. Wark’s book began online and became a print book, published by Harvard. Several institutions – MIT; MinnesotaColumbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (whose publishing unit is led by a New School alum, James Graham, who also happens to be a former thesis advisee); Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and metaLab; and The New School’s own Vera List Center – have been experimenting with the printed book. And individual scholars and practitioners, like Nick Sousanis, who published his dissertation as a graphic novel, regard the bibliographic form as integral to their arguments.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has also been a vibrant force for change, through her work with the MediaCommons digital scholarly network, her two open-review books, and her advocacy for more flexible, more thoughtful faculty review standards. Her new manuscript, Generous Thinking, which lives up to its name, proposes public intellectualism as one such generous practice and advocates for its positive valuation within the academy. “What would be required,” she asks, “for the university to begin letting go of the notion of prestige and of the competition that creates it in order to begin aligning its personnel processes with its deepest values?” Such a realignment, I want to emphasize, need not mean a reduction in rigor, as some have worried; we can still have standards, while insisting that they correspond to our values. USC’s Tara McPherson has modeled generous and careful scholarship through her own work and her collaborations in developing the Vectors and Scalar publishing platforms, which launched in 2005 and 2013, respectively. Public Seminar is part of that long tradition, too.

Individual scholars – particularly those who enjoy some measure of security – can model a different pathway and advocate for a more sane, sustainable, and inclusive publication and review system. Rather than blaming the “bad actors” for making bad choices and perpetuating a flawed system, let’s instead incentive the good ones to practice generosity.

In that spirit, I’d like to close by offering a passage I included in my own promotion dossier, where I justified my choice to prioritize public scholarship over traditional peer-reviewed venues. I aimed here to make my values explicit. While I won’t know the outcome of my review for a few months, and thus I can’t say whether or not this passage successfully served its rhetorical purpose, I do hope I’ve convincingly argued here that, in researching media and technology, one should also think critically about the media one chooses to make that research public. I share this in the hope that it’ll be useful to others preparing for their own job searches and faculty reviews, or negotiating their own politics of practice. The passage is below.

* * *

…[A] concern with public knowledge infrastructures has… informed my choice of venues for publication. Particularly since receiving tenure I’ve become much more attuned to publication platforms themselves as knowledge infrastructures. I’ve actively sought out venues whose operational values match the values I espouse in my research – openness and accessibility (and, equally important, good design!) – as well as those that The New School embraces through its commitment to public scholarship and civic engagement. Thus, I’ve steered away from those peer-reviewed publications that are secured behind paywalls and rely on uncompensated editorial labor while their parent companies uphold exploitative copyright policies and charge exorbitant subscription fees. I’ve focused instead on open-access venues. Most of my articles are freely available online, and even my 2015 book, Deep Mapping the Media City, published by the University of Minnesota Press, has been made available through the Mellon Foundation-funded Manifold open-access publishing platform. In those cases in which I have been asked to contribute work to a restricted peer-reviewed journal or costly edited volume, I’ve often negotiated with the publisher to allow me to “pre-print” my work as an article in an open-access online venue, or to preview an un-edited copy.

I’ve been invited to address the ethics and epistemologies of scholarly publishing and pedagogical platforms in a variety of venues, A, B, C, D, and E. I also often chat with graduate students and junior scholars about their own “publication politics” and appropriate venues for their work, and I review their prospectuses and manuscripts.

The most personally rewarding and professionally valuable publishing experience of my post-tenure career has been my collaboration with Places Journal, a highly regarded non-profit, university-supported, open-access venue for public scholarship on landscape, architecture, urbanism. After having written thirteen (fifteen by Fall 2017) long-form pieces for Places since 2012, I’ve effectively assumed their “urban data and mediated spaces” beat. I work with paid, professional editors who care not only about subject matter – they’re just as much domain experts as any academic peer reviewer I’ve encountered – but also about clarity and style and visual presentation. My research and writing process for Places is no less time- and labor-intensive, and the editorial process is no less rigorous, than would be required for a traditional academic publication, but Places allows my work to reach a global, interdisciplinary audience in a timely manner, via a smartly designed platform that allows for rich illustration. This public scholarship has a different “impact” than pay-walled publications in prestige journals. Yet the response to my work on social media, the number of citations it’s received (in both scholarly and popular literature), and the number of invitations it’s generated, suggest the significant, if incalculable, value of such alternative infrastructures for academic publishing. By making my work open and accessible, I’ve still managed to meet many of the prestige- and scarcity-driven markers of academic excellence (for more on my work’s impact, see Appendix A).

* I’ve altered some details so as to avoid sanctioning particular editors or authors.

Shannon Mattern is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School and author of numerous books with University of Minnesota Press. Find her on twitter @shannonmattern.

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