Participation and Academic Exclusion

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snake-boars

Let’s talk about the innovation culture. Let’s talk about how to make something simple and beautiful into something ugly. The problem with many innovations is that they conflate innovation for specialization. There’s a great new skateboard that can easily ride down stairs, but you can do that and many other things with any deck.  The tools of academic publishing have run into the same problem: we have specialized journals for everything, but few places that allow for broader participation, with Aaron Swartz’s death, a lot of discussions about this came up:

To put it bluntly, the current state of academic publishing is the result of a series of strong-arm tactics enabling publishers to pry copyrights from authors, and then charge exorbitant fees to university libraries for access to that work. The publishers have inverted their role as disseminators of knowledge and become bottlers of knowledge, releasing it exclusively to the highest bidders. Swartz simply decided it was time to take action. -Peter Ludlow, Aaron Swartz Was Right.

But Ludlow misses another important point: for good or bad, these costs have a hidden benefit for academics themselves:

With the majority of academic literature hidden behind a paywall, there is no way for the public to determine whether claims of irrelevance are valid. Instead, they rely on slanted media coverage – “Feds pay $227,000 to study magazine photographs,” crowed the Washington Times – and politicians’ charges of elitism, which paywalls help validate. The paywall sends a signal to the public that their interest in scholarship is unwelcome, even though their money may have helped pay for it. -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.

Libraries and publishers have been in this system of exclusion for a long time, there’s no one side to blame. But Kendizor takes it one step further: even our language is to blame:

Furthermore, writing in a style decipherable to the public opens one up to public scrutiny. “Bad writing,” argues political scientist Stephen Walt, is “a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.” -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.

We are living in a time where the ability to access knowledge is at an all-time high. But the structure of publishing, of tenure and promotion and our language itself have given rise to new levels of defensiveness for academics. It’s time to get to the Harlem Shake of academia, something so obvious that anyone can do it. Many academics are trying things out, from open access journals to blogs to non-academic but thoughtful sites like thestate.ae. It’s time to really put everything out there because now more than ever, we’re hiding when we shouldn’t. Open access journals are the Stair Rover to HTMLgiant‘s firecracker and it’s clear that by creating something so functional, we’ve created something ugly.

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