Checking Our Library Privilege

The thing about privilege is that those who have it don't see it - and access to scholarship is no exception. But there are signs of change.

October 20, 2015

So, let’s say I’m doing research on issues related to privilege and inequality. Google Scholar tells me there’s a an article on stratification in higher education that’s looks interesting. Here’ another one on how postcolonial theory can inform resistance to neoliberalism in universities. And ooh, this looks really interesting: digital inequality and participation in the political process. How great that academics turn their methods and theories to solving the problem of inequality. Too bad most people won't be able to read these articles.

The first one, from a Taylor and Francis journal, would cost me $40 if I weren't affiliated at an institution that will spend a lot of money, much of it from student tuition, to get it for me. Shame those students will graduate in so much debt. Hey, somebody could write a good article about that. The second, from a journal published by Oxford University Press: $39.00. The third, from a Sage journal: $30. But hey, the abstracts are free and these publishers offer information about the journals’ impact factors, a variety of alternative metrics for each article, and a handy link so I can tell Twitter all about research that most people can't read.

Like most forms of privilege, those who have it often don’t recognize it. It's sneaky that way. As Jason Baird Jackson pointed out back in 2012, scholars with access to the record of research are the academic one percent. The first challenge is to recognize our privilege. The second is to examine what we do in our everyday lives that makes things unequal and work on fixing it.

There’s good news on that front. A number of the articles that I found in my search had versions available for anyone to read thanks to authors taking the trouble to self-archive them. And there are more and more creative ways to create a new infrastructure for funding the sharing of research more equitably than by depending on institutional affiliation. Open access publishing is gaining ground, and the humanities and social sciences are finally catching up to the sciences on developing new models. Here is a sampling of recent developments.

The Open Library of Humanities* just launched after a period of smart, thorough planning. This platform is host to a number of established journals that wanted to become more equitably available as well as new ones. In time books will hosted, too. This project is adapted to the context of the humanities, where authors aren’t assumed to have funding for their research to cover the costs of publishing it, as is more common in the sciences. The financial support required to run the platform is coming from library partners and funders such as Mellon, which has been pouring resources into ways of rethinking scholarly publishing. The mission of the Library of Humanities is “to support and extend open access to scholarship in the humanities – for free, for everyone, for ever.”

Luminos, an open access imprint of the University of California, has launched its list with ten free-to-download books with more to come. These publications are funded by a combination of author-side support raised through grants or other funding and library memberships. It hasn’t been unheard of for institutions to pay subventions to support the publication of books by their faculty. Now we can do this and ensure that the book isn’t only available to a small, select, privileged audience.

The Open Access Network has looked at ways to develop a large-scale equitable way for institutions of all sizes and missions to share the cost of creating and sustaining the infrastructure for scholarly societies and university presses to make their works open access. This vision is a big-picture effort that is complementary to other open access projects rather than a stand-alone competitor for funds.

A recently-released survey suggests that scholars in the humanities and social sciences are increasingly open to open access publishing. Ironically, the survey was done by Nature and Palgrave, publishers of expensive books and journals. Or maybe it’s not ironic – it’s an indicator that open access is the future, and even for-profit publishers know it. Fittingly, the survey data has been released on Figshare under a Creative Commons license so you can do your own analysis.

My wish this Open Access Week is that we all examine our privilege and think about what it is we want to do in the world as scholars and librarians - and commit to changing the systems we're implicated in that makes knowledge available at high cost for the few for only as long as subscriptions are paid. We don't have to do it that way anymore. 

*For some reason, I left the word "open" out of Open Library of Humanities in the original version of this post. Apologies.  


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