One publisher’s support for the Research Works Act in the U.S., and a similar bill in Australia, seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back—the camel, in this case, being the long-suffering community of academic researchers who are bound up in the price-gouging, access-stifling policies of the academic publishing industry. The mathematician Timothy Gowers, a Fields medal recipient, announced in a blog post last month that he would personally boycott all of the many academic journals owned by the Elsevier corporation. And the boycott has quickly gained momentum, with (at last count) over 7,000 researchers and librarians from around the world signing their names to the effort.
As an undergrad from the generation of ‘digital natives’, I’m following this story closely. Because frankly, it’s about time. Some journalists have coyly dubbed the effort the “academic spring”, but an organized uprising against the contrivances of academic publishing may very well prove to be a watershed event. The cause of open access to research, ultimately, demands a radical shift in thinking, and could strike at some of the most entrenched myths of our academic system.
The three-point summary of grievances at http://thecostofknowledge.com/ is admirably concise—even ‘elegant’, in logical sense of the word. But to focus too narrowly, with the momentum building now, would be a tragically wasted opportunity. If the researchers can articulate their case to the public, in the language of access, I believe they’ll find an enthusiastic ally in the ‘internet generation’, which happens to include the overwhelming majority of today’s students. Because, to us, the academic journal isn’t a sacrament. It’s an abstraction, indulged mainly for the sake of tradition. Through online systems like EBSCOhost and ProQuest, we engage with scholarly articles mainly as aggregated web content anyway, and it’s clear enough who keeps the paywall in place. The boycott participants are shining a light on some glaring questions about what, exactly, publishers are charging for, when no one from the authors to the peer reviewers are actually paid for their efforts. And the answer, I believe, reveals a critical window of opportunity. Publishers like Elsevier ultimately legitimize themselves under the ideology of academic prestige. But to my eyes, they’ve failed completely to impress that ideology on the current generation of students. We simply aren’t trained to believe in it. For researchers whose careers depend on publication in big-name journals, this is the moment to put those myths of prestige under the microscope.
Coincidentally, there’s a second fact of this moment in education, by which educators may have left themselves even better-armed for the battle: we are living in the age of the “diversity credit”. Schools have widely embraced the idea that making better graduates means educating students in class consciousness, and we now have the first full generation of students who have been trained to look past the narrow ideas of race or gender inequality, and instead to criticize systematized inequalities qua inequalities, in and of themselves. And the education system, for all the past few generations’ labors to democratize it, is still rife with class barriers. We all know an ivy-league education will open doors that a state-school education will not, for reasons that go far afield of the actual quality of instruction. And the analogy between the prestigious school and the prestigious journal is plain to see. Open access, at its heart, isn’t about expediency, or even economics; It’s about democratizing knowledge, and breaking illegitimate barriers to the flow of information. And that, I believe, is how the “academic spring” should frame itself, if it wants to tap into the energies of the students who ultimately stand to inherit whatever Gowers and his fellow reformers can create. Students of my generation know a paywall when we see one. I believe we can also recognize an ideology of prestige that has served, not to protect the quality of scholarship, but to exploit it.