Blog Post

Is knowledge ever free?

danah boyd's posting "Open-access is the future: boycott locked-down academic journals," on her fabulous Apophenia blog ( has generated a few dozen comments, including my own. I agree with some of her statements and assumptions and then balk at others. There should be a way to get to articles other than through yearly subscriptions to commercial journals at exhorbitant prices. Yes! But the idea that university presses (which lose millions, employ copy editors and others at minimal wages but who do what they do, tirelessly, out of a love for scholarship) should be giving away their products free or be boycotted is like saying music file sharing is fine and the musicians who don't condone it should be boycotted because they are exploiting the rest of us. Really? Whose labor isn't being rewarded here? We need to think as carefully about what Nicholas Carr calls the "sharecropping" aspects of Web 2.0 and some versions of open source as we do about our consumer rights. I'm all for finding better ways. Some presses (Duke U Press happens to be one) are moving towards the equivalent of an iTunes model for downloading scholarship--that makes sense to me. Elsevier (the price-gauging commercial science publisher) SHOULD be boycotted. Libraries buy the overpriced commercial science journals and can no longer afford to buy anything else (like humanities and social science scholarship from small presses or university presses or even books). These are all issues we should be thinking about together and I highly recmmend danah's piece and then the long, long list of comments. Thought provoking!


1 comment

danah posted the following response to my own comments on her blog, reproduced her for your convenience and viewable at:


If you go to her site, you'll also find a great video interview she did with Discover on social networks and youth. Really sane, smart, terrific.


Here's her post on academic publishing:


One of the things that's become clear in all of this is that the
economics around journals varies tremendously. I have friends who
edit well-respected journals for free and others who get paid for
their labor. I know fields where copyediting is paid by the journal
and others where authors are expected to provide proofed and
copyedited versions as their final draft. There are journals where
there is a template and no designers and others where layout is done
professionally. Some journals have marketing infrastructure; others
do not. There are fields where conference fees offset journal
publications, fields where journal fees offset book publications, and
fields where researcher grant money is expected to offset publishing
costs. There are journals that see their primary role as one of
aggregation and allow authors to publish on their own website; there
are others who wish to operate as gatekeepers and only allow access
through their gates. There are fields where people are hired to do
grunt work, fields where grad students do the publishing grunt work
with no choice, and fields where grad students do the publishing grunt
work as a rite of passage (e.g., law).

The variable does not appear to be something so simple as "quality" by
rather discipline and norms, publisher type and association
infrastructure. I'm most familiar with the world of ACM/IEEE and Sage/
Taylor&Francis and pure-profit publishers meant to rip off academics.
Part of what makes it hard to have a conversation about this topic is
that there's huge variability across scholarship. I'm very thankful
for this conversation for making a lot of that apparent to me.

To a certain degree, it's a question of guiding principles. What do
we want the end goal to be and how do we work to achieve it? For me,
the end goal is clear: open-access. What I'm learning is that not
everyone agrees that this is a desired outcome; this makes me sad. I
totally agree that it would be a shame to not acknowledge unsung
labor, but it's pretty clear to me that the unsung labor varies
tremendously by model, and I think that there has to be creative
solutions to get to open-access without further marginalizing labor.
I personally am not willing to give up open-access just to help keep
antiquated business models rolling. I strongly believe that new
business models are possible in this space and that there are
solutions that require less expenses than the current models, making
it easier to move to open-access without marginalizing more people.

I'm super stoked to see so many people willing to talk about these
issues. Hopefully this will help us all reach an outcome that we can
enjoy. In the meantime, for me at least, I just want to make certain
that everyone can get access to the work that I produce.