Blog Post

Open Access, Public Intellectualism, and Academic Reform

(This post is cross posted on my website: Rhetorical Rumination)

I've participated in many discussions about academic scholarship, and needless to say, many of them are boring. They are boring because much of what is written in the academy is for such a small audience that I often struggle to connect it with my own interests; however, this doesn't mean the scholarship isn't interesting to someone. Reading through Bauerlein's Chronicle of Higher Education piece as well as John Carter McKnight's brilliant discussion of academic scholarship supply and demand, I wanted to write about something that's been bothering me for quite some time.

Many of the problems I have with higher education stem from antiquated and, seemingly, modernist notions of what it means to be in the academy and how research is defined from discipline to discipline. I don't want to get into a debate about what constitutes research and what doesn't; however, I would like to say that unless a scholar is willing to step back from their own ego and attempt to understand the context, then academics in higher education will continue to be dismissive of others' research because they don't understand it.

Academics have too long been removed from public view, and they have too long allowed their research to be secured behind Mordorian walls of arrogance. As long as academics continue to propagate their separateness from the rest of society, they will continue to draw the ire of those outside of the academy. But, what should the role of an academic be within a society? What can we actually do now to enact change?

Open Access

I believe open access is one of the most important issues facing the struggling and antiquated 21st century academy. Open access is at the root of how the academy defines knowledge and who should have access to knowledge. People outside of the academy should freely have access to knowledge and those within the academy should not hold the sole domain over knowledge. I'm quite adamant about this point because I often hear other academics either complain about the uselessness of open access or the lack of open access publications in their discipline preventing them from turning their research into open access knowledge. Even more troublesome are the academics who support open access, yet they don't submit to open access publications, despite the availability of those publications within their disciplines. The last issue is of particular concern to me because it feeds into the pretentious and, often, hypocritical nature of the academy.

Not only is open access critical to the current academy, but it could be critical to the future of the academy. It's important the academy's work be available to those outside of it. In the age of transparency, it should be fundamental that academic work is automatically open access and freely available to anyone. The question shouldn't be,  why should we make academic work open access; it should be, why shouldn't we make academic work open access?

I'm not unaware of the economic issues surrounding open access and for-profit publishing, but why should the academy, largely a non-profit enterprise, support for-profit seclusion of knowledge? The academy is in the business of discovering and disseminating knowledge, not burying and limiting access to it. The hypocritical nature of the academy is frustrating, but academics should be supporting, not just vocally but through submissions to and publishing in open access publications, open access issues because knowledge belongs to everyone, and discovered knowledge will not be put to productive use while locked away behind the academy's almost impenetrable walls.

Moreover, academics who support open access but don't submit their work to open access journals and publications are doing a great disservice to their discipline and the profession as a whole. If you support open access, then you should submit to open access journals and publications. It's important for academics to end hypocrisy in the academy by first starting with themselves. There are plenty of open access journals and publications to which academics can submit.

So, there is no excuse for academics, especially in the humanities and social sciences, to not make their work open access and freely available to everyone.

Public Intellectualism

Coupled with my adamant support for open access, I believe academics in the 21st century must be public intellectuals. Academics must be public figures, and they must shed light on their studies, work, teaching, and research. Every academic has access to the Internet and technology to make their work public and to engage in intellectual debates in broader contexts.

Higher education can no longer afford to be the haven for the elite, pretentious, and dismissive. The academy cannot afford it economically, socially, or culturally. When academics sequester themselves, they alienate themselves from the very public, which could benefit from their work. Does this make any sense? Does it make sense to devote your life to researching a subject to only share that passion with a tiny and, perhaps, even insignificant few? No, absolutely not.

Academics should work to engage the public through public writing and debate. They should not be afraid to jump into the fray of public opinion because public intellectualism will save higher education. It will save the academy through good works, public writing, and publicness. If academics put themselves on the front lines to address issues affecting higher education and the broader public, then they will find engaging, resourceful, and intellectually stimulating causes and audiences.

Moreover, if academics venture out of their sheltered offices and hallowed halls, they can show the public the great value of the academy, from the niche to the every day. (Lawrence Lessig, anyone?) Higher education's contribution to society is important and noteworthy, but academics must highlight and show the public the importance and noteworthiness. The public cannot be expected to just divine the academy's contributions to society; the academy must let them know.

Academics should write publicly about their work through blogs, newspapers, wikis, and other public venues. They should engage in public debates about issues on which they are knowledgable or passionate. Academics are not inherently special; individuals will move in and out of the academy much in the same way as people move in and out of a dinner party. One person will leave only to be replaced by another. However, what will hopefully exist beyond those individuals is the academy and people they affected and the knowledge they discovered and disseminated.

Academic Reform

The academy is in need of reform, and I believe the two aforementioned issues can help higher education knock down some of the walls surrounding the mythical ivory tower. Academics should be pushed to publish their work in venues not kept by paywalls and guards. They should be encouraged to connect with the larger public audience, and they should be urged to highlight all the good the academy contributes to society. I fear if the academy does not tear down the walls that separate it from the rest of society, then higher education as it currently exists will continue to rot from the inside and, in the distant future, be discarded as nothing more than an antiquated institution out of touch with the current century.

Update (01/04/2012): It recently came to my attention via a colleague on Twitter that Jonathan Becker posted about these issues with a similar argument six months ago. Becker is in a different discipline than my own, and this may be one reason why I wasn't aware of his excellent post. However, I think it's telling that there are people talking about these issues across disciplines, and we need more posts about the subject to really create change. Becker's post is excellent, and I encourage you to read through it.--TMK

Graphic by the author and photos by Flickr users Jo Naylor and ami_harikoshi, respectively // All Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY



I could not agree more.   I also get a little annoyed when folks assume that when they write something, they are the first person to do it or, conversely, that when someone else writes something similar, they were "broken" for not referring to what they wrote---especially on the Internet, where blogging has a different convention of spontaneity and is not bound by citational practices (themselves imperfect).   That said, I could not agree more about crossdisciplinary work.  In writing Now You See It and, earlier, in reading many many applications for positions when we were creating our Cognitive Neuroscience department, I was amazed at how often people labeling themselves "neuroscientists" had no idea that someone in what, to my non-disciplinary eyes, seemed like "the same field" were experimenting and making conclusions on waht seemed, to my non-disciplinary eyes, like the same problems, but with no intersection, awareness, or even common body of shared knowledge.   If anything, the field is even more strictly disciplinary than humanities disciplines---and, if anything, even more fractious.  



Comical personal side note:  if I get a bad review from a neuroscientist, which has happened 1 and 1/2 times now, humanities people are all shocked and think that means something----meanwhile, I get fan notes from all these other neuroscientists who agree with me and my take on the brain as a maleable learning/unlearning instrument and not with the reviewer (who inevitably whose take on neuroscience is rooted in evolutionary biology and, even, antiquated biological determinism or what used to be called sociobioloty).  Outside of a discipline--any discipline--there appears to be lots more consensus and coherence in a field than there actually is within it. 


Thanks for your generous spirit and your insights.  I hope you will share some in our newly launched HASTAC Scholars Forum on digital forms of scholarly communication.  


Like Cathy, I applaud your cogent summarization of some problems that plague academia.

All the issues you raise were major topics of conversation at the MLA conference held in Seattle Jan. 5-8, 2012. Within the digital humanities community that attended the conference in force, most everyone agreed that open acess and public intellectualism are key for the survival of the humanities and the general health of our culture. To that end, one recent initiative set by the MLA is academic activism. Researchers, students, and teachers are encouraged to work together on projects that are relevant to the world and benefit the community in some way. I heard about and saw many projects on display at the conference that already have embraced this initiative, as well as open access.

Also, in addition to reading Cathy's book Now You See It, please take a look at Kathleen Fitzgerald's recently published Planned Obsolence. Both books discuss these problems in depth and offer solutions already being implemented. Academia may be ingrained in dusty old ways of doing its thing, but there is a strong, vibrant, and exciting crowd of people who are changing those ways. I am glad that you are part of this community.


I agree. This is a thoughtful and impassioned plea - and deserves wider circulation.

My fellow historians have been groping in this direction lately as well. Dan Cohen's classic post on scholarly publishing from a couple years ago stressed the need to build broader audiences for our work. And a killer two-part post by the Tenured Radical on the need for more scholarly collaboration also stresses public outreach. Together with your piece and the others mentioned here, I think they show a building momentum for the open access ethos.

But this has me thinking: what exactly do we mean by the phrase "the academy?" Is this just an antonym for "the rest of the world?" What is this monolithic entity called "the academy?" Does it have a physical presence or is it a state of mind? Is there something intrinsically exclusive or elitist about describing ourselves this way? Are museum curators and public historians part of "the academy?" When I publish in an open access journal, or give a talk at a community college, or edit material on wikipedia, am I still part of "the academy?"


Thanks for this post and the update.   Incidentally, I agree about how important jonathan Becker's blog from six months ago was.  But I saw a silly tweet that said "the Internet is broken," implying that you did something wrong by writing your own blog without citing his and that's just hyperbolic.   There are dozens of us who have written about this topic long before six months ago, and each new thing adds in new ways, subtly reframing the argument for current conditions and with new considerations.  You added to the conversation and that's the important thing and what is so great about the Internet:  it's not a product, but a process.  It's not a definitive statement but a dialogue.

As a curiosity, here's a piece I did in a forum on this topic held at ACLS in 2004, for example: (and of course, ironically, it is lock box).   I'm sure it can be found open access somewhere too. 

My point is that, when you write a blog, you do not have to know everything that has come before.  In a published scholarly article, you want to know the field, one ALWAYS credits work one overtly borrows, but no one can be fully completist all the time.   It would start to be like a Nabokov or Borges story, one line of text and the rest citation.


We do our best.  We are as honest as we can be.  We give credit where due.  But we would be paralyzed into scholarly silence if we had to make sure no one before had uttered what is on our minds.  You were so great to responsibly acknowledge that excellent forerunner blog when it was brought to your attention on Twitter.   That is real professionalism.


Thanks for the comment, Cathy. I try to make an effort to engage others with professionalism, despite snarky comments. What I took away from the experience is that people across disciplines are having these types of discussions, and those discussions make it all the more important. 

I just think that open access and public intellectualism should be expected of scholars. It's important to break down the walls surrounding the academy. So, in that vein, I appreciated Mr Becker's post, and since it was directly brought to my attention, I felt it only right to attach an update. 

I'm working on another post right now about academic silos using this experience as an example. That's one thing I love about HASTAC: it attempts to get rid of the silos and bring people together for discussion and the betterment of the profession as a whole.