This morning my friend Alex Leavitt took a bold stance in his blog, announcing that he would only participate in open-access journals and conferences. He started off by noting the sad passing of Aaron Swartz, who made his beliefs felt in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto and for which he was vilified. His story is not the one I am commenting on (many far closer to him have penned far more detailed articles), although I would think he would approve of Alex’s stance, which prompted me to re-think my own assumptions about how young scholars should operate. I’m posting some of these thoughts here.

I admire the strong message he sends. His take is bold because it directly confronts the stakes young scholars face in deciding where and how to disclose academic work. The system of academia rewards those who can produce written work that is published in peer-reviewed journals. These publications tend to be behind a “paywall” that restricts access to subscribers, which generally are members of institutions that can afford a license. This places academics in a strange situation where they are not paid for writing that they often produce with money from public sources, only to have it judged worthy and sold back to institutions. It’s deliriously out-dated. However, it’s the game recognized by professors, who tend to want to see their students publish in a fairly restricted set of journals. Our careers are valued on weirdly computed, often skewed numbers that have names like “impact factors.” Attaining tenure is more strongly based on publishing than teaching or service.

An open-access only stance would be far more difficult to follow through on just a few years ago. He quotes danah boyd’s similar statement from 2008, who eventually did publish again in paywalled journals, which isn’t that surprising given the numerous scholars she’s worked with and the state of OA in 2008. The only open-access journals that I remember existing when I started my Ph.D program were Surveillance and Society, and First Monday. Now there are promising OA communication journals with solid editorial and review processes popping up: the International Journal of Communication (IJOC), review of communication research,  communication + 1triple C, and the journal of peer production. These excite me greatly as options for budding scholars and I hope to work with them soon. It seems that going 100% OA is at least an option.

I’d like to bring up a major issue that gets overlooked in many discussions in the open culture movement about how predatory journals are voraciously appropriating the term “open access.” By predatory, I mean publications (term used charitably) that charge a fee to authors for the privilege of publishing in their journal, have flimsy (if any) peer review/editing, and dump articles to a website. They often spam conference email lists with offers to publish articles with letters that often have tells, such as grammar errors and mistakes in understanding a given field of research. They essentially masquerade as open-access to charge publishing fees to authors, trapping scholars in bogus deals that are useless, if not downright embarrassing, on a C/V. This is a serious liability for young scholars who are often frazzled, overworked and stressing about passing muster at their University of College.

Access in academia has never simply been “open” or “closed.” A simple example of making paywalls more permeable is the placing of a PDF on a personal website, or if under copyright, a simple line that says “email for PDF.” I have had an academic flat out refuse to email me a PDF (rather than simply forget, which is more common) all of exactly once. Alex finds this workaround angering. Maybe I am simply content to live with sharing as necessary for recognition in my discipline, at least until open-access journals mature.

Beyond social media, information in academia moves across permeable boundaries such as classes, conferences, and social networks. Diane Crane elaborated on the concept of “invisible colleges,” referring to informal academic networks. In her 1972 book of the same name she analyzed networks built from academic citations. As it turns out, disciplines have quite different patterns of sharing, and some academics are particularly prolific “hubs.” This was, of course, more newsworthy when the networked paradigm of communication didn’t yet dominate. I see shades of this idea in Henry Jenkins’ early work on groups of television fans assembling to collaborate on stories using characters and plotlines from mainstream entertainment.

In the current day, I see strong and vibrant social networks developing among academics that cut across disciplines. We are studying broad themes that by definition have to move across these boundaries, and are not fully defined by journals or conferences. We aren’t waiting for publications or disciplines to catch up. This gives me tremendous hope for the future of my discipline. I don’t think we, at least in communication, are as hung-up on reinforcing disciplinary boundaries or shutting down discussion. We would be pretty terrible communication scholars if that were true.

I think the open-closed discussion also draws our attention to differential access. We are seen and heard in, let’s face it, pretty privileged media and spaces that are not open to everyone. This is why I admire scholars that make efforts to make their work not just physically accessible but comprehendible in public venues (although I am also sensitive to Judith Butler’s stance that, drawing from Adorno, that “one of the most important ways to call into question the status quo is by engaging language in nonconventional ways”). Crane’s point was that networks of collaboration are not simply built from reading publications, but by being tied to social networks. Making publications available is a good starting point, but neglects thinking about economic and cultural barriers to connecting. We should also continue to think deeply about the stakes involved with inclusion, rather than just presentation of one’s own work. IAMCR, for example, has a sliding scale for admission that takes into account the differential access from less affluent countries. We need to get people literally in the room and serve as emissaries for our disciplines.

At the end of the day, I can’t take the strong stance Alex did. Getting accepted at conferences such as the International Communication Association (ICA) is part of connecting with fellow academics, even if it does involve participating in posting papers to a website that is accessible only to paying conference-goers. If I am able to get a paper in a leading journal, I need to exercise that option. If nothing else, I worry about my wife and daughter having to deal with me moping around the house if I don’t find some way to make myself useful after graduation.

What I can get behind is Alex’s pushing for us to act, stating that “there’s no image to share, no petition to sign, no badge to display: at this critical and crucial point, there is only action.” Maybe I can’t go 100% open-access, but I will promote ample work-arounds and publish in OA journals where possible. Ph.D students are, well, everywhere. We can speak for open-access in meetings and to those who make sure the trains run on time. Specifically, the strong connection between peer review and paywalled journals is an artifact of history. It seems important to convince our professors to review for OA journals and break the hold paywalled journals have on peer review, which is, ultimately, the measure of scholarship valued by institutions, not the name of the journal. Finally, academic publishers are in very much the same bind as the publishing industry at large. It also seems necessary to propose new publishing models that are not built on exorbitant fees charged by journals to institutions for access to research.