For the past two weeks, the CHI fellows have spent much time thinking about issues of scholarly publishing and issues of access to information. These conversations have revolved primarily around Kathleen Fitzpatrick‘s Planned Obsolescence. It was really a moment that occurred earlier in the book that resonated quite strongly with me. She writes:

And universities, in the broadest sense, will need to rethink the relationship between the library, the university press, the information technology center, and the academic units within the institution, reimagining the funding model under which publishing operates and the institutional purposes that such publishing serves – but also, and crucially, reimagining the relationship between the academic institution and the surrounding culture.

In part, Fitzpatrick is right in that the challenges we face at the current moment are not technological, but rather social as she points to the necessity of restructuring the systems (e.g. who can serve as a peer, notions of authorship, etc.) that we currently have in place.

I find the question of peer to be particularly salient. We put so much emphasis into peer review and we elevate it to such high importance because it adds substance and value to our work (supposedly). Still, who counts as a peer is a question I repeatedly asked myself both as I read the book and spoke with other fellows. What confounds me here is that peer is immediately reduced and relegated to academic community, but I have this personal belief that peer is a lot more that just published authors in a field or experienced researchers. My definition of this category would also include those people who participate in our research or those who’s backs we build our research upon or those who would benefit from our research. Some may refer to these folks as stakeholders, but I find that problematic only in the sense that I think everyone in some way has a stake in published research. Nevertheless, in thinking about Fitzpatrick’s notion of system-building, I am inclined to wonder how does the public factor into the ways in which we rethink scholarly publishing, especially with regard to access?

What sparks this question in relation to Fitzpatrick’s book is two columns that appeared last week in The Guardian. Mike Taylor, a paleontologist with the University of Bristol, published an article entitled “Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral.” His stance is fairly simple, “If you are a scientist, your job is to bring new knowledge into the world. And if you bring new knowledge into the world, it’s immoral to hide it.” Now is he saying that scientists are purposefully hiding their research from the eyes of the great unwashed masses (READ: the public)? No. His issue strikes at the heart of dissemination and the idea that knowledge is best served when it is made widely available for others to use. The argument here lies primarily with scholars choosing to publish publicly funded work in journals that are not open access (OA). I find myself sympathetic to Taylor’s sentiments in that I think the value of academic research lies not necessarily within a scientific community but rather what people are able to do with it within and outside the confines of an academic community. I, however, do have a single gripe with Taylor’s argument and that is his inclination to refer to scholars who publish behind paywalls as “immoral.” If we return to Fitzpatrick’s focus on the ecology of publishing, I’m not sure that we should attack scientists for following the publishing standards of the current system. In fact, I believe that it is the system that we should focus upon not the individual.

So I was surprised when I saw last Wednesday that Chris Chambers, a neuroscientist at Cardiff University‘s school of psychology, rebut Taylor’s argument by referring to folks who publish behind paywalls as “victims” rather than miscreants. Much of my surprise came in that I thought Chambers would take up this argument of system/disciplinary change rather than individual. Yet, his focus seemed more in-line with defending publishing standards and in doing so he even manages to devalue OA publications (although I am not sure this is his intention). His argument is that there’s no “incentive” in publishing in an OA journal because there’s no prestige attached to those types of publications. Here prestige is an important indicator of value–that the prestige of a journal “evolves based on history and trust” among its readership (e.g. scientists). He even goes on to state that we hurt junior scholars when we deny them the ability to publish in prestigious journals based purely on political commitments. For me, these statements do not simply call into question the value of OA publishing venues; they also embrace a value system that challenge what constitutes as knowledge and how we should value certain types of knowledge. I find this bizarre.

In reading these articles in relation to Fitzpatrick as an attempt to determine where I stand, I have come to the position that you build value in a system. I am not a scientist, but I think that the argument between these two researchers easily extends to other disciplines as well. In my opinion, the goal of any disciplinary community is to generate knowledge that we perceive to have some form of public good. We do not research for the sake of research. Not to get too technical, but the word publish stems from the Latin publicare, which means “to make public.” How can we say that we are publishing if only a select group has access? In making this argument I am saying that value comes with the largest level of readership and engagement with ideas possible. The key for me is that value is not something that can be (nor should it) contained within an artifact. Value is a result of the activities that happen around that artifact. I think that we can easily build value around an OA journal if we agree that our notions of the trust that builds prestige stems from an assembly that encompasses different levels of participation across scale. This is a way of practicing that envelopes intra- and interdisciplinary conversations, researchers engaging with non-academic publics about their research, and non-academic publics engaging with each other about research and what it means for them. For example, a high school computer teacher might not write a note in response to Cynthia and Dickie Selfe’s “The Politics of the Interface” in College Composition and Communication. Yet, having access to this article might affect the way in which she teaches students to value the digital literacy that comes with computer interfaces not as tools of democracy and empowerment but as systems that tacitly promote dominant cultural values. In this scenario, the value of knowledge stems from reception and use in order to alter the way in which an individual understands and acts in the world. I would argue that this was the publication’s intent–an intent that cannot fully materialize behind a paywall.