I’ve been reflecting on a few recent articles and meetings lately that have focused on problems in scholarly communication. In particular, I’m thinking about Micah Vandegrift’s recent post on Open Knowledge where he suggests that open knowledge is about “creating a new academic value system for/as a public good.” This is certainly a laudable goal, but contrasts with an editorial on a journal from the American Anthropological Association which observes that the association’s journal is viewed as a money-making effort to subsidize work of the organization. Similarly an article focusing on the UK perspective and advocating for a definition of scholarship similar to Vandegrift’s, points out that, “Universities in the UK are increasingly adopting corporate governance structures, a consumerist model of teaching and learning.” Overall, it seems like there is a major divide here. On the one hand practicing scholars (certainly not all of them but enough) see their research as a private good, and on the other hand, members of the open access community (myself included) would like to see knowledge become a public good. As a historian of scholarly communication and as a citizen who cares about education and access to knowledge, I have to ask myself, why does this divide exist?
The scholarly communication system that began developing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has always been in part about creating a community to disseminate research. Yet, the definition of community has often not meant that research should be “open.” In the 1840s, professional scholars sought to create exclusive domains including only a small number of people. There was a belief among many of these early researchers that it was important to exclude people from the system. For instance in 1838 Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote to Alexander Dallas Bache, later founder of the National Academy of Science that, science had to be strictly controlled “otherwise third and fourth rate men would soon control the affair and render the whole abortive and ridiculous” and “a promiscuous assembly of those who call themselves men of science in this country would only end in our disgrace.” Both of these men argued for a centralized system for science under their control. They later went on to found the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and some of their students and colleagues founded more specialized societies like the American Chemical Society
Moving forward in time, Marcel LaFollette in a chapter called “Crafting a communications infrastructure: Scientific and technical publishing in the United States” in A History of the Book in America: Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880 – 1940 (2009) has suggested that scholarly communication became a “business of knowledge production” with a bi-furcated market in the United States. There was the market for professional academics in which “the intended consumers were the same group of people who produced and evaluated the work” and also created an insularity that “encouraged development of an attitude within the research communities whereby scientists claimed ownership of their publication outlets, perceiving the journals and monograph series as ‘theirs,’ even though the intellectual property may have been produced, sold, and copyrighted by the publishers, who bore the financial risk of market failure and reaped much of the profit” (p. 243- 244).
In all, this very brief historical overview suggests to me that there is a major social problem in scholarly communication. For many academics, research is a private good meant only to be viewed by fellow-practitioners. If this is true, then why are movements like open-access even necessary, except perhaps to include scholars who work at less wealthy universities? Additionally, if one sees scholarship as a private good, then attitudes like those of the American Anthropological Society become possible. After all, if scholarly research is a private good, one should be able to make a profit from it and subsidize necessary operations of the kinds of professional associations for which people like Henry and Bache were advocating over one hundred years ago.
If the open access community wants to create a new scholarly communication system, it will be necessary to change a very entrenched mindset. Major social reforms will be necessary to create this. Scholars will need to be convinced that their work is a good for the general public, not just their colleagues. Universities that have institutionalized the attitudes of their employees in tenure and promotion systems will need to have a groundswell of opposition to these policies. Professional associations and other scholarly communities (not just the publishers who serve these organizations) that profit from the distribution of scholarship must be convinced that they give up a major revenue stream on which they have depended. These are not easy problems to fix. Nonetheless, unless the open access community does so, it will not be able to create a value system in which knowledge is a public good, a goal that I wholeheartedly endorse.