Well, if there’s one thing that George Monbiot’s piece about academic publishing has accomplished, it has certainly created some discussion around the internets. First of all, Lorenz over at anthropology.info has a great post that provides a good summary of some of the debates, reactions, and discussions about this whole issue. Lorenz also provides an excellent selection of related links at the bottom of this post.
There are two specific posts that I want to highlight out of all this. The first is Jason Baird Jackson’s post “How enclosed by Large For-Profit Publishers is the Anthropology Journal Literature?” This one is definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in this whole publishing conundrum. Jackson also talks about some of the possible avenues for anyone who is concerned about where to publish: “Recent commentators in the anthropology publishing discussions have wondered whom they should be publishing with in light of their concerns over the state of publishing in the field?” Check out his post to see what he recommends.
The other post I want to highlight is by Kent Anderson, who writes for the SSP (Society for Scholarly Publishing). His post, “Uninformed, Unhinged, and Unfair–The Monbiot Rant” argues, first of all, that Monbiot’s “fundamental economic misunderstanding is that price is the defining problem when it comes to the accessibility of scientific information.” So if price is not the issue when it comes to accessing academic information, what is? Anderson argues that the actual problem is “specialty knowldge,” meaning that most academic articles aren’t going to be understood by anyone outside of a very small circle:
There is no price in the world that’s going to make that scientific paper, or thousands of others, intelligible, relevant, or meaningful to me in any way that’s going to affect my ability to function in a democracy.
Anderson continues his argument by putting forth a real gem:
And people who do need to see those papers can see those papers, probably know the authors, probably heard the poster session or talk at a meeting, and will know about the published report if it’s at all worth reading.
I could not disagree more with that line of reasoning. There is a point to be made about the accessibility of [some] academic writing, but I think Kent Anderson has taken things way too far in his effort to shift the discussion away from the economics of the situation. He has taken an issue that does indeed merit consideration (i.e. how academics write and present their work), and made an incredibly reductive argument, as if the general public cannot possibly understand anything that academics/scientists write. Since there’s no way the general public “gets it,” the argument goes, all of these other questions are superfluous.
I do think that academics can and should rethink how they present their work–this is an important issue. At the same time, I think there is plenty of good science and academic writing that is absolutely of interest to wider audiences–but much of it happens to exist behind some pretty expensive pay walls. Kent Anderson has effectively used this issue of “specialty knowledge” as a way to dodge the questions of cost, price, and economics altogether. I’m not buying his argument, at all. And I am absolutely not buying the idea that those who really “need” access to already have it.