An article made the rounds of social media recently on whether or not the for-profit website academia.edu is outflanking the open access movement. It’s a great article that I’d encourage people to read closely. Academia.edu, in case you didn’t know, is basically tumblr for academics — a bunch of hosted blog sites tied together into a social network. I am deeply ambivalent about academia.edu (and its more sciency cousin Research Gate) but in the end I use the site and even accepted one of the many ‘editorships’ they provided to people, which allows you to rate up content on their site.
There’s a lot to be said about academia.edu, most of which can be found in the post I linked to above. But what that piece sparked in my head was the way academia.edu and other sites enable (and perhaps even promote?) the other enemy of the open access movement: law-scoffing consumerism.
By now, most of us are familiar with take-downs of big publishers like Elsevier or Wiley. Their reputation as the main enemies of open access is, to be frank, pretty well-deserved. But open access is also impeded by total disregard for copyright and laws regarding intellectual property in general. And let’s face it: Academia.edu is chock full of articles which authors probably don’t have the right to post. When we decide that the law and our scholarly ethics are so far apart that we might as well ignore the law and share our work, it’s hard to care about reforming the law at all.
Academia.edu is not the only or worse example of this. We all know about book download sites like bookzz.org where you can go and download ebooks to your heart’s content. These sites make it easier to (probably illegally) download a book than it is to walk over to the library and check it out. Or even turn your chair around to face you bookshelf and pick up your own copy. In fact, it’s so easy to use you start to wonder why we need to have libraries at all.
And that’s a problem. Libraries are important — and in a world of digital publishing where they’re increasingly acting like publishers, they are more important than ever. University presses and independent presses are essential to keeping scholarly publishing going, and for many of them selling content is still (alas) the only business model that they’ve got. It’s one thing to download articles and thumb your nose at Elsevier. It’s another thing to do it to Verso or University of Washington Press.
We are still developing our sense, as scholars, of what counts as ethical sharing and what counts as ripping people off — where fair use and remix give way to plagiarism and piracy. It’s an exciting time to be a scholar and intellectual for precisely this reason. But I worry that when academics develop our communal norms in a context of “who cares who published it and why” we will ultimately develop a sensibility that is not in the best interests of the producers, editors, and publishers of knowledge. When that happens, the only people in the universe who still care about CC licensing will be me and Jason Jackson.
In a perfect world, law, policy, publishing models, and repositories would all be developing in a rich conversation with scholarly thought and practice. And this is happening in a lot of places. It’s hard to not to love the anti-authoritarian, drink-your-fill ethos of book download sites (the free books also add to the appeal). But let’s not forget that ultimately those books came from somewhere. And when let’s remember that while you could just say ‘frack this’ and throw a PDF of your article on academia.edu, when you take the time to get an open access license or observe a green OA mandate and post a pre-print, you’re making the world a better place for both your work, and for open access in general..