A time for action: One student's commitment to free and open access

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Good intentions, misrepresentation, and deception


Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.—Aaron Swartz

I have been a PhD student for less than two years. On the other hand, for six years, I have been a member of the free culture movement, which emphasizes the importance of access to and openness of technology and information.

Recently, I’ve been frustrated... sad... angry. Just over a year ago, a friend and fellow member of the free culture community, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, committed suicide. He was 22. A few weeks ago, an acquaintance, a friend of many close friends, and—really—a role model, just one year older than myself and networked with many institutions and individuals I have come to work with and/or admire (such as MIT, the Berkman Center, the EFF, Creative Commons; frankly, there are too many individual people to list) committed suicide. Aaron Swartz was admired for his bravery to stand up for his ideals, and the work he put into the world demonstrated no less than exactly those ideals. I followed his actions with awe and complete understanding.

When I look at the goals that Aaron pursued, I feel disappointed in myself for not also working harder toward similar aspirations. But I want that to change. Though Aaron frequently called for more extreme forms of activism, such as through his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, I want to begin with what is an easy solution that has been solvable for years, which I do not even think deserves to be called activism. It’s merely what should be.

So I have decided that I will further my ideals by refusing to restrict the knowledge I create in outdated publishing models that retain and maintain a detrimental status quo within the academic community. I know that Aaron detested the absurdity of contemporary academic establishments and norms; in many regards, I agree with his sentiments wholeheartedly.

But even though I still commit to furthering my career as a pursuer and producer of knowledge, I recognize that things just have to change already. We need to fix this.

Accessible by default

The easiest thing... is simply not volunteering our labor to lock academic writing away from the public.—Nick Montfort

While I’ve supported and campaigned for open access in the past as a member of Students for Free Culture, I can no longer support the outdated, profit-driven models of modern academic publishing companies. I feel it is finally time to stand up and challenge the status quo, in which academics send knowledge to journals whose sole purpose of existing is to disseminate that knowledge to others. By blocking access to and charging fees for that knowledge, I believe that journals have failed in the primary purpose for the education system as a whole: to teach and share knowledge with others.

There’s an inherent flaw in modern academia: scholars are expected to publish in "high ranking" journals, foundational compilations of academic articles that—over time—have become engrained in the institutional social fabric of knowledge production within the academy. They are, however, closed to the public. But these kinds of journals do nothing for someone like me, a young, digitally networked, curious researcher. Unlike scholars of the past, I no longer wait for journals to appear on my doorstep to gain access to the latest scholarship; the internet, search engines, and personal homepages are my distributors and discovery mechanisms.

It angers me that scholars think that the solution to this status quo is to post copies of their articles online. Some academics, in reality, must publish in closed journals and thus decide to free their own writing individually. But in my opinion, that is not enough. By continuing to publish in and thereby support closed journals, we continue to maintain and uphold an outdated mode of knowledge circulation. Scholars need to realize that the base act of publishing in a closed journal continues its existence: even if you make your own knowledge available, others’ may not be.

I’m no longer afraid of the threat that publishing in certain closed journals might affect my career. My future depends on my work being relevant and widely read. And I will never support nor desire an institution that would punish me for pursuing those goals.

I am boycotting locked-down journals and I'd like to ask other academics to do the same.—Danah Boyd

What I must do

I have come to the conclusion that my knowledge should and will be accessible. Therefore, I will only publish openly.

I will only publish in open access journals.

I will only review for open access publications.

I will only sign book and chapter contracts that share copies of the text online (whether licensed through Creative Commons or made available in some other, free form).

I will only attend conferences that make any related publications accessible for free.

I will also only contribute to open access publications that do not charge authors inordinate costs for publishing.

The academic community is only hurting itself, and its long term public support, by keeping its knowledge behind high subscription walls.—Andrew Carr

What you (and we) can do

Change begins when we as a community move forward together. However, absolute change can only come about with absolute decisions.

If you are a graduate student:

  • Adopt the same stance: only publish in open access academic venues; refuse all others.
  • Encourage your cohort, classmates, friends, colleagues, teachers, and advisors to do the same.

If you are a senior scholar:

  • Help young scholars like me establish a variety of new and current open venues for publication.
  • Refuse to review for closed journals; volunteer to review for open access publications.
  • Cite scholarly works from open access venues when research is worthy of it.
  • Recognize junior faculty’s efforts in the tenure process for pursuing open access ideals.
  • Petition closed journals to shift their policies to open access.
  • Help spread the word that closed publications are no longer acceptable.

Open Access benefits literally everyone, for the same reasons that research itself benefits literally everyone.—Peter Suber

The movement toward open access as a norm within academia has been and will likely be a slow and ongoing process, and many better people than myself have contributed to changing the status quo in substantial ways. But I feel that individual decisions like the one made on this page can contribute to that shift and ultimately change this situation. If you are ready to take the same step, I encourage you to promote your thoughts on your own webpage and spread the word. There’s no image to share, no petition to sign, no badge to display: at this critical and crucial point, there is only action.

Originally posted on Alex Leavitt's website. Reposted under Creative Commons.

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Alex is a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter at @alexleavitt. Alex previously worked with danah boyd at Microsoft Research New England. Before that he was a researcher in the Comparative Media Studies department at MIT, where he worked on the Convergence Culture Consortium project.


Great article Alex. I've been reading also about physicians adopting a similar idea, not publishing in closed journals and refusing to review for those journals in an effort to make the medical knowledge available to all instead of just those who can afford the cost of the publication.

Thank you for such a great idea......I will spread word about it....Thanks again.

Thanks for this great idea. I will spread word about it.

Excellent Article Alex !

You are giving great example and providing inspiration and hope to all of us who have been promoting Open Access for long time.

Your gesture is exactly what is needed at this junction in time.

The arguments in favor of Open Access have been made for the past ten years. As you very nicely point out: Now it is time for Action !

I think this is a great idea, but, I have one question:
What happens to the journals?

If new open access journals/publications are created, where the content is provided for free, how do the running costs of the journal/publication get covered? Who pays the editor?

Journals that are "revered" and "curated" (e.g. Science, British Medical Journal) ensure very high standards as scientists strive and compete for their research to be published in such publications. The publications have higher running costs, which cover the costs of editing and "curating".

With open access journals, where is the incentive to maintain the quality and the finance to cover the running costs?

I'm sure the answer is obvious to most people and that I'm just having a stupid day....

The answer is not simple and revolves more around reputation and how reputation yields funding. High standards of review in closed journals are supposed to guarantee preservation of quality in the literature. A single publication in a high quality journal may guarantee more grant funding than several papers published in journals of lesser stature. The reality today is that competition for funding is tougher than ever and publications in respected journals directly relate to how reviewers view a scientist's grant application. The field of science is a field of real people competing for a smaller pool of funding. Until OpenAccess journals have the same respect among grant reviewers as the premier closed journals, we won't achieve a major change in what is driving the way people think about funding. Follow the money and you will find the money follows the citations in the "right" journals. Ultimately, open source, freedom of data, and full methods disclosure revolves around freeing scientists from competition for limited resources, ie. funding, by traditional methods. Figuring out how to do that is the real hurdle. Once scientists are competing, in their minds, for respect and reputation, and not funding, based on free publication of full methods and data of new discoveries, then a new way of having a career as a scientist will have come to fruition.

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