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Open Scholarship in Neoliberal Times

“Many researchers long for change,” an article at OpenUP Hub states, adding that such researchers “may desire to publish in new formats; to separate results from methodology and analysis in peer review; to consider qualitative output evaluations; to spread their research as far as possible through open repositories; to integrate communication as an ‘on-the-fly’ instead of a ‘(long-)stop-and-go’; to see audiences not as potential citations but a diverse readership including the public; to consider conferences not as ‘showing off’ but as ‘putting my ideas to discussion’.”

An article by Jon Tennant at Aeon proposes one path for innovative scholarly communication: “envisage a hosting service such as GitHub combined with Wikipedia combined with a Q&A site such as Stack Exchange. Imagine using version control to track the process of research in real time. Peer review becomes a community-governed process, where the quality of engagement becomes the hallmark of individual reputations. Governance structures can be mediated through community elections. Critically, all research outputs can be published and credited – videos, code, visualisations, text, data, things we haven’t even thought of yet. Best of all, a system of fully open communication and collaboration, with not an ‘impact factor’ (a paper’s average number of citations, used to rate journals) in sight.”

These are all exciting ideas, though inevitably I feel a little bit outside them because my own personality and research interests don’t fit well with most of them. As a literary scholar, I spend my time with texts, and the nature of the work I’m attracted to is fairly solitary, and the solitude is, for me, a primary attraction. (When I was young, I wanted to be a playwright, but eventually discovered that the eternally unfinished state of a script — which needs actors, designers, directors, etc. to finish it — was not just unsatisfying to me, but deeply frustrating.) Nonetheless, I would certainly prefer an academia that works toward the goals above than one that doesn’t.

Such goals must be carefully tied to an ethic, however. The OpenUP Hub essay proposes that what “many Open Access proponents desire is pretty much a socialist state of scholarly communication—collective ownership at its best”, and that’s fine as long as there is an analysis of labor and economics attached, but I fear that such a “socialist” ethic is little more than a vague communitarianism. I’m all for a truly socialist ethic — and even more for a truly socialist-anarchist ethic — but it seems to me that such an ethic must begin from a recognition that the contemporary academy, at least in the US, is soaked in neoliberalism.

As a term, neoliberalism gets some flack these days for being vague or jargony. It’s absolutely true that the term gets flung around too casually, but I find myself holding onto it because I haven’t found another that can so usefully tie together a group of histories, tendencies, and ideologies that clarify how and why we got to where we are, and that show what we must work against if we are to seek a broader vision of justice, equity, and liberation.

For a quick definition of neoliberalism, here’s Patrick Blanchfield:

Neoliberalism is at once a subspecies of capitalism and a model of governance, a vision of what politics can and should be. It sees political and social life almost exclusively through the lens of the free market, and asks us to consider ourselves and our fellow citizens primarily in terms of our economic activities: as consumers, as workers, as competitors, as human resources. Under neoliberalism, in other words, the individual is less a human subject with rights that entail obligations from the government, but rather a variable in a broader calculus of efficiency, a site for maximizing revenue and minimizing expenditure. Simply put, neoliberalism is about the withdrawal of government responsibility for political problems in favor of market-based “solutions” and individual “choices.”

(For more on the history and details, see Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. I think of neoliberalism as “Business School Logic”, which may be unfair to business schools, but so it goes. It is the financialization of everything, and universities have become especially prone to it over the last few decades, particularly as state funding for public universities has withered and schools have restructured themselves to seek funds elsewhere. The links between neoliberalism and academia have been discussed frequently in recent years — just Google “neoliberal university” — and I’ve myself written about it at some length before.)

Both of the essays I quoted above seem to me to work against the neoliberal ethos, and I am not seeking to criticize them here but rather to exhort us to be vigilant. It is easy to become excited by particular tools and techniques and to forget that what matters most are our underlying values, because those values will shape both which tools we use and how we use them.

Paulo Freire is most famous for Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but the works of his that I find most useful are later ones, particularly his book of conversations with Ira Shor, A Pedagogy for Liberation. In discussing whether teachers should or shouldn’t lecture, Freire says, “traditional teachers will make reality opaque whether they lecture or lead discussions. A liberating teacher will illuminate reality even if he or she lectures. The question is the content and dynamism of the lecture, the approach to the object to be known.”

Similarly, we could say that teachers beholden to neoliberalism will spread that neoliberalism whether they use open tools or not. We can hope (and perhaps even expect) that our commitment to open access and open pedagogy will undermine the university’s ability to squeeze scholars’ every last breath into profit/loss spreadsheets, but without being explicit about our understanding of academic labor and economics, such commitment is vulnerable to what 25 years ago Thomas Frank  called the commodification of dissent. It is also vulnerable to exploitation that is invisible to us without a lens through which to see such exploitation.

Three years ago, when my interest was first drawn to Open Education Resources, I wrote a skeptical blog post asking, “Who Pays for Your Bandwidth?” My ideas have developed since then, but the skepticism remains, and there’s little in that post with which I now disagree. I continue to think it’s well worth remembering that, as I said there, “Somebody is paying, even if it’s not you.”

I wrote that “OER must highlight its costs, because hiding costs tends to further the idea that something not only is free, but should be free — and it’s that idea that has destroyed wages for so many writers and artists over the last couple decades.” This reminds me of a presentation I saw a few months ago where students discussed what they had learned from classes where they had used open textbooks. One of the students said how aghast she was that an English course assigned 11 books and yet they were all available online for free, so why did they have to pay for them, what a waste! I wanted to scream. The lesson this student had taken from using OERs was that books should be free.

That is a terrible lesson. Books are a product of someone’s labor, and even if the book is centuries out of copyright, whatever edition you read has required labor to create it. (This can be a lesson learned from working with OERs, especially if the students themselves create them. Putting good scholarly editions together is hard work!) Just because the internet makes piracy easy doesn’t mean that it is ethical or desirable to pay nothing for books. In an environment where artistic labor is devalued, where the pay for writers is constantly falling, it is unethical to encourage anyone to see books as things you shouldn’t ever have to pay for.

With OERs we can make material free to readers because the labor of the people creating the OERs is accounted for in some other way, usually through the salaries paid to professors. In that sense, some students somewhere are paying for OERs, because at least a few tuition dollars probably funded the creation of those OERs.

It’s also worth highlighting why some writers at some times might choose to work for free, highlighting that it is a choice. Right now, for instance, I am writing without any expectation of remuneration or reward. Why? Because there is value for me in clarifying my ideas on these topics. I need to be able to express such ideas in my workplace, both to students and colleagues. I could write privately in a journal, which would be somewhat more comforting, but the possibility that my writing here might be seen and responded to by others heightens my focus in a way that feels valuable. From fifteen years of blogging elsewhere, I’ve seen the value, too, in having first-draft thoughts expressed and archived. I can trace some of the development of my thinking on certain topics, and I can compare my current thinking to earlier thoughts. And even at their most personal, my old blog posts feel different from journal entries because I was always aware of a potential audience (sometimes a larger audience than I desired for such casual writing, but that’s the risk). These benefits seem worth the effort to me. Similarly, I published a long essay on Virginia Woolf’s The Years with a journal that paid me nothing, stole my copyright, and charges readers $40 per issue and is not even available on the various full-text academic databases — about as opposite of open access as it’s possible to get. I did this because it’s a prestigious journal in a field that is important to me, I enjoyed working with the editors and peer reviewers, and so it seemed worthwhile to do once. (I will not publish with them again, I expect, unless they change some of their publishing practices. But this once, it seemed worthwhile.) Similarly, I am aware that while I’m working for free, my work here provides some money to, for instance, Reclaim Hosting, whom I (quite happily) pay to host this site.

We don’t have to get all Marxist to understand what I’m talking about here, but a quick glance at, say, “Wage-Labor and Capital” would not hurt (particularly the discussion of how labor-power is commodified). We need to be highly aware of the systems that we are part of and cannot escape, no matter our good intentions. Institutions impose hierarchies on us, and Professors with good salaries, health insurance, and retirement accounts do not enter into any endeavor on an equal footing with an adjunct making $2,500 per course without any benefits, even if that endeavor is a communal one predicated on openness.

Similarly, it’s wonderful to create new modes and models of research and publishing, but a fully tenured Professor will have more freedom to work with such new modes and models than will a graduate student or an early-career scholar, because hiring committees and tenure & promotion committees are unlikely to value such experiments, and even if they say they do, nobody in an economy of precarity can afford to risk it. I hate publishing with places that steal my copyright, don’t pay me, and hide my work behind paywalls (if they digitize it at all) — but if I want any sort of career in academia, I’d be foolish not to value those publishing venues over others for myself, because even if I and particular groups of scholars prefer the experimental venues, it is the traditional ones that are most valued generally by hiring and P&T committees.

Creating and refining open systems is a vital activity for helping to bring academia away from the cruelties and exploitations it so often promotes, but doing so must be tied to an awareness of the way the institution imposes its cruelties and exploitations. Some of those will be impossible to escape if we work within that institution, while others may be able to be subverted, and a few, perhaps, might even be avoided. Without acknowledgment of who pays for what, of how labor is valued, and of the different situations of individual workers, then the tools we think are liberating may quickly become instruments of exploitation.


image: “The Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin” by Diliff, Wikimedia Commons,  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license