Hook & Eye

Guest Post: Open Access Is a Feminist Issue

Today’s post is from Dr. Hannah McGregor

__________________________________________

In “#transform(ing)DH Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics,” Moya Bailey invites feminist scholars to ask how we enact our feminist ethics throughout our research processes. At the end of the article, she outlines questions we can ask ourselves as we are embarking on new research projects. Included in those questions are “What tools and or methods encourage multidirectional collaboration?” and “What mechanism of accountability can you create?”. Accountable feminist research, research that centres responsibility to the communities our research engages with or speaks to, is attentive to how its tools and methods open out or close down the possibilities for collaboration beyond the university. As a feminist scholar, I have become increasingly convinced that one of the most accountable things we can do in our work is prioritize open access. 

 

A quick explanation: open access (OA) is a set of publishing principles and practices that are specific to scholarly communication. The goal of OA is to break down institutional barriers to accessing research, either through publishing in OA journals or depositing pre-prints of articles in institutional repositories. There are obvious challenges to OA — particularly financial ones, as we’ll have to envision new business models to ensure that scholarly publishing is both open and sustainable. With major institutions like the University of California beginning to end their relationships with publishers like Elsevier, however, a steady movement toward widespread OA seems inevitable. And, while challenging, this change is a good thing. 

 

When I started working in the Publishing program at Simon Fraser University in 2016, I joined a community of scholars who are not just invested in open access as an ideal, but who are actively building the infrastructure to make OA possible. SFU is home to the Public Knowledge Project, and the PKP’s Associate Director of Research, Juan Pablo Alperin, is my departmental colleague. The Publishing program has voluntarily signed onto SFU’s Open Access Policy and incorporated it into our tenure and promotion criteria. In the context of an institutional setting where OA is treated as a shared value, I have had the space to experiment with open, accessible, and publicly-engaged scholarship, particularly through my work on podcasting as scholarly communication in collaboration with Wilfrid Laurier University. 

 

All this to say, I’ve been embedded in a community invested in the ethos of open access for long enough, now, that it was a genuine shock to me when, in Spring 2019, I attended multiple conferences where colleagues in Humanities disciplines spoke of open access as neoliberalism, the scientization of research, and a devaluation of our intellectual labour. As one friend texted me in the midst of one such conferences: since when is open access neoliberal but paywalling research so that people have to pay for it isn’t? 

 

I would never be so naive as to claim that OA lacks barriers and challenges. In the Canadian context, the most significant one is the top-down way that the Tri-Council has attempted to implement it: not through incentive-based funding or collaboration with stakeholders, but through sudden and absolute ultimatums that threaten to strip journals–and now, university presses–of their funding if they don’t comply with new regulations. These unilateral funding changes may also be linked to OA’s association with the STEM fields, which have often driven the conversation. In fact, people working in the field of scholarly communication have a tendency to use “science” and “research” as synonyms (I keep trying to make them stop doing this, but it isn’t sticking yet). Many Humanities scholars, journal editors, and publishers feel like we have been left out of the conversation about how we want our research to circulate, and are being left to play catch-up in a publishing and funding environment that is already stacked against us. 

 

But here’s the thing: Responding to the OA movement by clinging to closed-off and paywalled forms of scholarly communication is inimical to the public mission of the university–and the public mission of the university is a feminist issue. As Bailey reminds us, a feminist research ethics means making our research accessible and accountable. Feminist scholars shouldn’t be responding to open access by dragging our feet and reluctantly complying to new requirements. We should be leading the conversation about what it means to do open, accessible, accountable research. 

 

It is also true that many of the barriers to embracing open access are also feminist issues. The scholarly publishing world is dominated by women (as is the trade publishing world); journal editing tends to be undervalued and high labour work that is at once vital to academia and also, like most forms of service, barely counted in tenure and promotion processes. The precaritization of the university has massively inflated expectations around early-career publishing, which in turn has inflated the number of journals in many disciplines. The systematic defunding of public universities has cut the entire business model of university presses off at the knees. We also haven’t solved the problem of business models for sustainable OA publishing; in the sciences, the most viable model is adding article-processing fees into grants, but grants in the humanities and social sciences are generally too small for such additions. We cannot talk about open access without talking about all of these structural problems. 

 

But if we could collectively agree to the fundamental premise that open access is a feminist issue, then our conversations about labour and value and prestige would, by necessity, shift. As Kathleen Fizpatrick so succinctly puts it in Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, embracing open access as a values-based approach to scholarly communication “does not just serve the goal of undoing [scholarship’s] commercialization or removing it from a market-driven, competition-based economy, but rather is a first step in facilitating public engagement with the knowledge that universities produce” (148). Can feminist scholars agree that part of the mission of publicly-funded universities should be facilitating public engagement with our work? Can we agree that pay-walling and institutionalizing research created on stolen Indigenous land perpetuates settler-colonial understandings of knowledge-as-commodity? Can we agree that the scarcity-driven models of publishing in the most “elite” and “competitive” journals or of valuing the monograph over journal articles (or journal articles over podcast episodes!) is based in a fundamentally patriarchal hierarchy of what knowledge “counts”? 

 

There are challenges ahead of us as we face the transformation of scholarly communication, but there are also exciting opportunities to break down the institutional barriers of the university, to tell the stories of our work in different ways, to rethink where and how and why we publish. As we face those challenges within our disciplinary and institutional communities, we’ll start finding good solutions when we commit to the values at the heart of making knowledge open and free.

Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University and the host of Secret Feminist Agenda, a podcast about the mundane and radical ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives. She lives in Vancouver on the territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.