Open Access: Inspiring a More Democratic Future

I first got excited about open access and what it can do for both academia and the public at large after hearing David Parry speak at the 2012 Computers and Writing conference at North Carolina State University. During his keynote address, Parry argued that much of the academic publishing industry enforces “knowledge cartels” which control the flow of information and “reproduce and concentrate power” (3). Parry also argued that individuals who produce scholarly work (whether in the sciences, humanities, or elsewhere) have a social obligation to make that work freely available to the public.

Long before hearing Parry’s address, I had felt uncomfortable with the way many academic journals disseminate knowledge and how that process limits access for a significant number of individuals. Fortunately, Parry gave me a framework for articulating that discomfort. He also introduced me to the potential that open access (OA) has for democratizing knowledge and information. One of the neatest things about Parry’s speech, however, is that I heard it only months before beginning a Ph.D. program in Rhetoric and Composition at Washington State University. The timing could not have been better as I am now in a position where I must determine not only the kinds of scholarship I want to produce, but also where I want that scholarship to end up.

Just recently, for instance, I finished a short article in which I argue that university writing classrooms must encourage students to use not only written and visual texts for argumentation, but to also tap into the multidimensional aspects of visual communication. The impetus behind this argument came not from a scholarly source, but from a childhood learning experience with my father. As I looked for an academic journal to publish the piece, I kept asking myself “Wouldn’t it be ironic—even hypocritical—if my dad couldn’t read the article because he works outside of academia?” I chafed at the thought.

And so I began to seek out open access journals that would provide the opportunity for someone like my father (or anyone for that matter) to read the piece should they want to. Fortunately, my article was accepted by an OA journal. It is likely, however, that had I not heard Parry’s speech or begun to articulate for myself a personal ethic rooted in the idea that everyone should have access to scholarly materials, my piece might have ended up behind password-protected doors.

The point I’m getting at is this: we need more people like David Parry to call our attention to the undemocratic nature of traditional academic publishing as well as to the potential that open access has for undermining this discriminatory system. Maybe that’s an obvious statement, but I can say from personal experience that had I not been at Parry’s keynote address only six months ago, I would still have a naïve, uncritical attitude toward the academic publishing industry, despite spending the last decade in Higher Education.

So as the open access movement continues to grow, advocates for OA need to work harder and more creatively to ensure that everyone within academia understands how the decisions we make as scholars have the potential to shape who does or does not have access to our research. Whether or not individuals outside of university settings want to read that scholarship is unimportant; what is important is that they have the right to do so, especially if that scholarship is produced within publicly-funded institutions.

Works Cited

Parry, David. “Knowledge Cartels versus Knowledge Rights.” Enculturation (2012): 1-7. Web. 10 Sept. 2012.