The following post was originally published on Alex Leavitt’s website.


Fed Up

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. Just one week 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* 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.

*Such as MIT, the Berkman Center, the EFF, Creative Commons; and frankly, there are too many individual people to list.

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So I have decided that I will further my ideals by refusing to restrict the knowledge I create in outdated publishing models that retain and maintain a detrimental status quo within the academic community.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 fucking change already. We need to fix this.

Accessible by Default

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and campaigned for open-access in the past as a member of Students for Free Culture, I can no longer support the outdated, profit-driven models of modern academic publishing companies.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.

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.

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.

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.

Alex Leavitt is a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter at @alexleavitt.

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Alex is studying for a PhD in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he is advised by Henry Jenkins.

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.

5 thoughts on “One Graduate Student’s Commitment to Open Knowledge”

  1. Dear Alex,

    Thanks much for your post and courageous public commitment.

    According to the memorial speeches, Aaron was beginning to learn how to do the dishes over the last year.

    An academic career and journalistic career limited to strictly “gold” open-access publications may feel a lot like “doing the dishes” for some time, demanding stamina and humility. Hopefully it won’t take too long until the precedent you are setting becomes the established norm for all academia. But it will likely take years, at least.

    As we have this opportunity to scrutinize many aspects of a heroic life, we should not only learn from Aaron’s strengths but also from his weaknesses that he fought to strengthen. The difficult humility of your open-access commitment shows that we are not limited to just short-term direct actions like Nelson and Luke’s Diebold email-hosting, and the ill-fated Jstor downloading. We are learning to be better, as according to Taren’s quote from Maya Angelou: “We can be. Be and be better.”

    I admire your post and I expect that I will likely adopt much the same stance, I have had many thoughts along the same lines.

    I am a PhD student as well, in Economics, at Boston University. We academics need to recognize that this is our community, and our publications. We must take ownership of its governance. I feel this especially strongly as I take classes in the field of Development Economics.

    Some of my fellow students and I have conceived of the idea of a daily protest by PhD students, designed to spread across the world. Every PhD-level class, and every seminar. 10 to 30 seconds of silent standing, a physically communicated message of the Open Access consensus. The physical logic of “Aircraft Carrier Style” can break the problem of coordinating the already-existing open-access consensus among PhD students.

    We don’t have to interrupt class, the professor can begin class just like normal. If anything, it might help more students to get there on-time, with fewer stragglers. Professors are free to demonstrate their solidarity or ambivalence as they feel comfortable.

    I believe that such a movement has the potential to spread like wildfire.

    Most PhD students participating in such protests do not need to make a pledge with the gravity of yours, but we do not necessarily need them to do so. But what should “supporting Open Access” mean?

    The difficulty will be coordinating the response or non-response to requests for our policy demands when the the public begins to make these requests.

    To Alex and other readers, What suggestions do you have for building a organizational network to support this kind of subtle PhD protest movement?

    And what sort of “physical logo,” along the lines of “Aircraft Carrier Style” do you think might work!

    Thanks again, Alex.

    -Steven Bhardwaj
    sbhard at bu dot edu

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