Apartheid is alive and well today. I don’t mean South Africa’s social policy that once enforced a harmful racial divide; I mean academia’s policy that enforces an unnecessary and counterproductive intellectual divide. What intellectual divide? It is that gaping chasm between two opposing models of disseminating knowledge: toll access and open access. This divide may not smack of oppression and overt injustice at first glance, but given its global scope and institutional entrenchment, it may in fact prove more disenfranchising than South Africa’s infamous policy ever was.
It is already well accepted that lack of access to technology (dubbed the "digital divide") seriously handicaps half the world's population. That is a giant problem but one being gradually ameliorated by mobile telephony and economic forces. Less recognized but equally disenfranchising is that lack of access that remains even with the best broadband connections in developed nations. Unnecessary and antiquated commercial barriers hobble the advance of learning.
In disheartening irony, the very stewards of knowledge have become its jailers in the information age, for the ones who sustain Intellectual Apartheid are the academic publishers, research universities, and scholars themselves. Academics and their institutions have sold out to economic interests in the name of preserving the only system trustworthy enough to produce authoritative information.
Quality control of publishing is a most serious business--now more than ever. Whether the reigning gatekeeping model of editorial boards and peer-review adequately performs that service is currently in question. But even if the selection and vetting process were foolproof, the conventional system for communicating scholarship is based upon exclusion. I believe it is fair to label as “apartheid” any artificial social construct that privileges an elite minority to the detriment of a majority. The artificial construct doing that in the world of knowledge is the toll-access system of traditional scholarly communication.
It works like this. If you wish to have access to the most authoritative information–-knowledge vetted by experts-–then you must pay for the privilege. Even research which has been funded for the public good by governments or granting institutions lives mostly quarantined behind commercial barriers that keep it from those it could benefit most. It doesn’t need to be. It shouldn’t be. But the fact of the matter is that most of the world’s most important knowledge remains out of reach of most of the world.
Let me repeat that. Despite all the digitizing and online publishing now extant, despite the proliferation of websites and web users, despite the largely up-to-date technological infrastructure within academia, it is still the case that most of the world’s most important knowledge remains out of reach of most of the world. Keep that simple fact central in your mind as I revisit the mission statements of universities and academic presses that purport to promote scholarship for the general benefit of humankind.
University mission statements are cheerfully broad and socially inclusive. For example, Emory University’s mission statement contains a “commitment to use knowledge to improve human well-being”; while Cornell’s statement says that this respected university “engages men and women from every segment of society” in a quest “beyond the limitations of existing knowledge, ideology, and disciplinary structure." It’s all about untrammeled inquiry and transcending every border, whether social or intellectual. Many universities show extra sensitivity to reaching and serving the disenfranchised, like DePaul University, which singles out “a special concern for the deprived members of society.” I believe these universities are representative of the general values to which all institutions of higher education are dedicated. They truly mean to do good.
Such broad human values are echoed by academic journals and presses, established as instruments to realize these high-minded purposes. “The mission of a university press,” said Daniel Coit Gilman, President of Johns Hopkins University in 1880, “is to assist the university in fulfilling its noble mission ‘to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures—but far and wide.'" Universities and academic publishers are ostensibly dedicated to the very opposite of keeping people and knowledge apart. And yet, they do.
Let me illustrate how academic institutions enforce Intellectual Apartheid through a simple experiment you can perform right now. Let’s say that you are researching lingering effects of South Africa's apartheid and you discovered (as I did using Google Scholar) a recent article, “Fantasmatic Transactions: On the Persistence of Apartheid Ideology” (published in Subjectivity in July, 2008 by D. Hook). Now for the experiment: click on this link to the full text of the article.
One of two things just occurred. Either you just gained immediate access to a PDF version of the full article; or, more likely, an authentication window popped up requesting your login credentials. It turns out that Palgrave-Macmillan publishes Subjectivity, and through their website one can get access to this article for a mere $30. Alternatively, one may subscribe to the journal for $503 per year.
You really don’t need to go to the developing world to recognize that advanced knowledge is a big club with stiff entrance fees. Even middle class Americans will think twice before throwing down $30 for a scholarly article. How likely will this knowledge ever reach scholars in Mexico or India? And just how broadly can the editors of Subjectivity expect it to reach when subscribing costs $503/year?
Actually, they don't expect it to spread very far at all, despite the ostensible purpose of academic outlets to diffuse knowledge far and wide. Academic authors, editors, publishers, and distributors are simply not in the business of reaching the masses; they are in the business of reaching other specialists. Academia banks on Intellectual Apartheid; its knowledge economy only rewards specialists publishing to specialists. In such a world, the “influence” of scholarship is not often correlated to real-world effects; it is usually correlated to how well a given work contributes to the specialist knowledge economy. Citation indexes measure reputations among specialists; “impact factor” relates not to real-world impact, but to reputation within the closed system.
This is one of the great secrets of academic publishing-–it is not at all in the service of transmitting knowledge generally; it is in the service of making money (for the publishers) and making reputations (for the scholars). So long as these two conditions are being met, academia could care less about whether anything its scholars do actually makes a difference in the world, except for the occasional puff piece to show to contributors or alumni. Reaching out to the whole world is the stuff that convocation speeches and university mission statements are made of, but in the day-to-day world of academia, actually reaching the world with one’s refined knowledge is not rewarded. In fact, it is often punished. Generalists, such as those who are using blogging to actually talk to the public about their ideas, are threatened with lack of tenure or advancement if they waste their time in anything but publications oriented towards their disciplinary peers.
A university’s reward system requires its faculty to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Peer-reviewed journals serve the purpose of authenticating knowledge, but at the same time they also wall in that knowledge by making it available only to those willing to pay for it. Who is willing to pay for that? Other specialists. Or more precisely, the academic libraries that sustain the research programs of specialists. Part of the game of Intellectual Apartheid is that no one party to it is ever faced with the bald fact that they are keeping people and scholarship apart. In fact, each of its agents believes he or she is actually getting knowledge "out there" where it matters. In reality, academic publishing is a process of getting knowledge "in there"--in a vault whose lock opens only to the highly privileged.
There is an assumption that if something is “published” (meaning published in a conventional, peer-reviewed journal), then it is appropriately circulating and available. Ironically, it may actually mean the opposite. It may be “circulating” among subscribers (a few hundred), but it is simultaneously being kept from the online public (a few billion). It doesn’t take a PhD to see how bizarre the math works for the academic knowledge economy. Somehow, the fewer people that know about and use your scholarship, the better it must be. Does that follow? It does within the solipsistic logic of the closed knowledge economy that fuels Intellectual Apartheid.
I recently attended a meeting in which faculty were told that a university's digital archive could issue usage reports regarding how frequently their scholarship is downloaded. Would this be of use to department chairs or deans during tenure reviews, perhaps a relevant measure of the impact of a scholar's publications? "Sounds very fluffy," stated a senior scholar, joking that someone could download his own article repeatedly to game the system. Besides, there is a well-established IF (impact factor) rating system.
Essentially, scholars whose work is measured in terms of how often their articles are cited within peer-reviewed literature demonstrate not so much the actual worth or impact of their ideas as they demonstrate their fidelity to a closed knowledge economy. Impact factor statistics are really loyalty points for the gentlemen's club: if you impressed other members of the club, you get to stay in it. If you try for other audiences--like the one's loftily imagined in university mission statements--you show disloyalty to the club.
Scholars who let their work be kept from broad dissemination by allowing its access to be tightly restricted through commercial means are complicit with Intellectual Apartheid. It’s a shame, really, for such scholars underestimate the value and influence of their work, voluntarily giving up what their work might mean and do if circulating among a public that is literally six or seven orders of magnitude larger in size that the subscriber base of the most used journals. And it's a shame that broader, open, multi-disciplinary review is considered inferior to one-time assessment by two or three experts. Can we really be sure that conventional peer-reviewed knowledge is as reliable as it pretends to be when its adherents resist transparency and the checks and balances of exposing this knowledge more broadly?
It’s up to us to pressure academic institutions to live up to their own missions and fully divest themselves from Intellectual Apartheid. Now is a time for stirring up moral fervor, for beginning communal action, and even calling for appropriate sanctions in order to bring about needed change in those institutions and practices that continue to perpetuate Intellectual Apartheid. Just as the world pressured South Africa to evolve its backward social policies, so stakeholders in academia should similarly pressure its institutions to evolve their backward intellectual policies. I call upon you to join me in a full divestment from intellectual apartheid.
Here's how each academic stakeholder can fight Intellectual Apartheid:
- Publish your work in Open Access journals or arrange open access for publications in conventional journals.
- Use Creative Commons licensing (rather than signing away copyright) in order to preserve access to your own work
- Deposit your publications in institutional or disciplinary archives to ensure permanent open access and the broadest exposure to search engines.
- Refuse to peer-review manuscripts or serve in editorial capacities for any journal that does not accommodate open access.
- Cancel subscriptions to toll-access scholarship
- Wean yourself from using any research materials that an everyday person from a developing country wouldn't have full access to via the Internet
- Spend less effort and money securing local access to toll access scholarship, more effort on training scholars to use and to publish open access scholarship
- Get faculty to see the benefit of depositing their open access scholarship in an appropriate archive.
- In training students, patrons, and faculty, teach them more about how and why to use open access resources rather than how to use expensive proprietary databases and services.
- Work with administrators to educate faculty about the benefits of open access publishing and rights management.
- Create a university-wide mandate (as Harvard has done), requiring faculty to retain copyright of their scholarship and to license the non-exclusive depositing of that scholarship in the institutional archive.
- Update promotion and tenure policies to favor open access publications and to accommodate evolving scholarly genres (such as data sets, software, and scholarly tools that build the cyberinfrastructure).
- Require chairs and deans to educate faculty on evolving academic publishing models and to ready their conversion to using and publishing open access scholarship.
Alumni, Contributors, Granting Agencies, Philanthropists
- Make donations or grants to university programs contingent upon a visible commitment to keeping the scholarship produced through such donations as broadly influential as possible (through open access).
I welcome your assistance in finding ways to articulate both the problem and the solutions to Intellectual Apartheid. Please share your suggestions. As always, I am open to critism on all points.