Interview: Sarah Kendzior on Open Access in Academia

Posted on October 15, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 1 comment

Tadween Publishing interviewed Sarah Kendzior, a researcher and op-ed columnist for Al Jazeera English, about the growth of the open access movement in academia and the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses). You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahkendzior.

Tadween (T) : You have written extensively on the debate over open access to academic publications. With the success of online portals such as Academia.edu and recent changes to JSTOR, do you find that the open access movement is succeeding? 

Sarah Kendzior (SK): It is succeeding in terms of changing mindsets but not in terms of changing business models. Scholars are increasingly unwilling to accept the prohibition of their work from public view. They want recognition for their efforts and the ability to communicate their findings to a broader audience.

Younger scholars are particularly amenable to open access. They grew up with the internet and find themselves in a precarious position as the academic job market continues to collapse. Academia encourages scholars to cloister their work, but in order to have a shot at a job outside of academia you need people to see what you can do. You cannot do that from behind a paywall.

JSTOR’s new plan is not open access. It is purchased access for those who can afford it. Who cannot afford it? Contingent faculty making poverty wages, the unemployed, and other low-wage workers.

JSTOR’s new model only seems like a bargain because they started out with highway robbery. Most people do not have $200 to spend on a database that covers only a small portion of existing scholarship. This is yet another example of academia as a pay-to-play system.

T: Do you think an increase in open access to academic publications and scholarly research will have a negative impact on academic journals? Will it alter their relevance in academia?

SK: Whether a journal is good or bad has nothing to do with whether it is open access. A journal’s quality derives from its contributors, reviewers and editors. Hiding something from the public does not make it more respectable. Seclusion does not breed relevance. It only means that fewer have the capacity to judge.

Quality journals should simply do what they are already doing but make the work publicly available. I fail to see why this is so complicated -- put the articles online as PDFs. Keep the process; kill the paywall. It would be in academia’s own self-interest to do this, considering cuts to funding agencies such as NSF often hinge on the perceived irrelevance of scholarship. The best way to prove your work is relevant is to allow people to read it.

T: Do you believe that the main goal of the open access movement is to have scholarly research and academic publications available to the public for free, or is the main goal to have it available to the entire academic community? How can the general public benefit from the open access movement? 

SK: I am not going to speak for a movement, since supporters have different perspectives and goals. What is important is the result. Open access would benefit everyone except the companies that are making millions off unpaid labor.

I do not think there is a firm line between “the academic community” and “the public”. For example, I do not know where I fit in terms of these categories. I have a PhD, I do scholarly research, but I am not affiliated with a university. When I am doing research, I have to use other people’s logins/passwords in order to access the latest academic articles in my field – articles which often cite my own work.

Some people argue that scholarly work has limited appeal, but this is an elitist position. You never know who will benefit from your work. The only way to find out is to make it accessible.

I have gotten many emails from non-academics about my academic work, which they found on Academia.edu. Officials and lawyers working on refugee cases have used my work to help people from Uzbekistan get political asylum. Public school teachers have taught my articles in history and literature classes.

Most importantly, I get emails from people from the countries I write about – Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan – offering feedback and insight. This is essential, and it happened only because I made my work accessible. The people about whom we write should always be able to read what have to we say and be able to respond.

T: Regarding the recent explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in education, do you think these online courses are an example of increasing open access to higher education? Or do you think they do more harm than good?

SK: MOOCs are a great complement to a college education. They are not a replacement for a college education. A very small number of students can learn well from a MOOC, without interaction with a professor or with other students. The problem with MOOCs is not that they are open or online – it is that they are massive. Students who struggle with MOOCs would likely struggle in a massive in-person lecture course as well. We should be wary of the implementation of both MOOCs and massive lecture courses because they rarely allow for feedback, questions, group discussion, or intensive writing. This is not an effective way to learn, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

MOOCs tend to do more harm than good – they have a terrible retention rate for a reason. However, I do not think we should dismiss online education, which is not synonymous with MOOCs.

T: What do you consider to be the least covered topic in academia that should be given more attention?

SK: I am impressed by the quality of writing on higher education, particularly over the past year as the stigma surrounding once-taboo topics like money or conceptions of “failure” started to ease. Writers like William Pannapacker, Rebecca Schuman, Aaron Bady, Stacia L. Brown, Lee Skallerup, Melonie Fullick, Jonathan Rees and many others who I am forgetting to mention have pushed the conversation in new directions.
Of particular importance is the work of Tressie McMillan Cottom, who writes about economic inequality and credentialism. She focuses on the typical American college student – not an 18-year-old at an elite school, but usually an older adult trying to get an education at a community college or for-profit university while working a job and/or raising a family. Older, economically precarious students are often left out of the conversation on higher education and I wish their struggles got more attention.
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  • A. Magron

    An important way for disseminate scientific publications in open access is what is called the green road : the authors self-archive their publications in open archives(before or after they are published). The Directory of Open Access Repositories – OpenDOAR (http://www.opendoar.org/) list more than 2200 repositories. The readers do not need to register to access or read their contents. Social research networks like Academia.edu harvest the contents of the open archives.


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