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Regular People Don’t Need Access to Scholarship

In his widely circulated counter-rant, titled “Uninformed, Unhinged, and Unfair–The Monbiot Rant,” Kent Anderson, publisher of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery and the Editor-in-Chief of The Scholarly Kitchen, attacks George Monbiot’s 29 August 2011 Guardian article “Academic Publishers Make Murdock Look Like a Socialist.” Fundamental to his argument is claiming that Monbiot is mistaken to believe that non-scholars need access to scholarly knowledge to be engaged citizens. He wants to show that non-specialists do not need access to specialist knowledge and one way to do this is to show that if they had such access that they would not know what to do with it. To achieve this rhetorical effect, he quotes from a scholarly paper in medicine discussing “inthrathoracic herniation of the liver” and makes the case that only deep specialists could make any sense of it. He notes: “Specialist knowledge is a prerequisite.”

This thread in the argument–and he is not alone in making such a case–is just bogus. While social work, history, law, education (consider the literature on home-schooling, for instance) and countless other fields have scholarly literatures of immediate relevance to, and that are understandable by, literate members of the non-scholarly community, it is easiest to illustrate my point with work in ethnographic fields like folklore studies and anthropology.

It would have been particularly fun to look deeply enough and to find a lost or not-so-lost relative of Kent Anderson’s who has been a consultant for ethnographic research that has gone on to be published, but a more generic example will serve. The the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery is published outside Boston, MA. Lets assume that someone associated with the journal actually lives and works there. A hypothetical worker in the JBJS workplace hears, at a family reunion, that an important member of the family had a scholarly article written about them back in the 1970s. Curious (they are writing a family history, after all) they get online and they discover the paper about a beloved family member. It might read something like this Massachusetts example, the first example that I could find, found in a folklore journal and accessed via JSTOR.

Ron is in his thirties, married, with two children. He attended high school in a large New England city during the fifties, and his interests led him to the city’s vocational school from which he graduated having completed the welding program. Bright, well-spoken and articulate, he is aware that during his high school career vocational high schools were viewed with suspicion and generally thought to be reserved for “dummies.” His present success proves this over-simplification to be at least occasionally inaccurate.

After graduating from high school, Ron enlisted in the Air Force where he continued his training in welding. Aircraft quality welding requires a high degree of expertise and close attention to quality control, and materials used in this type of welding are frequently exotic metals which must be welded in an inert gas environment to avoid oxidation of the metals which would cause unsafe, brittle welds. Ron’s Air Force experience did much to increase the level of his skills.

The subject of this article is/would now probably be in his 60s and his children and grandchildren are probably internet users.  Can they understand this deeply arcane prose, this jargon-rich scholarly language?  Do they really have any legitimate right to, or need to, be able to access an article about their father?

The economics of scholarly publishing are complex, but the ethical and moral issues are not. Arguments that claim that regular people have no need for the scholarly literature are bunk.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Now that’s a new one, I’ll give you that. So you’re claiming that because a relative of someone might have had a brief biographical note about themselves published in the past that all scholarly literature is relevant and should be free? What’s next, name similarities? I should have access to all literature published by an Anderson, any maiden names preceding, and any other names in my family tree?

    My counterpoint to the claim that scientific research isn’t accessible by lay people — I was not arguing about lay biographies — was based on the fact that most of it is too arcane and contextual for isolated pieces of it to be meaningful. You need domain knowledge to understand the jargon, subtleties, context, and meaning. I wouldn’t go to court with a few law journal articles and try to defend myself. I’d fail. Do I need access to them? I need access to a lawyer, not to their trade papers.

    You have done a contortionist’s work on those original arguments. Cirque du Soleil would be proud. But your pretzel logic doesn’t mean you’re right. Conflating scientific research with lay biographies and claiming they are one and the same at a policy level actually only goes to prove my point. Also, you point to JSTOR materials that are free. So what was your point again?

    September 19, 2011
    • I have access to the JSTOR article as a consequence of my affiliation with a university that pays to provide such access. A person interested in that article that does not have such institutional access cannot obtain a copy without getting behind a pay wall. It is not freely available. It is a different matter to argue that there are not sustainable business models that could provide such access, but it is not the case that all scholarly fields are incomprehensible to non-specialists. Even in medicine, a diligent person could use the literature (starting with a good dictionary) to bootstrap up understandings of issues under discussion. You are welcome to the view that trying to put such access to use (as in your legal example) may not always be productive, I am sure that examples in support of such a reading can be found. I do not think that I am alone though in having real world experiences–in Native American communities, in my case–of people desperately interested in trying their hand at consulting the scholarly record. The scholarly record in history, cultural anthropology, folklore studies is full of stuff–not just biographical stuff–that is of great importance to such individuals and communities. Native American communities pay for lawyers like I do, by the hour. If they can direct their lawyer to the most relevant scholarly articles, their chance of prevailing in court (to pick up your legal example) is enhanced greatly. More importantly, access to scholarship is a deep human concern for those about whom scholars have written. Scholarship often is not just of interest to individuals and communities, it is derived from contributions made by individuals and communities. If I (or my children) were a subject in a medical research project, I have given to the world of scholarship, to the PI, and other researchers, and perhaps also to the publisher. I do not think that it is an ethical stretch to believe that I should have some means at my disposal to consult published works relating to work in which I was involved. In the instance that I used, my point was simply this. Not all works of scholarship are inaccessible to lay readers AND there are lay readers of the scholarly literature who have legitimate reasons for wishing to consult it.

      September 19, 2011

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  1. Imagined Anthropological Communities (that’s right: another post about publishing & open access) | Savage Minds

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