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.