Making Knowledge Available

# Making Knowledge Available

## The media of generous scholarship

[Shannon Mattern]( "Posts by
Shannon Mattern") -- [March 22, 2018](
/making-knowledge-available/ "Permalink to Making Knowledge Available")

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__Visible Knowledge © Jasinthan Yoganathan | Flickr

A few weeks ago, shortly after reading that Elsevier, the world’s largest
academic publisher, had made over €1 billion in profit in 2017, I received
notice of a new journal issue on decolonization and media.* “Decolonization”
denotes the dismantling of imperialism, the overturning of systems of
domination, and the founding of new political orders. Recalling Achille
Mbembe’s exhortation that we seek to decolonize our knowledge production
practices and institutions, I looked forward to exploring this new collection
of liberated learning online – amidst that borderless ethereal terrain where
information just wants to be free. (…Not really.)

Instead, I encountered a gate whose keeper sought to extract a hefty toll: $42
to rent a single article for the day, or $153 to borrow it for the month. The
keeper of that particular gate, mega-publisher Taylor & Francis, like the
keepers of many other epistemic gates, has found toll-collecting to be quite a
profitable business. Some of the largest academic publishers have, in recent
years, achieved profit margins of nearly 40%, higher than those of Apple and
Google. Granted, I had access to an academic library and an InterLibrary Loan
network that would help me to circumvent the barriers – yet I was also aware
of just how much those libraries were paying for that access on my behalf; and
of all the un-affiliated readers, equally interested and invested in
decolonization, who had no academic librarians to serve as their liaisons.

I’ve found myself standing before similar gates in similar provinces of
paradox: the scholarly book on “open data” that sells for well over $100; the
conference on democratizing the “smart city,” where tickets sell for ten times
as much. Librarian Ruth Tillman was [struck with “acute irony
poisoning”]( when
she encountered a costly article on rent-seeking and value-grabbing in a
journal of capitalism and socialism, which was itself rentable by the month
for a little over $900.

We’re certainly not the first to acknowledge the paradox. For decades, many
have been advocating for open-access publishing, authors have been campaigning
for less restrictive publishing agreements, and librarians have been
negotiating with publishers over exorbitant subscription fees. That fight
continues: in mid-February, over 100 libraries in the UK and Ireland
[submitted a letter](
management-of-the-publisher-taylor-francis) to Taylor & Francis protesting
their plan to lock up content more than 20 years old and sell it as a separate

My coterminous discoveries of Elsevier’s profit and that decolonization-
behind-a-paywall once again highlighted the ideological ironies of academic
publishing, prompting me to [tweet
something]( half-
baked about academics perhaps giving a bit more thought to whether the
politics of their publishing  _venues_  – their media of dissemination –
matched the politics they’re arguing for in their research. Maybe, I proposed,
we aren’t serving either ourselves or our readers very well by advocating for
social justice or “the commons” – or sharing progressive research on labor
politics and care work and the elitism of academic conventions – in journals
that extract huge profits from free labor and exploitative contracts and fees.

Despite my attempt to drown my “call to action” in a swamp of rhetorical
conditionals – “maybe” I was “kind-of” hedging “just a bit”? – several folks
quickly, and constructively, pointed out some missing nuances in my tweet.
[Librarian and LIS scholar Emily Drabinski
noted]( the dangers
of suggesting that individual “bad actors” are to blame for the hypocrisies
and injustices of a broken system – a system that includes authors, yes, but
also publishers of various ideological orientations, libraries, university
administrations, faculty review committees, hiring committees, accreditors,
and so forth.

And those authors are not a uniform group. Several junior scholars replied to
say that they think  _a lot_  about the power dynamics of academic publishing
(many were “hazed,” at an early age, into the [Impact
Factor]( Olympics, encouraged to
obsessively count citations and measure “prestige”). They expressed a desire
to experiment with new modes and media of dissemination, but lamented that
they had to bracket their ethical concerns and aesthetic aspirations. Because
tenure. Open-access publications, and more-creative-but-less-prestigious
venues, “don’t count.” Senior scholars chimed in, too, to acknowledge that
scholars often publish in different venues at different times for different
purposes to reach different audiences (I’d add, as well, that some
conversations need to happen in enclosed, if not paywalled, environments
because “openness” can cultivate dangerous vulnerabilities). Some also
concluded that, if we want to make “open access” and public scholarship – like
that featured in  _Public Seminar_  – “count,” we’re in for a long battle: one
that’s best waged within big professional scholarly associations. Even then,
there’s so much entrenched convention – so many naturalized metrics and
administrative structures and cultural habits – that we’re kind-of stuck with
these rentier publishers (to elevate the ingrained irony: in August 2017,
Elsevier acquired bepress, an open-access digital repository used by many
academic institutions). They need our content and labor, which we willing give
away for free, because we need their validation even more.

All this is true. Still, I’d prefer to think that we  _can_ actually resist
rentierism, reform our intellectual infrastructures, and maybe even make some
progress in “decolonizing” the institution over the next years and decades. As
a mid-career scholar, I’d like to believe that my peers and I, in
collaboration with our junior colleagues and colleagues-to-be, can espouse new
values – which include attention to the political, ethical, and even aesthetic
dimensions of the means and  _media_ through which we do our scholarship – in
our search committees, faculty reviews, and juries. Change  _can_  happen at
the local level; one progressive committee can set an example for another, and
one college can do the same. Change can take root at the mega-institutional
scale, too. Several professional organizations, like the Modern Language
Association and many scientific associations, have developed policies and
practices to validate open-access publishing. We can look, for example, to the
[MLA Commons]( and the [Manifold publishing
platform]( We can also look to Germany, where a
nationwide consortium of libraries, universities, and research institutes has
been battling Elsevier since 2016 over their subscription and access policies.
Librarians have long been advocates for ethical publishing, and [as Drabinski
they’re equipped to consult with scholars and scholarly organizations about
the publication media and platforms that best reinforce their core values.
Those values are the chief concern of the [HuMetricsHSS
initiative](, which is imagining a “more
humane,” values-based framework for evaluating scholarly work.

We also need to acknowledge the work of those who’ve been advocating for
similar ideals – and working toward a more ethically reflective publishing
culture – for years. Let’s consider some examples from the humanities and
social sciences – like the path-breaking [Institute for the Future of the
Book](, which provided the platform where my
colleague McKenzie Wark publicly edited his [ _Gamer
Theory_]( back in 2006. Wark’s book
began online and became a print book, published by Harvard. Several
institutions – MIT; [Minnesota](
division/series/forerunners-ideas-first); [Columbia’s Graduate School of
Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
]( publishing unit is led by a New
School alum, James Graham, who also happens to be a former thesis advisee);
Harvard’s [Graduate School of Design
[metaLab](; and The New
School’s own [Vera List Center
list-center-field-guide-on-art-and-social-justice-no-1/)– have been
experimenting with the printed book. And individual scholars and
practitioners, like Nick Sousanis, who [published his
dissertation]( as a
graphic novel, regard the bibliographic form as integral to their arguments.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has also been a vibrant force for change, through her
work with the [MediaCommons]( digital
scholarly network, her two [open-review ](
/peer-to-peer-review-and-its-aporias/)books, and [her
in-tenure-and-promotion-reviews/) for more flexible, more thoughtful faculty
review standards. Her new manuscript,  _Generous Thinking_ , which lives up to
its name, proposes [public intellectualism
intellectuals/)as one such generous practice and advocates for [its positive
valuation]( within the
academy. “What would be required,” she asks, “for the university to begin
letting go of the notion of prestige and of the competition that creates it in
order to begin aligning its personnel processes with its deepest values?” Such
a realignment, I want to emphasize, need not mean a reduction in rigor, as
some have worried; we can still have standards, while insisting that they
correspond to our values. USC’s Tara McPherson has modeled generous and
careful scholarship through her own work and her collaborations in developing
the [Vectors]( and
[Scalar]( publishing platforms, which launched
in 2005 and 2013, respectively.  _Public Seminar_  is [part of that long

Individual scholars – particularly those who enjoy some measure of security –
can model a different pathway and advocate for a more sane, sustainable, and
inclusive publication and review system. Rather than blaming the “bad actors”
for making bad choices and perpetuating a flawed system, let’s instead
incentive the good ones to practice generosity.

In that spirit, I’d like to close by offering a passage I included in my own
promotion dossier, where I justified my choice to prioritize public
scholarship over traditional peer-reviewed venues. I aimed here to make my
values explicit. While I won’t know the outcome of my review for a few months,
and thus I can’t say whether or not this passage successfully served its
rhetorical purpose, I do hope I’ve convincingly argued here that, in
researching media and technology, one should also think critically about the
media one chooses to make that research public. I share this in the hope that
it’ll be useful to others preparing for their own job searches and faculty
reviews, or negotiating their own politics of practice. The passage is below.

* * *

…[A] concern with public knowledge infrastructures has… informed my choice of
venues for publication. Particularly since receiving tenure I’ve become much
more attuned to publication platforms themselves as knowledge infrastructures.
I’ve actively sought out venues whose operational values match the values I
espouse in my research – openness and accessibility (and, equally important,
good design!) – as well as those that The New School embraces through its
commitment to public scholarship and civic engagement. Thus, I’ve steered away
from those peer-reviewed publications that are secured behind paywalls and
rely on uncompensated editorial labor while their parent companies uphold
exploitative copyright policies and charge exorbitant subscription fees. I’ve
focused instead on open-access venues. Most of my articles are freely
available online, and even my 2015 book,  _Deep Mapping the Media City_ ,
published by the University of Minnesota Press, has been made available
through the Mellon Foundation-funded Manifold open-access publishing platform.
In those cases in which I have been asked to contribute work to a restricted
peer-reviewed journal or costly edited volume, I’ve often negotiated with the
publisher to allow me to “pre-print” my work as an article in an open-access
online venue, or to preview an un-edited copy.

I’ve been invited to address the ethics and epistemologies of scholarly
publishing and pedagogical platforms in a variety of venues, A, B, C, D, and
E. I also often chat with graduate students and junior scholars about their
own “publication politics” and appropriate venues for their work, and I review
their prospectuses and manuscripts.

The most personally rewarding and professionally valuable publishing
experience of my post-tenure career has been my collaboration with  _Places
Journal_ , a highly regarded non-profit, university-supported, open-access
venue for public scholarship on landscape, architecture, urbanism. After
having written thirteen (fifteen by Fall 2017) long-form pieces for  _Places_
since 2012, I’ve effectively assumed their “urban data and mediated spaces”
beat. I work with paid, professional editors who care not only about subject
matter – they’re just as much domain experts as any academic peer reviewer
I’ve encountered – but also about clarity and style and visual presentation.
My research and writing process for  _Places_ is no less time- and labor-
intensive, and the editorial process is no less rigorous, than would be
required for a traditional academic publication, but  _Places_  allows my work
to reach a global, interdisciplinary audience in a timely manner, via a
smartly designed platform that allows for rich illustration. This public
scholarship has a different “impact” than pay-walled publications in prestige
journals. Yet the response to my work on social media, the number of citations
it’s received (in both scholarly and popular literature), and the number of
invitations it’s generated, suggest the significant, if incalculable, value of
such alternative infrastructures for academic publishing. By making my work
open and accessible, I’ve still managed to meet many of the prestige- and
scarcity-driven markers of academic excellence (for more on my work’s impact,
see Appendix A).

_* I’ve altered some details so as to avoid sanctioning particular editors or

_Shannon Mattern is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School and
author of numerous books with University of Minnesota Press. Find her on


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