Monday, September 15, 2008

At Least Two Wrong Answers

As an avid watcher of the anthropology blogosphere, I've been tangentially exposed to the "open access" movement in academia. Put simply, this is the ideological position that the knowledge generated through the work of professional scholars should be freely and easily accessible to everyone. I'm sympathetic to this idea, and was motivated to submit my first major scholarly work, my senior sociology thesis, to the Mana'o Project open anthropology repository. I even suggested that my classmates join me in doing so, but they all apparently chose to decline...

Although I'm pretty sure this mass failure to act was due to nothing more sinister than the apathy that seems to infect those anticipating graduation at all academic levels (the infamous "senioritis"), I was as surprised as Owen Wiltshire was to find that there appears to be a substantial countercurrent in academia that is actively opposed to open access. The sentiment expressed by this cohort seems to be that their work would be somehow "tainted" by "exposure" to the unwashed masses who did not spend enough years in early adulthood avoiding a real job. As Wiltshire notes, this flies in the face of the dominant explanation for the shortcomings of closed-access academic publication:

The point I want to make is that anthropology journals are not “failing” to get ideas out there, since many authors simply do not want to share them in such a public fashion. The “pay to access” model works very well for many academics who want to filter out members of the public, or for those who see anthropological writing as being of little interest to anyone but other anthropologists.

I have, however, also encountered academics who are of the opinion that perhaps some knowledge should not be widely available, as it may be abusable in certain hands. This is a real concern, and it calls into question the very ethicality of anthropology as an activity. Here again we may encounter a certain sense of superiority among some scholars, now expressed as an expectation of entitlement to practice their chosen profession, social consequences be damned.

As with most questions worth answering, finding a practical path to our utopian objective - making the world a better place by spreading knowledge throughout the land - is not obvious, and the inquiry is likely to produce many false-starts and failures before we arrive at a solution.


Owen said...

Great commentary and thanks for the ping!


Brian said...

No problem, Owen, and thank you!