Open But Not Equal: Open Scholarship for Social Justice

Here is the text from my talk at the CUNY Graduate Center on Feb. 5, 2016 as part of a panel discussion entitled “Ideas in Circulation: Open Scholarship for Social Justice.” You can follow along with my slides and/or see a recording of the entire event.

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I’m really excited to be here talking about open scholarship and social justice because, aside from being a very timely topic, it greatly coincides with my own research interests. As both an attorney and an academic librarian, I’m particularly interested in the ways we create and distribute knowledge and the ways our social structures, such as publishing practices or intellectual property laws, determine whose knowledge or cultural products are valued and whose are left out of the mainstream.

It’s important, when we talk about open scholarship, particularly within a social justice context, that we look beyond making sure scholarship is open to making sure scholarship is findable and discoverable.

The truth is that not all open scholarship is treated equally. As Matt mentioned in his talk, just because work is open doesn’t mean that it will be found, valued, or validated. We find that, same as with locked-down, market-based scholarship, open scholarship can and does replicate some of the biases inherent in academia and our society as a whole.

Thus, what comes from the margins, from marginal communities, remains in the margins, even in the open context. Likewise, what comes from the mainstream remains in the mainstream, even when that scholarship may not be particularly appropriate or relevant. Scholars use and reuse what they can find, so we end up seeing the same mainstream scholarship being constantly recycled throughout the research lifecycle. This adversely affects the development of the scholarly record and limits the voices that are represented in that record.

We can see this clearly in some of the most prevalent ways in which researchers search for and discover open scholarship: through search engines, like Google, and through library classification systems and keywords, like the LOC Subject Headings. These systems, rather than representing an equitable organization and curation of information, are rooted in the biases found in general society. The so-called neutrality of their algorithms or concept classification privileges what is mainstream.

Such that when you search Google for Martin Luther King, given that his birthday was just a few weeks ago, you find one of the first search results is a white supremacy website masquerading as a legitimate open scholarly resource: This site is full of white supremacy, anti-MLK, and anti-civil rights propaganda, but because it is a popular site and generates a significant amount of ad revenue, it gains a coveted spot “above the fold” on your Google results. As if this isn’t bad enough, researchers are using this site for their work on Dr. King, not just secondary school students, but college students, your students. For more information on the ways in which Google search algorithms affect representation and voice in resources, I highly recommend the work of Siva Vaidhyanathan (2011) and Safiya Noble (2016).

Even outside Google, within the language of our academic libraries, we find a similar problem of representation in the way open materials, and indeed all materials, are classified and categorized. In the LOC Classification System and Subject Headings, for instance, when you search for materials relating to members of marginal communities, you find a clear differential based on what’s present in the headings, what’s missing, and the way in which the terms are framed.

For example, there are subject headings for HomosexualLesbian, and Gay but no subject heading for Queer, which is a term that many people from the LGBTQ community use to self-identify. Likewise, under the subject heading for Criminals, there are sub-headings for a variety of racial and ethnic minorities, such as African-American CriminalsChinese-American Criminals, even Russian-American Criminals, but no heading for White-American Criminals,.

Finally, we see this bias continue in the way terms are framed, such that there is a heading for White Supremacy Movements but not White Supremacy (as an ideology) or White Privilege. The implication is that white supremacy consists of isolated incidents of history rather than a foundational aspect existing at the root of American society.

Again, these biases affect the ways in which researchers find open materials and the development of the scholarly record. For example, my recent open access article on white privilege and whiteness in librarianship would not be classified under those terms because they don’t exist, thus affecting the way scholars are able to find and use my work.

For more on library classification systems and the erasure of marginalized identities, please check out Emily Drabinski’s (2013) work on applying queer theory to library classification and the work of Sanford Berman (1993), a long advocate for building more inclusive Library of Congress Subject Headings.

Lastly, even when open scholarship from the margins can be found, there still exists a bias in the way we evaluate and validate it. Just take a look at the predatory publishing scare, being led in large part by Beall’s list and others like it. Predatory publishers are publishers that charge high author processing charges (APCs) for publication but do not provide meaningful review or editorial support.

There is a clear anti-global south bias in the way publishers and publications get evaluated for predatory status. Materials from, say India or China or Guatemala, are viewed askance and their quality rigorously questioned, while that same material, if it came from the U.S. or Canada or the UK, would be readily accepted.

Yes, there are low-quality predatory journals that come from the global south. But many also come from the global north. The fact is that there are plenty of journals snuck into our expensive big deal packages from such popular publishers as Wiley, Springer, or Elsevier, that qualify as low-quality, predatory works. We just don’t see them that way because they come from global north companies that we’ve decided we know and trust.

Sarah Crissinger (2015) has examined this bias in the context of open educational resources (OERs) and Martin Paul Eve (2016) has looked at the issue particularly in connection with Beall’s list.

So what can we do to correct for this bias in open scholarship? We need more diverse perspectives among the gatekeepers and stakeholders of the scholarly record.

We need more diverse perspectives among scholars doing the actual labor of research and writing; we need more diverse perspectives among reviewers who determine what scholarship is worthy of publication and what is not; we need more diverse perspectives among publishers packaging this research and making it available; and finally we need more diverse perspectives among librarians who are organizing and curating this material and making it discoverable to researchers.

When I say we need more diverse perspectives, I quite simply mean we need more diverse people and we need more inclusive institutions to ensure the success and well-being of those people. In a particularly timely (and open access!) piece, Charlotte Roh (2016) picks up these themes and discusses the need for diverse perspectives in library publishing specifically.

In conclusion, as we work toward making scholarship more open and more available, let’s also work to make it more equitable, thereby ensuring everyone’s full and meaningful participation in our scholarly record.


Berman, S. (1993). Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC Subject Heads concerning people. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.

Crissinger, S. (2015). “A critical take on OER practices: Interrogating commercialization, colonialism, and content.” In The Library With The Lead Pipe, Oct. 21, 2015. Retrieved from

Drabinski, E. (2013). “Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correction.” Library Quarterly, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved from

Eve, M. P. (2016, Jan. 28). “Hunters and hunted.” Times Higher Education. Retrieved from

Noble, S. U. (2016). Forthcoming book with NYU Press on Google, race, and representation.

Roh, C. (2016). “Library publishing and diversity values: Changing scholarly publishing through policy and scholarly communication education.” College & Research Libraries News, 77(2), 82-85. Retrieved from

Vaidhyanathan, S. (2011). The Googlization of everything: (and why we should worry). Berkeley, CA: UC Press.


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