Making the Local Global: The Colonialism of Scholarly Communication

Last week, I was invited to participate in a meeting of the Force11 Scholarly Commons Working Group in San Diego, California, U.S.A. The group, consisting of a mix of researchers, librarians, publishers, and other stakeholders has been using grant funds to examine what it would look like to build a commons centered on open scholarship. During a previous meeting in Madrid, Spain, the group put together a set of 18 principles that would guide participation in the scholarly commons. This current workshop was meant as a time to reflect on and validate the application of those principles.

I really don’t have much to say about the principles. As several of my fellow librarian colleagues pointed out at the meeting, we tend to participate in conversations like this all the time and always with very similar results. The principles are fine, but to me, they’re nothing new or radical. They’re the same things we’ve been talking about for ages.

What I found more interesting about this meeting, on the other hand, was the way in which the conversation was structured and the power and space differentials between and among those with privilege and power and those without.

This scholarly communication conversation, like virtually all other scholarly communication conversations, was centered around, directed by, and saturated in the values and ideals of the white North American and Western European, neoliberal researcher. While there were several people present from other knowledge traditions—and the group leaders congratulated themselves again and again during the course of the meeting on the “diversity of voices” at the table—it was, realistically and at its heart, a Western scholarly communication conversation. There was a lot of talk about building a “global” scholarly commons, but essentially this commons was being built by and for the global north.

Which is hugely interesting because the idea of “commoning,” while initially described in terms of white colonial settler culture, actually has its roots in indigenous and native notions of shared, community- and value-based livelihood and provision of needs. A commons is meant to be the antithesis of colonialism, neoliberalism, and capitalism.

Yet, this scholarly communication meeting, like so many others, paid lip service to plurality and global contexts—indeed, to the heart of commoning—while functioning very much like a typical colonial endeavor.

For example, since the organizers recognized that there were those who wished to discuss other issues than what was on the main agenda, they set up space for an “unconference” for people to leave the room and congregate around these fringe topics. Wouldn’t you know, one of those “fringe” topics turned out to be a discussion, proposed by a colleague from India, of how scholarly commons could meaningfully be built by and for researchers in the global south? When it came time to begin our “unconference” discussion, more than half of the attendees left the main room, including all of the attendees from the global south and virtually all of the attendees of color. Clearly this was an important issue up for discussion, one that the majority of the attendees wished to see addressed. But because it was not a priority for the white, colonial scholarly commons agenda, it was relegated, literally and physically, to the margins, ghettoized from the main discourse.

I’m glad I was able to attend the discussion, though, because I learned so much about the ways in which scholarly communication works in the developing world.

For one, I learned from my Latin American colleagues that they are essentially forced to cite North American or Western European researchers in all their work in order to get published, even if/when they have fellow Latin American colleagues whose work is more on point.

From my colleague from India, I learned that researchers must do all they can to publish in the big name Western journals if they wish to maintain their careers; the concept of authors rights and open access advocacy have little place when researchers are literally fighting to survive in the field.

From my colleague from Egypt—who took a 5-hour bus ride, waited at the airport for 7 hours for their flight, and took 4 flights to get to the workshop in the U.S.—I learned that the term “open access” has no direct translation in Arabic and that the concept varies depending on culture and country.

In all, my colleagues from other parts of the world taught me that the Western neoliberal research institution is alive and well and fully colonized across the globe. We’ve taken our diseased local system of scholarly communication and made it global. And we’re attempting to make changes to that system by engaging in the same colonial practices.

If we truly wish to transform scholarly communication on a global scale, then we need to be open and honest about what that entails. As much as we declare the importance of openness and transparency for our research, we should be doing the same in our scholarly communication discourse. The conversation needs to be an actual conversation and not a one-way soliloquy from the global north that gets imported colonial-style to the global south. There needs to be a dialogue, real dialogue, that decenters white North American and Western European values and knowledge creation. Those of us from the global north need to acknowledge the harm our neoliberal colonizing has done to scholarship around the world and take responsibility. Then, we need to step back and listen.

Maybe instead of always having these kind of meetings in places like Madrid or San Diego, let’s schedule events in Dhaka or Lilongwe. (Don’t know where those places are? Well, that’s part of the problem. Look it up!) Let’s truly transform and radicalize scholarly communication by decolonizing these conversations.

One great takeaway that came from this “unconference” discussion was that a group of us are going to apply to Force11 to start a working group to examine ways of building real and meaningful inclusivity to these broad-based scholarly communication discussions. Our goal will be to craft a checklist or set of guidelines for organizers to consider in everything from convening their steering committees to selecting a meeting location.

It is possible to disrupt the way these conversations tend to take place, but it will take intentional, thoughtful, and critical work.