Opening Up the Margins

This is the amalgamated text from three talks I gave at the University of Kansas, Crossref LIVE 2016, and Bucknell University. Feel free to check out my slides and bibliography.

I’m delighted to be here. Last week was International Open Access week with the theme “Open in Action.” Often when we talk about the way openness functions “in action,” we tend to focus on the ways in which openness enables good scholarship—at least, our conception of good scholarship—to get into the hands of those outside of our privileged ivory towers of academia. We talk about getting “good” scholarship into the hands of people in the developing world, independent researchers with no institutional homes, non-academic researchers without access to institutional collections, or researchers working in institutions lacking the resources to subscribe to the top publications in their field.

As Sarah Crissinger (2015) notes in her article “A Critical Take on OER Practices: Interrogating Commercialization, Colonialism, and Content,” we often view openness in a paternalistic, sacred savior kind of way; openness is the great blessing from on high in the global and academic north to the global and academic south, spreading worthwhile knowledge to those poor marginalized souls who must otherwise do without.

I want to challenge that conceptualization of open. I want to flip the script, so to speak, on how we view open; rather than looking at it as a means of getting mainstream scholarship out to the margins, instead I want us to see it as a way of getting scholarship from marginalized communities into our mainstream discourse.

There is a wealth of experiences, knowledge, and perspectives that is largely unseen and unheard in mainstream scholarship. Indeed, scholarly communication and academic discourse largely reflect the systemic biases we find in broader society. With open access, however, voices at the margins are able to come toward the center, toward the mainstream. As Nicole Brown et al. (2016) acknowledge in their article on black feminism and digital humanities,  this type of scholarship is about “opening up spaces that can empower and amplify the voices/narratives of the marginalized” (p. 113).

In a very fundamental way, openness truly allows scholarship to exist as a conversation, inviting marginalized voices to join into the discourse. As a librarian, I am particularly interested in this function of openness as one of my national organizations, the Association of College and Research Libraries (2016), has recently adopted “Scholarship as Conversation” as one of the foundational threshold concepts for information literacy in higher education. We’re encouraged to teach our students that the scholarly record is built through an iterative process and that so-called “experts understand that a given issue may be characterized by several competing perspectives as part of an ongoing conversation in which information users and creators come together and negotiate meaning” (ACRL, 2016).

This may be the aspirational goal of those of us engaged in teaching information literacy, but it is far from the nature of traditional scholarship today. Our traditional mode of scholarly communication—with a limited selection of materials on a limited selection of topics published by a limited selection of gatekeepers and housed behind paywalls accessible only to a limited selection of researchers and users—this mode of scholarly communication constitutes a closed conversation at best, an extended monologue at worst. It is not the “scholarship as conversation” that we envision when we talk aspirationally about the function of scholarly discourse. It is not discourse at all.

Openness, however, allows for scholarship to take place as a real conversation, a conversation that is not only open in access but also open in scope of ideas and topics, open in participation, open in terms of the voices represented, including those voices that normally get relegated to the margins. Open scholarship demands that scholarly discourse be more than an echo chamber, in which the same articles and ideas get cited and recited among the same small group of researchers. Open scholarship allows for previously silenced voices and discussions to be heard.

In a primary way, this means opening up the research process beyond the realm of the final research output or product. In other words, going beyond the Western mode of knowledge creation that must always result in a written, published book or article, to different, decolonized ways of thinking and knowing, ways that involve collaboration, self-reflection, slow, purposeful methodology and theorizing. In their article, “For Slow Scholarship,” Alison Mountz et al. (2015) provide an interesting reflection on slow, conversational scholarship that goes beyond the current “counting culture” of our neoliberal universities (p. 1244).

When it comes to this attempt to shift focus from the research product to the overall research process through openness, I find the work of the Center for Open Science (2016) with its Open Science Framework particularly encouraging. OSF is a completely free and open source tool that allows researchers from all over the world to integrate and publish every aspect of their iterative research process, from initial brainstorming of ideas to failed data sets to, yes, even the final published article. Billed as “a scholarly commons to connect the entire research cycle,” it allows research work that might not otherwise be seen see the light of day. It helps to bring that marginalized research out of the margins and allows for the conversation of scholarship to take place throughout the research process.

Another way in which openness brings marginalized voices into the conversation of scholarship is by opening scholarly discourse up beyond the researcher. Essentially, open scholarship helps us to disrupt the town versus gown divide and bring voices from outside the ivory tower into our scholarly discourse. Too often non-academics are seen as not also being intellectuals and are not included in scholarly communication except as subjects of study. With the principles of openness, we can bring more marginalized voices from outside of academia into our scholarly conversations and thereby benefit from their direct knowledge and experience. With openness, we can take the conversation of scholarship beyond the researcher to incorporate the voices of the researched.

For example, at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Science Colloquium at Simon Fraser in Vancouver earlier this year, archivist Jen LaBarbera (2016) talked about her work with the Lambda Archives of San Diego, a community archive of LGBTQ history developed specifically for use by local activists. LaBarbera explained how the archives provide activists with a space to connect directly with the historical struggle of their community and to connect that history, through the use of physical primary materials, to the work that they are doing today. As a community archive, the Lambda collection goes beyond warehousing artifacts for outside academic study and exist to be used directly by those working within the communities that originally created these materials.

LaBarbera’s work ties closely with shifts in archival theory pushing for more “post-custodial” approaches to the collection and maintenance of research collections. Punzalan and Caswell (2016) describe this reinterpretation of archival concepts as a shift in the ways information professionals deal with the issue of provenance:

[In the archival world], provenance has been recast as a dynamic concept that includes not only the initial creators of the records, who might be agents of a dominant colonial or oppressive institution, but more importantly the subjects of the records themselves, the archivists who processed those records, and the various instantiations of their interpretation and use by researchers. (p. 29)

Thus, among information professionals, the conversation of scholarship surrounding primary source material is being opened to include not only the voices of the researcher, but the perspectives of the community creators and even the material curators. I argue that this same shift in approach should also be taking place in broader scholarly discourse.

Indeed, in some cases, it already is. I’m thinking particularly of the work of Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Urban Education and Women’s Studies at CUNY. Fine is an advisor for the Public Science Project, an initiative that equips and empowers marginalized communities to conduct research on issues directly affecting their lives (Public Science Project, n.d.). The Project operates under “a belief that those most intimately impacted by research should take the lead in shaping research questions, framing interpretations, and designing meaningful products and actions.” For one of her most recent projects, Fine has been collaborating with groups of urban LGBTQ youth of color to develop and administer a nationwide survey of the issues of most salience to their lives. As data come in, the youth will fully own and determine the outcome of the study. This work, though it is taking place on the streets of the Bronx, Harlem, and West Philadelphia, is also part of our scholarly record and an important contribution to scholarly discourse. The principles of openness make this kind of marginalized inclusion possible, regardless of how these youth eventually choose to use their data.

One other way in which openness allows us to broaden further the conversation of our scholarship is by opening up the discourse for discussions of failure. When it comes to scholarly communication, failure is one of those areas that forever remain hushed in the dark, and yet, there is much we can learn from work that has been marginalized because it has not produced the desired, or even expected, results. Because much of our research and knowledge is locked away in Western, colonized ideals—ideals that favor the solitary and successful scholarly genius—little if any place is made for work that could be considered a “failure.” Instead, that work is hidden away, and not expected to enter the realm of scholarly discourse, via publication, unless or until it produces viable and successful results.

However, in a more collaborative paradigm of knowledge production—one that values the slow, iterative nature of research, one that is decolonized and moves beyond the white Western ideal—so-called failure is welcome as part of the research process. Failed research is simply one step in the big collaborative effort made toward finding a particular answer for a particular time to a particular problem. And this conception of the very nature of research, as unfixed and subject to context rather than as a quest for absolute answers, represents yet another way in which knowledge can and should be decolonized and de-Westernized to allow for more marginalized perspectives. As Judith Halberstam (2011) notes in her book The Queer Art of Failure, “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (p. 3). With openness, there is space for failure in a decolonized version of scholarship.

For this reason, the recent news from the Wellcome Trust that it would be creating a bold new publication platform is particularly exciting. Using services developed by F1000Research (2016), Wellcome’s new platform will allow researchers “to publish a wide variety of outputs from standard research articles and data sets, through to null and negative results” (p.1). Similar to the work being done by OSF, Wellcome’s new platform will allow scholarship to become more open throughout the various phases of the research process, including those phases that result in a dead end. In turn, this more open scholarly discourse will allow more diverse voices to participate in and contribute to the conversation surrounding research. As Wellcome’s Head of Digital Services, Robert Kiley, notes, “This model [of wholly open research publishing] will bring benefits to researchers and institutions, as well as to society more broadly” (p. 1). Indeed, with a more open research practice, society as a whole, particularly those marginalized members of society, can participate more fully in the research it supports.

With the principles of openness, we can convene a scholarly discourse that is more inclusive of those voices most often relegated to the outskirts by “traditional” methods of knowledge creation and dissemination. In her article, “Library publishing and diversity values,” Charlotte Roh encourages us to use openness as a way to “push back against these biased systems and support publications that might not otherwise have a voice” (p. 83). It’s important to note, however, that while openness helps us achieve this goal, it is not without its sources of critique. Open scholarship is still a part of our broader society and is still vulnerable to the biases and systemic power dynamics inherent in our broader society. As I mentioned in a talk at a Futures Initiative event at the CUNY Graduate Center earlier this year, “The truth is that not all open scholarship is treated equally . . . [S]ame 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” (Hathcock, 2016, February 8).

There are so many ways in which open access still reflects the biased systems of the scholarship in which it’s found, even as it can be used to open up scholarship at the margins. For example, in their research applying the principles of black feminist thought to digital humanities methodology, Nicole Brown et al (2016) discovered a marked discrepancy in the number of available texts relating to the black experience and culture. Specifically, of the more than 13 million texts housed in the HathiTrust corpora, less than 25,000 were classified under the subject heading “African-American.” That’s less than .002% of the texts in Hathi. Now, don’t get me wrong, HathiTrust is a great source of open access material and they have done wonders for developing the principles of openness in scholarship. But this discrepancy makes clear that even within the realm of openness, systemic marginalization continues to play a significant role.

For instance, during a recent Force11 Working Group meeting I attended, I heard from several colleagues throughout the global south, including Latin America, Egypt, and India, who described the ways in which the neoliberal and colonial scholarly communication of the global north has completely infected their systems of knowledge creation and dissemination (Hathcock, 2016, September 27). They are unable to get their work published, even in prominent open access journals, like the journals that form part of SciELO, a popular open access platform in Latin America, without providing sufficient citations to Western researchers or including Western researchers as contributing authors. Moreover, research topics of interest to the global north are much more likely to be published than topics of interest to these researchers’ own regions. In so many ways, their research ecosystem has been colonized by the global north. This colonization can also be seen in this map my colleague Juan Pablo Alperin (2011) created depicting the number of documents indexed in Web of Science based on country of origin. The African continent, the second largest in the world both geographically and in terms of population, is little more than a sliver. And South America looks very much the same. While open access helps open up some of these decolonized margins of scholarship, the discrepancy is still hugely problematic. This problem of marginalization isn’t just a matter of cost but of culture and colonial erasure.

Relatedly, in her research on archival documentation of LGBTQ history, Rebecka Sheffield (2016) describes the haphazard and serendipitous way in which early LGBTQ history has been collected and preserved, and even when done it is done almost exclusively by and among activist communities. Sheffield notes that much of what we know about LGBTQ history often begins with the Stonewall riots of 1969 because they constituted an event that was deemed of significant importance to the broader mainstream community. (The Stonewall riots took place over two days in June 1969 when NYC police attempted to “take over” Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Bar patrons overpowered the police and resisted their attempts at violent abuse of power.) While we see Stonewall as the beginning of LGBTQ advocacy history, LGBTQ resistance to discrimination and struggle for liberation has in fact existed long before that.

Sheffield discusses the importance of scholars and information professionals working conscientiously to help steward and preserve these stories that run the risk of being lost at the margins. Rather than referring to them as “untold” or “silent” histories, she adopts Rabia Gibbs’s term “unexplored histories” to refer to these materials as works that have full existence and importance, even if they’ve largely been ignored by mainstream scholarship (Sheffield, 2016, pp. 573-74). Sheffield also highlights the importance of these histories being stewarded rather than owned or even necessarily collected by the mainstream (post-custodial). Citing Roderick Ferguson, Sheffield writes, “[J]ust because a university preserves unexplored history does not mean that it is ready to acknowledge or confront any of the structural inequalities that exist in order to create the conditions in which that history remains unexplored to begin with. Preservation of unexplored history cannot take place if systems of power are also preserved” (Sheffield, 2016, p. 580). This is why open community-based archives, such as the work of Jen LaBarbera and the Lambda Archives of San Diego, are so important.

Indeed, ethical considerations, such as self-representation and privacy, make it important that marginal communities be integrally involved in any attempts to open their work to broader scholarly discourse. I look, for instance, at the thought-provoking work of Tara Robertson (2016), librarian and activist, relating to one digital media provider’s decision to provide open access to a queer, feminist, porn publication. Earlier this year, the company Reveal Digital earlier this year published its collection of digitized copies of On Our Backs, a print queer, feminist porn magazine that ran from the early 80s to the early 2000s. The digitized collection is part of Reveal’s Independent Voices collection, which “chronicles the transformative decades of the 60s, 70s, and 80s through the lens of an independent alternative press” (Reveal Digital, n.d.). While Reveal took the time to secure copyright permissions from the publishers and got the publishers’ consent to mark the work with a Creative Commons license for public reuse, Reveal did not contact or in any way consult with the people represented in these sexually explicit images. For those who provided releases to the original publishers for use of their images, the releases did not go beyond the limited print run of the original publication and in no way address the issue of future digitization or open access publication. Because of concerns raised by Robertson, myself, and many others in the information and LGBTQ community, Reveal has since closed off the collection from public view and is now taking steps to consult with a group of stakeholders, including some of the former models from the publication.

This example of On Our Backs points to one of the truths behind opening up the margins: What is legal is not always ethical when deciding to provide open access to the works of marginalized communities. That is why it is essential to engage community involvement and agency in any decisions to open marginalized content to scholarly discourse. In their presentation at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Sciences Colloquium, Michelle Caswell, Alda Allina Migoni, and Noah Geraci (2016) discussed the importance of community ownership and custodianship of marginalized archival collections as a means of building “representational belonging” in the face of “symbolic annihilation.” To truly open up the margins in a meaningful way, marginalized material must be brought into scholarly conversation through methods free from colonization and exploitation. The only way this can be done is through empowering involvement from members of those marginalized communities.

Another great example of this work happening is with Mukurtu ( and Local Contexts ( Mukurtu is an open platform for sharing digitized cultural history from indigenous communities and Local Contexts provides traditional knowledge labels that can be added to these objects to provide appropriate levels of openness and access. Both operate on the principle of empowering indigenous communities both to own and control access to their cultural items, based on a post-custodial model of archival practice.

Ultimately, if we wish to empower the involvement of marginalized communities in scholarly discourse, and we should, then we’ve got to diversify the current gatekeepers to the scholarly record. Even in the realm of open scholarship, there are gatekeepers, in the form of faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion committees, reviewers, publishers, librarians and other information professionals. 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.

We need to incorporate more diverse voices in order to break out of this echo chamber of scholarship that we currently find ourselves in. Within the university setting, at my institution NYU, and at colleges and universities across the U.S. and to some extent here in the U.K., students are demanding more diverse faculty, more diverse university administration, and more diverse curricula for their learning. They are demanding that marginalized perspectives be more fully included in the scholarly discourse they are learning and in which they are participating. Open access helps us do this, but it is only a tool in the right direction and does not operate in a vacuum. Opening up the margins requires intentional, focused work to bring marginalized voices and perspectives into the scholarly conversation.  As Charlotte Roh (2016) writes, “[OA] allows new voices to find their way into the disciplinary conversations, reach new audiences, both academic and public, and impact existing and emerging fields of scholarship and practice in a transformative way” (p. 83).

Let’s continue to harness the power of openness and build more inclusive scholarly discourse that leaves no voices in the margins.

Thank you.


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