Once again the Library of Congress has refused to add WHITE PRIVILEGE as a subject heading.


Long-time critical classification activist Sandy Berman has been fighting for this for years, and other library folk whom I know and love, like Netanel Ganin and Jenna Freedman, have also been discussing and taking up this fight.

Still to no avail, though.

The Library of Congress, even as it finally welcomes a black woman at the helm, refuses to acknowledge that WHITE PRIVILEGE is a reality that extends beyond RACISM or WHITE—RACE IDENTITY. Privilege isn’t about discrimination; it’s about the automatic benefits and advantages that come from living in a system set up to value the lives, ideas, and expressions of one group over all others.


You may be a staunch antiracist, but if you are white, you are steeped in WHITE PRIVILEGE. It is a reality of living in the systemic bias of our society. Granted, not all white people experience the same flavor of privilege. WHITE PRIVILEGE intersects with other domains of identity—such as class, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, etc.—so that the final product can look and feel differently for different people. But the essential fact remains: All white people have WHITE PRIVILEGE. And that privilege exists regardless of their racism/antiracism or their sense of racial identity.

Contrary to what the Library of Congress thinks, the current subject headings are not sufficient. They do not capture the reality of WHITE PRIVILEGE. But the LoC continues to refuse to see this. (Many refer to this phenomenon as being “blind to privilege,” but that construction is ableist and fails to acknowledge the willfulness involved. Truly blind people have no choice about not seeing; but people who ignore their privilege do so willfully.)

For those of us who write and do research on WHITE PRIVILEGE, we are going to have to continue to be creative in the way we hunt down and share resources, knowing that the classification system continues to fail us. Take this post, for example. While I mention the terms RACISM and WHITE—RACE IDENTITY, those terms are not what this post is about. This post is about WHITE PRIVILEGE. But since that term doesn’t exist as a subject heading, you’d have to do some fancy footwork to find it in one of our most popular classification schemes.

I find myself once again reflecting on Hope Olson’s “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs.” This power to name and classify the realities of life is a potent and creative one. And the inverse is just as true: The power not to name is just as potent and full of anti-creative energy. While it does not destroy the reality of that which is never named, it does render it invisible, making it much more insidious, and thus, much harder to combat. The power of the LoC not to name WHITE PRIVILEGE helps to further cloak that privilege in camouflage so it can continue its work.

“The power to name is indeed a power. It is a vastly effectual power that those with privilege are always hard-pressed to cede.”

~”A Lot’s in a Name, Romeo,” July 29, 2016

I’m grateful to people like Sandy, Netanel, and Jenna who activate their privilege for good and unceasingly take up this fight to name WHITE PRIVILEGE in our library classification systems. We didn’t get a win this time, but maybe one day.


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.

A Lot’s In a Name, Romeo

I’m sitting in my office diving into Hope Olson’s “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs” and thinking about the power of naming.

Yesterday, I taught a pre-college library instruction course to a group of students entering their freshmen year in the fall. They’ve gotten a jump-start on their studies over the summer to help with the transition. All of these students in my class were students of color, and they are entering into an institution that is physically, mentally, value-ly, historically and systemically steeped in whiteness.

It’s no wonder then that one of my students, while running a database search for her summer essay topic on “concepts of beauty in the black community,” was aghast to come across the following suggested subject terms for her on search on “blacks” as a race:

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Screenshot of a sample search for “blacks” in PsycINFO

I, then, as a librarian and as her instructor and as a fellow black woman in this very white institution, had to explain to her how our subject headings for academic libraries come from the Library of Congress and, sadly, the LoC continues to use the outdated term “negroes” as an official search and categorization term. I then had to tell her that if she wanted to get a full picture of the research available, alas, she was also going to have to consent to the use of that term in her search.

Having to explain these things to my student infuriated me. Not because she didn’t understand but because they existed for explanation in the first place.

It also made me think about all the to-do surrounding the proposed changes to the LoC subject heading “illegal alien.” Even the recommended changes—”noncitizen” and “unauthorized immigration”—are hugely problematic.

No one—and I mean no one—is a “noncitizen” unless you’re that Tom Hanks character in that goodness-gracious-awful movie Terminal. And even then…no.


portugal street

No one is illegal!” in Lisbon, Portugal, CC BY-NC 4.0 April Hathcock

As simple as it would seem to allow people to name themselves, the established order resists any and all attempts to reconstruct the way we name, organize, and identify ourselves. The power to name is indeed a power. It is a vastly effectual power that those with privilege are always hard-pressed to cede.

But those of us on the margins continue to fight and resist and rebel. We continue to insist on our own names. We continue to wrest that power away from those who would deny us.

What’s in a name? A lot, Romeo.

Whiteness and “Oppressive Normativity”

This weekend, I’ll be in Vancouver presenting at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium, organized by the amazing and inimitable Emily Drabinski, Baharak Yousefi, and Tara Robertson. We’re going to sing and drink coffee and discuss intersectionality, so it’s guaranteed to be a good time.

My talk is based on my article on whiteness for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, with one notable difference—I’ve added the term “oppressive normativity” to the title and substance of my talk as an alternative (or rather complement) to my discussion of whiteness as ideology and hegemonic practice.

In my article, I join Angela Galvan in taking a broad view of whiteness to encompass not only race but other intersections of identity along the “matrix of domination,” as defined by Patricia Hill Collins. For me, whiteness is an appropriate umbrella term for the multiplicity of oppressed identities; the argument can be made that that whiteness plays a role in the marginalization of people based on class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, able-bodiedness, and other modes of identity. When we talk about whiteness in general and white privilege and supremacy in particular, we are also necessarily talking about an ideological practice that specifically privileges those who are middle-class, male, straight, cisgender, Christian, and fully able-bodied as being truly “white.” Those who do not fit those standards, while still enjoying significant benefits of race privilege as white people, do not reap the full rewards.

Nevertheless, I realize that this collapsing of the matrix of domination under an umbrella term more traditionally associated with one form of identity—namely race—is not entirely helpful. While I embrace that broad definition of whiteness that Galvan and I adopt, I recognize that my understanding of the term is not necessarily readily apparent from the term itself.

So, in the interest of providing clarity to my work, I’ve adopted the phrase oppressive normativity as an complementary term to describe the operation of this matrix of domination.

A quick and dirty search shows that while the phrase oppressive normativity has been used before, it has not been used in quite the context I’m proposing for it. There are mentions of oppressive normativity in the social sciences, particularly gender studies, psychology, and law, to refer to compulsory and often unofficial behavioral norms found in a community or society. (And it’s worth noting there are a few references to Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.)

My use of the phrase, however, is centered in norms of identity that dictate who is privileged in our society and who is marginalized. For me, oppressive normativity isn’t about what one does but who one is.

Oppressive normativity, as I’m defining it, refers to the fact that people who are middle-class, male, straight, cisgender, Christian, fully able-bodied, etc. are privileged in their professional and personal lives, while those who do not fit within all of those identities are professionally and personally marginalized, excluded, and erased.

What this means is that the systems for reward, advancement, support, fulfillment, and livelihood that we’ve constructed in our society are based specifically on the values, experiences, and practices of those in the dominant identities. They are the norm, and that norm is oppressive because of the way that it naturally forces out all those not fitting its dictates.

I guess you can say that I’m coining this term “oppressive normativity” for a new purpose. Feel free to reuse it with attribution.

Thus, in my talk for GSISC this weekend, I will be applying this concept of oppressive normativity to diversity initiatives in LIS, examining the ways in which our diversity programs reflect this hegemonic norm that privileges dominant identities while marginalizing all others. I’m really looking forward to embarking on this phase of my work and invite you to join me for the journey!


Cry Me a (White Male) River

Today the ALA ScholComm listserv went beserk.

Well, more beserk than usual. Usually, it’s a bunch of predominantly white males whipping it out email-style over issues of open access and publishing and the like. All kinds of attacks and counter-attacks go into the debate. It gets brutal.

But today, one of these men (we’ll call him Dude #1), whom I know and like, decided to take a step back and reflect on the nature of what is supposed to be a professional email list group. He noted that many people have expressed hesitancy in participating in the group because it feels more like fight club than professional discussion. He also acknowledged that the conversation tends to be dominated by a select few (the above-mentioned white men). He then proceeded to do a quick and dirty quantitative analysis of the most recent discussions on the listserv. And in an act of really nice self-reflection, he included his own name and stats in the list, acknowledging that he himself had been accused of being one of the frequent listserv blabbers. (Interesting note: I’m pretty sure the person who made that accusation was yours truly.)

Right away, of course, came the usual response you get when someone tries to step back and point out power inequities and privilege within a group. Another one of these menfolk (Dude #2) jumped up to cry out that gender was not an issue in the listserv and that pointing out what was little more than an “anomaly” in the numbers of active participants was only playing up trump (pun intended) issues.

I usually stay out of these things and just delete the messages until I come across something useful for my work. But at this point, after a wonderful Easter weekend of rest and relaxation, I was ready to jump back into the Struggle. So, I wrote:

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And then it was on.

Like, all of it showed up, y’all. There were the “not all men” responses. And the “Why should people be silenced?” responses, which interestingly, came on the heels of the “Silence! Don’t play the race/gender card!” responses. There was the “Let’s all just be nice” people and the “Everyone should maintain civility” people.

The white feminists clutched their pearls in horror: One, herself a frequent flyer in the usually all-male melee, even kindly took the time to”fact check” us all by stating that my thoughts made little different since she herself has been contributing to the list and leading the feminine charge all along. So, you know, bow down, b!tches.

The white men cried out in agony at their hurt feelings: Apparently, Dude #2’s feelings are “still smarting” from what was said in response to his email. He acknowledged that as a non-librarian, non-scholcomm specialist, he probably doesn’t belong on the listserv, but still. He “took a risk” to express his white male thoughts in this email group for a profession that is 80% female. Also, he has a nice, smart wife so he’s not sexist. So, you know, give him a cookie already!

And yet, here’s the deal: All this talk about civility and not silencing and all of it, ALL OF IT, is directed at those who for the first time in a long time are daring to speak up against the oppressive nature of this email list and say, “No more!” All the times the menfolk fairly eviscerated each other over open access or the merits/pitfalls of CC BY were fine. Making sexist remarks = fine. Racist commentary = fine. Homophobia/transphobia = sure. Ableism = why not?

But challenge the right of the privileged white male to speak his mind all over the place and you are rude and uncivil and “worthy of internet trolls.” (Yes, someone, one of the nice white ladies, said that about me.)

And you know what? None of this is anything new. We find this kind of bullsh!t all over the Struggle. But we keep on keeping on. Because it’s worthwhile work we do. Because we are not alone. Because being a troll is a-okay when you’re trolling oppression.

I hate the way people dominate that list and activate their privilege to take up way too much space. But I’m proud of all the wonderful and thoughtful people (yes, including many white males) who spoke up today in favor of less oppression and more true professionalism.

Looks like we’ll be alright to Struggle for another day.



Creative Commons Requires Consent

Recently, one of my Twitter friends pointed out a collection of digitized material being made available online by a company known for doing great work in making otherwise marginalized, radical works digitally accessible. But she was troubled by what she saw was an over-reaching attempt to open the material beyond what had been expressly permitted by the creators and others involved in the projects.

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I too was concerned.

It turns out that the material in this collection of “the powerful voices of feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Latinos, gays, lesbians and more” (Reveal Digital, n.d.) has been cleared by the copyright owners for a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License.

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Screenshot of legal information from “About This Collection” page of Independent Voices collection via Reveal Digital

That is good news. And there are plans, based on creator consent it seems, to make the work more open at a later date. Also good.

Yet, the entire website is marked by a footer that only claims a Creative Commons Attribution License.

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Screenshot of footer from Independent Voices collection via Reveal Digital

That is confusing. Particularly as this footer shows up on all pages of the collection, including those pages from which users can access specific content from the collection.

This collection is not open with a CC BY license, yet. Nonetheless, the way the site is set up, it appears not only to be open to that license but also intellectually owned by the company responsible for its digitization.

I by no means believe this company is intending to do harm or mislead. And yet, this kind of open confusion happens all the time. This company is by no means the first to do something like this, and it certainly won’t be the last.

There are many who seem to embrace the tenets of open access uncritically and push wholeheartedly for others to do the same. For the most part, they do so for the sake of social justice, bridging the information divide by making research materials freely available to all regardless of economic fortune or lack thereof.

Yet, in many ways, this uncritical act of opening all things to all people is in and of itself an act of aggression and oppression. It is a form of cultural and informational colonialism, taking the works of the marginalized—such as the feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Latinos, gays, lesbians and more” mentioned above—and forcing it into (uncompensated) availability without their express consent.

I’ve written before on the oppressive perils of open access as we conceive of it; this is just another word of caution to add to the mix: We have to be careful that in our quest for openness, we’re not, wittingly or unwittingly, taking away someone else’s agency in controlling their work.

Don’t get me wrong. Openness is great and should be encouraged. I encourage it myself. But it should also be chosen and not forced. The decision to make work open should be accompanied by full agency and volition. The students required to make final course projects open in order to receive credit; the scholars required to make their work open in order to get published; the filmmaker required to make their work open in order to have it included in a digital collection—all should be permitted to choose openness of their own free will and without the shade of oppression.

We have to remember that open access does not exist in a vacuum. It enters into our ways of creating and sharing knowledge based on a society built on oppression and marginalization. Those with power and privilege can make choices about what can and should be open, but those without often lack that same agency. We must remain cognizant of that power imbalance and make our policies accordingly. Openness is great, but like everything else, it’s only great when entered with full consent.

Fair Use for Social Justice

This week is fair use week; and as I spent my time preparing and giving workshops on how to harness the power of fair use within the walls of the ivory tower, I also thought of the many ways in which fair use can be used as a tool for social justice.

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Slide from “Figuring Out Fair Use” by April Hathcock, CC BY-NC

Fair use is an exception to the exclusive rights of a capitalistic copyright system that allows owners to exclusively own and monetize works for about a century after their death. Though originally created “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” (U.S. Const. Art. I, §8, cl. 8), it is now widely used to ensure the ability to reap financial award from “original works of authorship” (17 U.S.C. 102)—sometimes by the author but most often by the corporation to which the author has assigned their rights.

In the midst of this bleak copyright environment, there exists fair use: an imperfect, but powerful copyright exception that allows limited use of materials without permission for purposes “such as criticism, comment, news reporting,” and more (17 U.S.C. 107).

Despite popular belief, fair use is a right and not just a defense. You don’t have to wait until you are sued to assess your use and determine whether it’s fair. You have a right to make that determination as you contemplate your potential use.

And that determination is naturally flexible, allowing for changes in the way copyrightable creations become “fixed in any tangible medium of expression” (17 U.S.C. 102) and the various ways in which fair users may need to exercise their right to use. The famous “four-factor test” is in fact a “four-factor plus test,” allowing for the consideration of additional factors as circumstances may warrant (17 U.S.C. 107).

What does all this have to do with social justice? Like with any socio-legal structure or process rooted in a society of capitalism and oppression, copyright law affects different groups and different forms of expression differently. There is privilege in copyright law. There are haves and have-nots. There is the mainstream and there is the marginalized.

But with fair use, there’s at least a teeny bit more equity in the system. The haves are not able to exercise monopolistic power over their works because their power is not absolute. There are limits and exceptions, allowing the have-nots to benefit from information and cultural materials being offered at high cost in the market.

And it does come down to the high cost of information in the market. While plain data and ideas—which make up the basis of information—are not copyrightable, much of our information becomes locked down in copyright because of the fixed and tangible nature of how we create and value knowledge. White, capitalist society is not an oral society. Whatever there is to know, whatever there is that is worth knowing, is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression” and subject to the market forces of copyright. Information is available and there’s tons of it, but it is far from free.

Those of us working in libraryland should readily see how important fair use can and should be to our social justice mission of providing information to all. And we should also realize how this same power of fair use is essential to providing some form of equity for marginalized groups.

Just look at what happens when fair use fails: The precedent set in Biz Markie’s loss of his sampling case nearly crippled hip-hop and virtually all other forms of black music that rely on sampling previously created rhythms and beats to create new musical creation. This is a tradition that harkens back to the drum circles on the African plains and shared oral culture, none of which finds value or validation in a white, capitalist society. What is more, this lack of fair use continues to plague the black music industry; just ask Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.

In the realm of higher education, we see the potential trouble a failure of fair use can cause in the lawsuit against Georgia State University, a public institution with a diverse student body, located in the heart of a city comprised of over 50% people of color. Librarians, faculty, and staff were working to save students on exorbitant textbook fees by harnessing the power of fair use to make educational materials—and the valuable knowledge they contain—available on password-protected course sites. While the case, through all its permutations, seems to be headed for a positive note for the university and its students, it is still an example of how much fair use is desperately needed. This case has been going on for eight years and still isn’t closed. All for the sake of providing students from diverse backgrounds with the materials they need to learn.

We need fair use in order to provide information to more people, in order to break beyond institutional, market-driven barriers that function to keep information locked away for a high price. Fair use is the tool we use to make the creation and distribution of knowledge and culture more equitable. Fair use is a tool we use to build a more just society.

(Some of) The Trouble with IRB

I’m working on a research project with one of my favorite people, Jennifer Vinopal, and we had to go through the U.S. Institutional Review Board (IRB) process. (Commence collective groan.)

The IRB process is required for human subject research and involves having your proposed study reviewed by a select group from your institution for any potential ethical issues. It can be a very long, painful, drawn-out process, and there’s plenty of critique out there that it often does not serve its purpose to ensure the ethicality of human subject research (Heimer & Petty, 2010). (That last article is paywalled, sorry. ILL at your library or contact me directly for a copy.)

Aside from the personal annoyance of having to deal with IRB—which really wasn’t that bad for me because Jennifer is incredible and took the lead on that part of our work, plus our study was exempt—as I’ve learned more about IRB standards in general, I’ve come across some serious issues.

IRB standards in the U.S. are based on federal regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources. They lay out the types of research requiring IRB approval and the standards by which that research should be judged for its ethicality. Part of those regulations involves identifying population groups that are particularly vulnerable and require heightened standards for research conducted among them. There are three. Just three. (See a problem already?)

  1. Pregnant women and their fetuses (Subpart B)
  2. Prisoners (Subpart C)
  3. Children (Subpart D)

Now right off the bat, this list is far from adequate. I can come up with several more categories that should be on this list: people who are homeless; members of an immigrant population, particularly if undocumented; sex workers; people with physical or mental disabilities that render them incapable of conveying meaningful consent; and on and on. But those three are the only ones.


“Prison doors” by rytc via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As if the dearth of categories isn’t enough, there are also problems with the so-called extra protections afforded these categories of people. In particular, I was troubled by what I learned about the requirements for research among prisoner populations.

First off, prisoners only include people who are confined to an institution by court order. Obviously, people in prison but also people on house arrest or in court-mandated rehabilitation or psychiatric wards. However, it does NOT include parolees, even though they are subject to court-ordered monitoring and are susceptible to some of the same vulnerabilities as the currently incarcerated.

Imagine if the director of the halfway house invites a researcher to come in and interview residents for a research project. Even if there’s no overt coercion at play, what might a recently paroled resident think about refusing to participate in the study? This person is already struggling to reenter society, get a job, find a permanent place to live—would it pay to potentially piss off a highly educated researcher or the director of the housing facility? What if word gets back to the parole officer? Will there be repercussions there?

Another issue I found lies in the required composition of IRBs reviewing prisoner research. IRBs in general are required to have at least five members. For boards reviewing prisoner research, only one of those members needs to be a prisoner, former prisoner, or someone who can advocate for the prisoners’ rights (such as a prison chaplain, social worker, or other such representative, thankfully excluding wardens, guards, and the like). One of at least five. Only one.

Can you imagine being an ex-con, sitting in a room with a bunch of scholar-types, discussing why it is NOT okay to conduct research on your former fellow inmates? Better yet, can you imagine being a current prisoner, in your orange jumpsuit or whatnot, sitting in a room with a bunch of free and highly educated researchers, discussing why it would not be a good idea to conduct research on you and your fellow inmates?

Talk about power differential. Meaningless agency is no agency at all.

It terrifies me that this is the type of bureaucracy passing as “safeguards” for the interests of vulnerable populations. And when you consider that 60% of male prison inmates are black or Hispanic and that black females are as much as 4x more likely to be imprisoned than white females (U.S. Dept. of Justice, 2015), you can see how this lack of protection and agency can cut across other lines of oppression.

For IRBs to be meaningful, they have to involve more than just an annoying bureaucratic step in the research process. This isn’t just about preventing overt forms of exploitation like the Tuskegee syphilis study; there are also more subtle forms of oppression and exploitation at play.



Heimer, C. A., & Petty, J. (2010). “Bureaucratic ethics: IRBs and the legal regulation of human subject research.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 6, 601-26.

Tuskegee University (n.d.). “About the USPHS syphilis study.” Retrieved from http://www.tuskegee.edu/about_us/centers_of_excellence/bioethics_center/about_the_usphs_syphilis_study.aspx.

U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services (2010). “Protection of human subjects.” 45 C.F.R. 46. Retrieved from http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/45cfr46.html.

U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2015). Prepared by Dr. E. Ann Carson. Prisoners in 2014. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p14.pdf.

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: martinlutherking.org. 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 http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/a-critical-take-on-oer-practices-interrogating-commercialization-colonialism-and-content.

Drabinski, E. (2013). “Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correction.” Library Quarterly, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved from http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/669547.

Eve, M. P. (2016, Jan. 28). “Hunters and hunted.” Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/letters/hunters-and-hunted.

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 http://crln.acrl.org/content/77/2/82.full.

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