Why Be Open Access? City Tech’s Sean Scanlan Shares His Story


For Open Access Week 2015, Ursula C. Schwerin Library (New York City College of Technology, CUNY) is highlighting our college’s own open access journal, NANO: New American Notes Online. Why did NANO’s editor and founder, Sean Scanlan, opt to make his journal open access?

NANO: New American Notes Online‘s mission is to “invigorate humanities discourse by publishing brief, peer-reviewed reports with a fast turnaround enabled by new technologies.” Issues are themed and articles often incorporate multimedia.

Monica Berger: Why specifically did you choose to make NANO an open access journal? I read your Open Access Statement, but please tell us more about how you and others involved in the creation of the journal reached this place.

Sean Scanlan: Thank you for inviting me to share my ideas on Open Access and academic journals. My journal was conceived to be Open Access from the beginning and I’d like to tell that story now.

In 1997, when I was getting my Master’s degree in English at the University of Missouri St. Louis, I applied to go to a critical theory conference at Cornell University. I met people from all over the world, and one of my friends, Thomas, was from Kerala, India, and he was the most excited person I’ve ever met to be at a literary conference. The reason that he was so excited was that his travels and commitment to come to New York relied upon a funding operation that exceeded the usual travel funds of his university by an enormous factor. Simply put: everybody he knew had contributed to his arrival at Cornell.

But I didn’t understand the core issue of what scholarly access meant until Thomas and I talked about libraries. During our down time, we often visited the main library at Cornell. It was a thing to marvel at—nearly 8 million volumes. Many times he said to me: there is nothing I could not accomplish with such a library at my home institution. And now, after seeing this, I feel that there is nothing I can accomplish back in Kerala.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because I have to compete to get my work published in US journals against scholars who have access to all this.”

Even though I was in the US, it hit me that my small state university had a small fraction of Cornell’s holdings, and so I too would face such access problems. I’ve talked to many colleagues who have shared a story or two about not getting at a vital piece of research due to access. I realized that the institution of the academy, an institution that I thought was ethical and open to all had a dirty secret: it had good qualities but it was grossly unequal. Scholars should not be limited to their small research holdings, they should not be constrained even by small consortiums of libraries, they should be able to access world-class holdings.

In addition to Thomas’s story, I want to add an idea I gleaned from the legal scholar Eben Moglen, who has written about intellectual property and sharing. He argues that potential Shakespeares and Einsteins of the world should not suffer because of a lack of scholarly resources—but as of now, they do. Why? Because rules that protect intellectual property have been contorted to protect not the thinker, but the employer of the thinker.  Intellectual property rights now are ways to provide funding streams to publishers who want to not only cover their costs, but also provide shareholder returns. If universities were selling sneakers, then perhaps such a profit model would be ethical, but education is not sneaker selling, especially not public university education.

In fact, the public university has an ethical obligation to make, at the very least, some of the research it produces available for no cost to the public. This is not only ethical, it will help bring in new students, new teachers, and even more funding. Sharing scholarly information is the way that new scholarship is enabled, and the result of newest, best ideas will be growth in a following of eager students and eager faculty. And following them will be increased resources. This happens all the time, look at those research institutions that have promoted cognitive neuroscience or digital humanities.

Open Access is an idea accelerator and impact accelerator, thus, it is resource generator, only certain factions cannot see this very positive event horizon.

The last part of this longish answer borrows from a blog post by Daniel Cohen who writes about Digital Humanities and the cost of publishing online. He says the Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing is what happens between authors, editors, and readers. This contract says that readers will read published work if they know that the manuscript has minimal errors, that the footnotes are accurate, that the fonts and navigation systems are clear and high quality. But does it matter if it is printed on paper, if the book is hardcover, if the imprint has grudging respect? I want to propose the idea of the Public University Social Contract. Such a contract improves the supply side of Cohen’s metaphor by putting more into the editing and less into the prestige of paper and bindings, more into the fast turnaround of publishing—and less into the cues of name-brands. The Public University Social Contract would state that publishing means sharing above all else—not as money-loser, but the complete opposite: as a way to enhance the missions of educate and improve knowledge, validate, build-upon, and propagate conversations and collegial bonds: in short to build trust among a vastly larger network of scholars, thereby gaining the respect of the world, so that Thomas can cite a vast number of articles and books, and so that Thomas’s work can, in turn, get cited by scholars at City Tech and beyond.

It’s Open Access Week! Nay, Open Access Month! What Now?

(This post is a slight reworking of a post from the Graduate Center Library blog.)

This week, October 19-25, is International Open Access Week, an annual opportunity for students, faculty, and other researchers to learn about open access (OA) to scholarly literature, find out how to make their works OA, and help make OA the new norm in scholarship and research. (Read more about Open Access Week and about OA in general.)

Of course, CUNY is a very big place, and we like to think big. So here at CUNY, it’s not just Open Access Week but Open Access Month: Numerous CUNY librarians are making a point to promote understanding, acceptance, and adoption of OA alllll monnnnnth looooong. (Actually, we’re always happy to talk about OA — any day, any week, any month, any year!)

During Open Access Week/Month, you might hear about open access from many sources:

Once Open Access Week/Month has whetted your appetite for OA, join the Graduate Center Library for workshops addressing two key aspects of OA: Does my publisher allow me to share my work (i.e., make it OA)? And if so, how and where am I allowed to share it?

Find out the answers to these and other questions at the following workshops, each offered twice — click the links to learn more and RSVP (non-GC folks are welcome to attend too!):

And it’s not just the Graduate Center Library that’s offering workshops! See the calendar of CUNY events for Open Access Month and its aftermath (scroll to the bottom of the page to see the calendar) and avail yourself of an event on your campus or a campus that’s convenient for you!

International Open Access Week image
Graphic is adapted from this image, © Dimitar Poposki, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Sharing and Ensnaring… by Beth Evans

At the start of Open Access Week, Oct. 19 – 25th, we offer a reflection on sharing and scholarly communication by:

Professor Beth Evans, Coordinator of Digital Scholarship Initiatives & Electronic Services Librarian, Faculty Fellow to the Office of the Dean of Humanities and Social Science,  Brooklyn College, bevans@brooklyn.cuny.edu

Sharing and Ensnaring: When Collaborative Research has a Run in with the Law and Racial Profiling

The abuse of authority by law enforcement is, unfortunately, not a new topic in the news.  From the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri to the choking of Eric Gardner in Staten Island, New York, headlines cry out the injustice and we all begin to wonder if those hired to protect us present the greatest threat to our safety.

Academia is often envisioned as an ivory tower set far apart from the gritty reality of urban streets.  Its workforce of faculty do not struggle as do many African-Americans with the challenges of unemployment. They support themselves through the work of their minds and eschew a livelihood of selling loose cigarettes outside of a neighborhood bodega.  So when law enforcement comes down with a heavy hand on a college campus and throws its weight at an innocent, we are shocked by the setting, but should hardly be shocked by the racism implicit in the abuse of authority.  Moreover, when this racist and heavy-handed move into our ivory tower has found its way in because of the welcome tendency of academics to be eager to share openly their scholarship, alarm bells must ring and those who champion open access must make ready to face the threat.

In May of 2015 the United States Department of Justice Department arrested Xi Xiaoxing the chairman of Temple University’s physics department, and a Chinese-born, naturalized American citizen, on wire-fraud charges. What might have been treated as a breach of contract civil case had the individual involved not been Chinese-born, the DOJ pursued the case as though Professor Xi had been spying when he shared, what they thought was, sensitive, American-made technology with China.  As it turned out, the U.S. government was wrong in its accusations, and “did not understand — and did not do enough to learn — the science at the heart of [Professor Xi’s] case.”  The government’s misunderstanding of the blueprints upon which it based its argument was hardly a comedy of errors and came closer to a tragedy that almost destroyed a scholar’s career.

This was not the first time that the U. S. government egregiously went after a Chinese-American with accusations of spying. In the fall of 2014, the FBI arrested Sherry Chen in Wilmington, Ohio, a flood-caster at the National Weather Service.  They accused her of secretly passing information about American dams to high-ranking Chinese officials.  Chen, like Xi, was exonerated, but not first without suffering in her personal and professional life.

American scientists and researchers like others often work collaboratively or consult with colleagues both close and abroad.  The open access movement in scholarly communications, championed by librarians, is meant to encourage such work.  With the paywalls knocked down around published information and communications made easy through readily-available internet access, it is common place for colleagues to share neither a lab nor a nation.  Nonetheless, research thrives, the miles between the researchers melt away, and the public can only benefit from the fast and easy dispersal of valuable scientific information.

Reporting recently in the New York Times on the awarding of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, William J. Broad observed that “[t]his week’s three Nobel Prizes reflect the globalization of science, which the United States often dominated in the last century.”  In addition to the awarding of the prize to Chinese doctor Youyou Tu for her discovery of a malaria therapy, the Nobel committee awarded half of the prize to be shared by William C. Campbell, formerly of Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research in NJ, and Satoshi Ōmura, emeritus professor at Kitasato University in Tokyo, Japan for their discoveries of therapies used against infections caused by roundworm parasites.

This was not the first time researchers, separated by thousands of miles and international borders, shared a Nobel Prize for collaborative work.  In 2014, the committee awarded another shared Nobel Prize, this one in Chemistry to Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia, Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center in Germany and William E. Moerner of Stanford University in California for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.

No FBI agents or Department of Justice came after the Irish-American William Campbell for working with the Japanese Satoshi Omura, Nor did they surround the suburban homes of Eric Betzig and William Moerner for their liaison activities with the German scientist Stefan Hell. But would things have been different for both sets of Nobel laureates, had the year been 1943 and any American scientist seen in a relationship with a citizen of an axis nation was immediately suspect? We know that during the Second World War, innocent Japanese-American citizens of all walks of life were seen as dangerous to American security and were rounded up en mass for no reason other than the nationality of their ancestors. Lives were put on hold and creativity and productivity were squashed, all in the name of an approved policy of racial profiling for the sake of national security.

If the open access movement in scholarly communications is to survive and thrive, ill-guided interference by governmental authorities in the work of researchers in any nation, often nourished and grossly contorted by unhealthy xenophobia and profiling, must be kept in check. If not, researchers will close themselves in their labs, turn off contact with the outside world, and the pace of innovation and life-saving creation will grind to a halt. Little new research will be produced, open to all or otherwise.