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.

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