Taking the Public Good With the Public Bad

Taking the Public Good With the Public Bad

In Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones’ character makes a comment that is dishearteningly, universally true: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” This is at the core of mob mentality and why idealistic social structures like socialism and anarchy—the lack of government kind—are impractical. With that in mind, the conversation around free and open access (OA) to academic literature via the internet smacks of the same kind of starry-eyed arguments that happen to leave out the more pragmatic and logistical concerns that come with OA implementation. This isn’t to say that I’m opposed to making academic and scientific articles freely accessible to the public. However, I am pointing out—and advocating for—two necessary difficulties in doing so.

Firstly, there is an issue of language heterogeneity: a majority of the articles published by academics and scientists are replete with erudite words, phrases, and concepts that a layperson doesn’t know or understand. Allow a metaphor to do the heavy lifting here: making something palatable for a wide audience requires a reduction of specific “flavors” so as to ensure the dish is unoffensive to most tastes. Unfortunately this results in bland, unmemorable meals. The same can be said about altering the language of academics so that their articles can be digestible by the public. If only there was a way to give everyone access to a resource that explains the meaning or ‘definition’ of words and phrases one is unfamiliar with…Sarcasm aside, this raises a tangential point: a great many readers don’t want to put in the effort required to understand something they are reading. the question this seems to raise is, ‘how do we raise the level of engagement of non-specialists, non-professionals, and non-academics?’ This is a red herring. The question should be, ‘why do the authors of “challenging” reads need to engage the intellectually lazy?’ Consider for a moment that OA is a digital pursuit, and that by its very nature, it is connected to resources that can clear up any misunderstood words, phrases, or concepts as needed. After all, the goal of OA is to “accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge” (Chan et al). If this goal is to be achieve, it requires the elevation of the public lexicon, not the simplification of the subject matter experts’.

Secondly, not all of the results of making academic and scientific articles OA will be positive. As Gary Hall wrote in his article for academia.edu, OA opens the door for those who own and operate the platforms, “angel-investor and venture-capital-funded professional entrepreneurs…to exploit the data flows generated by the academics who use the platform as an intermediary for sharing their research” (Hall). Such a practice, demonized by the supporters of OA, is a logical condition, nay cost, of free things in the “data-driven” age of surveillance capitalism. Luckily, the sale of user data from OA platforms—like viewing habits, and trend metrics—to R&D companies is less pernicious than the individual user data sold to advertising companies. This is because—unlike social media platforms—the content found on academia.edu and the like is arguably of higher merit and therefore more beneficial to be shared with—and or data-mined for—the world. The biggest detriment would be topic bias in R&D funding based on the popular papers from the sites being data-mined, to which I would argue is less problematic than it is irritating (especially for those publishing unpopular content). And so this leaves a few options: fight the funders which would drastically reduce the number of OA platforms, hope that human nature is changeable on a global scale and every begins to act as they should, or as I argue, we just accept the good with the bad. In my estimate, the amount of good that can be accomplished in the long run is inestimably greater than the negative features OA faces today.

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