Alyssa Arbuckle MA, on the importance of open-access research, the barriers of entry to post-secondary education, and how the Internet holds potential to change the world of academia for the better.

Tracy: Explain a bit about what you do.


Alyssa: My official title is the Assistant Director of Research Partnerships and Development at the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, which is a role with the University of Victoria. What I do in that role is I essentially focus on research support: I go to conferences, I liaise between partners and researchers, I write reports, I do research. Now all of this is under a broader gamut of what we call Open Social Scholarship, which is also what I’ve just begun pursuing a Ph.D. in. So I’m researching what Open Social Scholarship is, and how to implement it.


Want to give me the rundown on what Open Social Scholarship is?


The whole premise of Open Social Scholarship is based around the fact that scholarship has traditionally--or even still is in the public consciousness--been thought of as something that is closed off. It’s something that is seen as only available for certain groups of people: for academics usually, so it's inaccessible to everyone else. What we’re trying to study is how we can continue to do cutting edge research, or really advanced research, while looking at how we can share that research in ways that are more social, that are more open, and that are more accessible. Now obviously the internet plays a big role in this, mostly in trying to get research disseminated more widely in ways that a lot of different people can access. So that is our main focus.


Which is quite commendable, and something I’m sure journalists can appreciate with our mandate of getting correct and quality information out to the public. What drew you into this field?


My academic background is in English Literature, which I studied that at the University of British Columbia. I then started getting into coding and web design and started to look for ways that I could wed my love of literature with my newfound skills in web design. I was looking for an academic program and landed at UVic, which has a pretty strong contingency of people who work in something called the Digital Humanities. The Digital Humanities is basically the Humanities done with computers; so that’s Literature, History, Art History, Political Science, Philosophy, even some Geography--anything looking at how we can study and model or represent the human condition and its outputs, using computational methods. So that’s what I did my Master’s [Degree] in, and from there I started working with my supervisor. As his research agenda shifted more to social knowledge creation and open scholarship, I got more involved and started doing a lot of research into it under him. Since then I’ve continued on that path.


How do you think that the internet has changed academia? And do you think that change has been for the better or worse?


I think that the Internet and network technologies in general have really changed not only the way that academics work on a pragmatic level, but also the way academics think about themselves. For centuries now, academics have been very good at communicating with each other: there have been academic journals--paper journals--and there was actually a really large mail-based communication system where academics wrote back and forth to each other. We have done well at scholarly communication with ourselves, but academics have not been good at communicating with other people. So as the academy went online and shifted all of those communication practices they'd already been executing for centuries onto the Internet, it became more and more apparent for them that, "Hey! Other people are on the internet too." So the idea that we can open up our work to so many more people came about. And that’s really amazing; it also means that academics can share their work with people who are not only working in their fields, but who are living in Kenya, or in Argentina, or in any other place all around the world that they might not be connecting with otherwise. So I think that’s a good thing. I think the Internet has definitely changed the academy. I think it has also forced academics to be more of public figures than a lot of academics have thought of themselves beforehand, or are maybe even comfortable with. It's nice to see that professors are on Twitter now [Laughter].


I’ve seen more of that and I like that. The idea that we don’t always need journalists as interpreters, and that researchers themselves can write their own articles, is a great step. There’s less sensationalism or misinterpretation of their work that way. I’m happy to see academics become contributors in media.


Certainly and that’s where my heart is for sure. I think this is an increasing trend, but there is push-back from who I consider to be the 'old-guard' of the Academy who do not think that scholarship is for the people, and who do not think that they should have to share their output in ways that other people can access. They think that this degrades their research or lowers its value, and that’s definitely an attitude that I think needs to go.


Really? That seems odd because people need research to tell them for example that climate change is happening, or that a cure for an illness needs more funding, no?


Of course!


Perhaps journalists and the public have been trying to regurgitate studies and in doing so, butchered them. For example, if coffee is good for you or not. Is it that [Academics] don’t want to have to deal with this?


I think that’s a generous reading [laughter]. I have to say that, in my experience, more so than worrying about people misinterpreting their work, it's more of a problem with a snobby attitude. The attitude being that research is for the elite. And I think that’s bullshit. There are a lot of other people who think that it’s bullshit too. Following the hard work of more established scholars and librarians, I think that many of the emerging generation in the academy are pushing back pretty hard against this idea that [research] should be closed, that it should be prestigious and elite. So in my own work, what I’m trying to figure out is how to share my research widely and how to share it in ways that other people can grasp onto and understand. 

The traditional academic paper is important as an articulation of research and argument, and a record of this, but not many people are going to sit down and read a 20 page paper. Some of my colleagues may read it, but I’d say only about 3 of them would. Other people still aren’t going to go to a newspaper and read a 20 page academic printout, it’s not the right way or the right medium to get it out there. So to me, I think what we need to get better at in the academy is translating our work into formats that people want to read and find interesting to read, without dumbing it down, or without thinking that we need to dumb it down. We need to be looking for ways to meet people where they're at already: so that might look like doing an interview like this, or on [TV], or online. 


Where do you think that notion comes from, that research should only be for those within the academy or those more elite institutions?


I think it’s partly ego, and I think this shows that there are unfortunate aspects of the academy in some ways. The university is still a pretty classist place. Often you get all of the kids who were the smartest in class: all of the teacher’s pets, often from well-off families. So you can get people who have been told their whole lives that they’re so special and smart. Then they all get thrown together in a highly competitive environment where, really, they have to fight very hard to survive. It’s really, really challenging. There are not a lot of jobs, there's not a lot of opportunity, and so you get a lot of competition.

I think that makes them feel like if they are so special and they did fight that hard, that they should get to be a part of this elite squad of intellectuals and that it should stay that way. I think most of those people aren’t even conscious of how pervasive or damaging that attitude can be. I’ve had discussions with some of these folks, and it’s really like we’re on entirely different planets. I come from a place where I think of my work as something to be contributed to the general pool of global knowledge, and that that’s my job: to produce knowledge and to share it. But they come from a place where that’s not how they see their job or their own work. They don’t think of themselves as public servants at all (even though we’re publicly funded.)


I haven’t heard that perspective before. It’s great we have the younger generation like yourself out there to challenge it.


It’s a really hard thing because undergraduate training at the university can be, in a lot of ways, set up for people who don’t have to work to support themselves, who don’t have dependants, and who already come from a background of parents who also went to university, but that’s not that case for everyone else. In fact, it’s a really, really small percentage of people who can fit into all of those categories.


Those barriers to entry that aren’t often spoken about; these are huge privileges that are left in the dark. I know many who had parents or an older sibling who would write their papers for them, or at the very least, edit them. Most people from marginalized communities don’t have that extent of encouragement or support.


Yes, and it’s definitely something no one talks about often, you’re right.


I also wanted to ask you about what I’ve heard you term as "the broken publishing system". Want to explain this for our readers?


For sure. So essentially the way that academic publishing is set up currently--and this has to do primarily with academic journals--is that authors write articles that get published in scholarly journals. They are not paid for those articles which is a good and just thing because they’re hired at a university and they get a salary to do this. To reiterate, that salary pays them to publish. Publishing is a part of their job, there are no royalties or anything, and that’s fine. The problem is, by and large, the groups who are publishing this work are big, corporate, scholarly publishers and they have insane profit margins: some are making the same amount of money as oil companies. This is because they don’t have to pay for their product. They solicit these articles for free and have them peer-reviewed for free by academics. None of that labour is paid for, and they do (what I would consider pretty minor) editorial work: page laying and uploading PDFs online. This doesn’t cost a lot of money or require a lot of overhead.

So what these publishers are doing is they’re bundling journals together. So they’ll take, say, Science or Nature (or other types of big, "important" journals) and they’ll bundle them with about 10 other journals that don't have as wide of a readership or the same demand from academics; they might be super specialized so libraries wouldn’t necessarily buy them in and of themselves. Publishers bundle them in this way so that you have to pay for these eleven journals at an astronomical cost, and they will not unbundle them. What this had led to is that university libraries just can’t pay for these anymore: they can't afford them. Libraries' budgets have been slashed, so it’s a trickle-down effect. Universities in Canada have been underfunded for about 20 years now, and that coupled with these crazy journal bundles, means university libraries can no longer afford research.

This puts a lot of pressure on libraries because they need to bring in research for their faculty and their students in order for the university to attract faculty and students. It’s all part of the ecosystem. But now they're in a place where they can’t do this, so it’s a very hard situation to be in because what universities are saying is, “We don’t want to pay for the research twice." Because they’re already paying for the salaries of their faculty, so they're paying for those articles to be written in the first place. Now they’re having to buy them back from a middleman who is doing nothing but putting PDFs online and putting their publisher stamp on it. They’re saying, "We’ve published this as a prestigious publisher so that means it is of quality."


What I’m wondering is why academics don't just refuse to let these journals have access to their work?


Well, this is because these certain journals and these certain publishers have developed so much esteem that authors really want to publish with them. If you are a new Bio-chem Ph.D. student and you have an article published in Science, you’re more or less guaranteed to get a job. So there are some very real repercussions to not publishing in esteemed journals. In North America we have something called tenure and promotion. Basically as soon as you get tenured, you're kind of a free agent and you can make a lot of your own decisions about research. Agenda-wise, you develop your own syllabus and for courses that you teach, you’re no longer in a precarious position.

So that’s what most professors in North America are aiming for. They all want tenure. Most Tenure and Promotion committees are pretty much 20 years behind everyone else and are unwilling to change their own standards for what they believe to be quality work. They’re still stuck in this idea that, “If this press puts their [stamp] on it, that means that it’s more worthy than this other open-access journal over here.” Now that’s changing slowly as more journals break away from corporate publishers and as more journals go open-access, and sort of "go rogue". So it’s changing, it’s just a slow process.


So what else can be done about this to speed it up?


What myself, my colleagues, and a lot of advocates around the world are aiming for is we’re trying to move away from corporate publishing. We're developing our own, homegrown institutionally controlled, or funding agency controlled, publishing systems.

Also, a lot of academics are just not aware of the issues. They are focused on their own work. Personally, my lab is in the library and a lot of my colleagues are librarians, so I work with librarians a lot. My co-supervisor for my Ph.D. research is the University Librarian. I’m very much attuned to the “library world” so I know what’s going on with this trend and its effect on university library budgets. So I think it’s mostly about people not knowing, and there needs to be more education happening. The Canadian funding agencies and American funding agencies (who represent the government), are pushing for this insofar as they’re saying “If we fund you, it has to be open-access. It can not be closed.” However there’s really no way to implement that or to police it. That would involve checking every single person’s research output, and that’s a huge undertaking. So it’s more or less on a faith-basis right now.


Well you’re starting to get the word out and I think that’s great. We’re right out of time, would you like to add any final words?


Thank you, Yes, I would end on a note of optimism. I do think that the system is changing with all of the dedicated researchers, librarians, academic staff, and students out there, and I think that it’s changing for the better.

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