Sarah Kendzior

Writer at Al Jazeera English

Lip-Syncing to the Academic Conversation

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Image: Singing in the Rain (1952)

In December, I sent back edits for what will be my final peer-reviewed journal article. I had left academia months ago after earning my Ph.D., but academia had not left me. Two and a half years after submitting a paper, I was informed that it had been accepted for publication pending a few revisions. Unlike when I was a graduate student, I felt no elation at the news, only a sense of burden. I gain nothing from the publication of this article, which I will not even be able to read online because it will be published behind a paywall. I did the revisions because the article was part of a special issue and I did not want to let the other contributors down. But writing it felt like spending dead currency.

I was lip-syncing to the academic conversation.

From the moment they begin doing research, scholars are told to connect their work to “the conversation.” They should stay on top of scholarship in their field, responding to the critiques of their contemporaries as well as the dogma of their disciplines. But what happens when that conversation takes place behind a paywall through which you cannot afford to pass? What happens when your work ignites a dialogue that you can no longer follow? Where do scholars on the periphery – the adjuncts, the unemployed – turn when the ability to do research is contingent on one’s lack of contingency? Who is allowed to be “part of the conversation”?

The economic collapse of 2008 and corresponding breakdown of the academic job market created a backlog of Ph.D.’s unable to find tenure-track positions but still attempting to stay active in their fields. While their financial struggle is well-documented, less noted is a different kind of deprivation: lack of library access. With tenure-track jobs had to come by, many scholars today occupy a grey area – one they share with NGO employees, journalists, and other intellectuals toiling outside the ivory tower and its paywalled digital resources. These intellectuals share an inability to access academic works on their own areas of specialization. They are part of “the conversation” – often cited within it – but blocked from some of its premium sources.

The hardest thing about doing the revisions for my final scholarly article was not the research, or the writing, but obtaining access to basic materials. Merely tracking those materials down took multiple phone calls and emails to friends with different levels of access. Such is the circuitous path around a paywall: You borrow a friend’s ID and library login, you ask former colleagues to send you articles, you email the author requesting a copy of his or her work, you start offering drinks to graduate students in exchange for PDFs. Suddenly, you are a player on the nerdiest black market around.

Such is life after Google Scholar, where who you know determines what you know. Paywalls on academic journals are not only an economic barrier but an intellectual barrier. If it is this difficult for me, a researcher with connections, to access scholarly materials, think about how hard it is for the average person interested in exploring new ideas. Odds are, they simply pass academic works by, eclipsing “the conversation” altogether.

Open access is a battle long fought, with notable victories over the past few years as several major journals decided to make their works available to everyone. But it is far from the norm, and the combination of closed scholarship and rising contingency has created a “conversation” that functions like a coin-operated feedback loop.

Scholars on the fringes not only struggle to continue doing basic research, but to see what impact their research has had and to respond in kind. According to Google Scholar, I have been cited 80 times, mostly in the years after receiving my Ph.D. I don’t know the details of most of those citations, nor have I made a protracted effort to find out. All I know is that my work is part of a scholarly discourse that I cannot afford to access. That is where my conversation begins and ends.

Whether through pricey paywalls, expensive conferences, or ever-tightening definitions of “fit,” academia is an industry designed on insularity. From the outside, it is disarmingly easy to remain unaware of its problems – which is one of the reasons campaigns like that of adjunct professors struggle to gain traction nationwide. Careerism and money crises so dog discussion of higher education that it is easy to forget one of its basic goals: furthering human knowledge. It becomes harder and harder to see that as a goal academia takes seriously when access to resources is so closely tied to rank and position, which, in the current market, are capricious commodities.

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