Moving from Colonialism and Paternalism to Equity and Cooperation in Scholarly Communication


April 20, 2017 by Town Peterson

An idealist might believe that communications among scholars represent open, clear, reasoned debate, and that all involved will share certain base values. While we realize that significant barriers, such as to women and people of color, have long existed, one might wish that equality would be on the list of such shared values… that is, one would like to believe that all scholars have the same range of opportunities open to them, regardless of their race, country of origin, economic status, or whatever, so that all of the relevant data and the best minds might be brought to bear on solving problems of interest to science and scholarship. One might wish that–whatever the details might be–all scholars would share the idea of equality as an underlying and overarching assumption. Here we examine this idea of equality in scholarly communication via the example of a recent exchange about open access in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Two commentaries published in the Journal of Wildlife Management (Romesburg 2016, 2017, the second in response to criticism from us; green open version), however, suggest that such basic beliefs mentioned above are not universal. The author (Romesburg) laid out an argument against the desirability of open access publishing in wildlife science (and more broadly), but the open access debate is not the point of this post. Rather, when that author turned his attention to the question of global access to the scholarly literature–that is, how might a scholar in a developing nation participate in this system–the ugly subtext of his arguments emerged.

A serious question and challenge for the scholarly publication field shaped so intimately by scholarly societies is how to be inclusive and equitable: for scholars in the poorest nations, and also for scholars located at smaller institutions or even well-funded scholars working on “seed” topics for which they may not have funding. Our working group has discussed these topics, and have argued against widespread use of article processing charges (APCs) as a solution in opening access to the scholarly literature in a recent letter in Science.

But Romesburg, and by proxy the Journal of Wildlife Management, goes down a different path:

A country’s gross national product (GNP) is an indicator of the relative size of the country’s scientific effort; a country’s economy has to grow past several thresholds, including providing adequately for defense, public health, public education, and public infrastructure needs before the country reaches a position to grow science facilities such as laboratories, equipment, and administrative structure … a time will come when every developing country reaches an economic level from which it takes the next step toward being a world leader of science. With some countries today, that may take a century or longer to happen… (Romesburg 2017)

This view suggests that the individual scholar, who may have excellent ideas and contributions to offer, must await the full development of the nation before participation in the global system is possible. Really? Even as global scholarship is expanding rapidly, the world is shrinking rapidly, with massive improvements in communication, information transfer, and transportation, and scholars are emerging worldwide. Why is it necessary to wait for national infrastructures to be fully developed? Must we shut out an entire generation of developing-world-based, but otherwise completely competent, colleagues from the scholarly communication system until their infrastructures reach Romesburg’s standards?

On a more individual basis, Romesburg offers another solution for developing-world scientists that involves less waiting:

For researchers in developing countries, for whom publishing in society journals may be deterred by expense, a possible solution is to collaborate with researchers in developed countries who are in a position to pay the page charges. (Romesburg 2016)

Recent years have seen considerable emphasis on detailed documentation of author contributions to scholarly publications to assure academic rigor: an author may have designed the experiment, created visuals, or analyzed the data, and therefore merits authorship. Romesburg’s suggestions would create a class of authors with the resources to pay but without the labor and intellectual contribution usually associated with authorship. Authorship for sale is not a good solution to full participation by the global scholarly community, and certainly opens rich new possibilities for abuse and academic misconduct.

What will it take to fix this system? As scholarly societies, universities, funders, and publishers redesign and reorient the scholarly publishing system towards open access, these efforts must be conducted with an eye to ensuring that no one is excluded. A system that permits voices to be heard only from the “Global North” (i.e., North America and Western Europe) is not an adequate solution. The following is a relevant comment from one voice among our global network of colleagues and correspondents, in response to circulation of Romesburg’s ideas about global inclusion:

The quotes above could only come from a person in a position of privilege and entitlement. In the old days it would have been called colonialism, in Papua New Guinea, ‘taim blong ol masta’ (“time of the white guys, masters”). Partnership and collaboration are great in research but they can’t be lop-sided or disadvantage or exploit the countries and people on which they are based. Free and open access to the data and research is an essential foundation, especially for developing countries, some of which are not going to have a century to wait. Jim Croft, Australia

Few researchers would hold views as extreme as those of Romesburg, which are condescending, paternalistic, and offensive. Ideas of this sort scream–as mentioned above–privilege and entitlement, but are perhaps symptomatic of more subtle currents that may be more common in scholarly communications.

Indeed, some proposed solutions (e.g., see the Max Planck proposal) “look” good, in that they create legions of journals that are completely open access. However, solutions that depend on author payments create new barriers to full participation in the form of APCs that will exclude many at less-prosperous institutions. We suggest that other solutions be explored via broad, global, inclusive conversations that can arrive at solutions that will not create new problems.

We see two logical ways forward in developing a model for scholarly communication in a world that has a robust Internet technology infrastructure. One model builds virtual walls into that architecture to reflect the artificial borders of nation-states and, in a finer detail, societies and corporations contained within them. The other is an open, complex, networked, borderless model that facilitates unhindered scholarly communication planet-wide, bringing all relevant data and all possible informed minds to the scholarly conversation. The former is a model that recreates in virtual space the early nineteenth-century achievements in nation-building and class stratification. The latter represents a model reflecting twenty-first-century realities and needs. We are betting on the latter, and are working actively towards its efficient implementation.

Josh Bolick

Ada Emmett

Marc Greenberg

Town Peterson

Brian Rosenblum

3 thoughts on “Moving from Colonialism and Paternalism to Equity and Cooperation in Scholarly Communication

  1. Town Peterson says:

    From Peter Suber:

    Good critique of the paternalistic approach. But your sketch of the alternative is very short: “The [alternative] is an open, complex, networked, borderless model that facilitates unhindered scholarly communication planet-wide, bringing all relevant data and all possible informed minds to the scholarly conversation.”

    Can you say more about that, or point to a longer account of it? Many approaches to OA have arisen in the global south, and thrive there. Many others arose in the north, but do not suffer from the paternalism you criticize. Do any of them meet your criteria? Do you have recommendations above and beyond the best efforts already in under way?


  2. […] the previous post, we argued that a scholarly world without open access (OA) inevitably excludes some researchers and […]


  3. […] Bolick, Josh, Ada Emmett, Marc Greenberg, Town Peterson, and Brian Rosenblum. Moving from Colonialism and Paternalism to Equity and Cooperation in Scholarly Communication.” OAnarchy [blog] (April 20, […]


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The opinions here emerge from work done by OA advocates at our university in the Midwest. The opinions are those of the authors themselves and not necessarily of our home institution.


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