SPARC/ACRL Forum at ALA Annual

I was thrilled to be asked to talk about my work with Radical Teacher for the SPARC/ACRL Forum this year. The theme was “Flipping to Open,” and I really loved hearing from David Free about the impact of going open on College & Research Libraries. Free discussed strategies that C&RL used to increase engagement with the online journal once print ceased. They hired someone to do community engagement work via social media, organized Google hangouts with article authors, and crowdsourced the 75th anniversary issue. Scott Walter got huge shouts-out for being the steward of much of this transition. As an avid reader of C&RL, I really do feel like it’s *my* journal. I feel ownership of it as an academic librarian, much like I do with my membership food coop and the Blackbird Nation where I work most of the time. Listening to Free, I understood that my feelings about C&RL are at least in part produced by the work of C&RL staffers, and it was a good reminder that labor, usually paid, lies behind most things that feel “natural.” Huge thanks to everyone as C&RL for doing the work to make the flagship journal in our field (from where I sit) open access.

I talked about my work flipping Radical Teacher, and am pasting below the thoughts I shared on Saturday. Thank you again to SPARC and ACRL for having me!

Thanks so much to SPARC and ACRL for inviting me to speak at this forum today about my experience flipping a journal to an open access model. It has been an incredible amount of work, so I’m really happy to have a chance to tell some battle stories about it. So first, a little about me. I am a librarian, and part of that means working to give people access to information. I also see it as my role to enable the production of information, particularly the kinds of information that I wish I had more of in my library. As editor of an independent book series, I am able to publish work from feminist and queer perspectives that I suspect would have a harder time getting through the gatekeeping of traditional publishing. I think that is critically important work, work that Charlotte Roh at the University of San Francisco has helped me frame as part of the social justice work of open access publishing.

My experience flipping a journal started in 2008 when I joined the editorial board of Radical Teacher. Radical Teacher is a journal of socialist, feminist, and anti-racist teaching practice that began in the 1970s as part of a political turn in the Modern Language Association. Compositions scholars like Dick Ohmann and left literature faculty like Louis Kampf began the journal in cut and paste fashion, working in basements to mock up the journal using line drawings from other members of the board. I don’t think the original editors saw Radical Teacher as a scholarly journal. It was pitched against the dominant ideologies, a forum for faculty who saw the classroom as a place for social, political, and economic transformation.

The work Radical Teacher did in building a discourse was important. I hear so much of what I’ll call the politics of exhortation in open access discussions as librarians urge each other to pledge not to publish in closed journals. Radical Teacher was closed for a long time, but people published in it because they wanted to be read by other radical teachers. If you were interested in the politics of teaching, especially in colleges and universities, Radical Teacher was where you would find your audience, and your conversation. Journals and their editorial boards do important work in creating audiences and discourses, and scholars weigh those things when they decide where to publish too, not just the weighty demands of tenure and promotion. It’s part of why flipping the journal mattered—it helped readers and authors both have these conversations using a publishing model that aligned with the political values of the journal.

When I joined the board, I was the first librarian in a group of mostly English, anthropology, and history faculty. I’d been invited to join after publishing an article in the journal about librarians and the Patriot Act—the board figured out that librarians could be radicals, too. At my first meeting, I had expected to join a conversation about politics in the academy, maybe even participate in a sectarian struggle or two. Instead, the discussion was about one thing: money, and not eating the rich who have a lot of it. The journal was facing an impending bill from the university press the journal had recently contracted as publisher, but did not have the funds available to cover the debt. Subscriptions were in stark decline, most strikingly from college and university libraries. Institutional subscriptions and their higher rates had all but disappeared. For a small journal like Radical Teacher, those institutional subscriptions were the lifeblood of the thing, and the editorial board could not understand the precipitous drop in numbers. I remember a board member suggesting we do a direct mail campaign, maybe that would solve the subscription problem.

I will never forget the strangeness of that first meeting, of listening to the befuddlement of some very smart people who had no idea what was happening to them. They thought the work of making a journal was just about collecting some interesting ideas and making them available to other interested people. They did not understand the material conditions of journal production, that people had to get paid for all sorts of jobs related to publishing beyond the price of paper and stamps, an economy they could understand. The structural, material work of journal publishing, from laying out and copyediting each issue, to normalizing the metadata, to paying for the light and heat for the offices where people did those jobs, etc., there was an economy of publishing that was invisible to the people who made the “stuff” that went in between the covers. Scholarship was about reading and writing, and that should have been enough, the Board thought. Subscriptions were dropping because people didn’t know about our great journal and how great it was, and persuasion would be enough to get librarians to renew subscriptions and keep Radical Teacher afloat. It had not occurred to any of them that what they were experiencing was in fact not personal, but political and economic, the result of structural changes in the knowledge economy that produced a set of dynamics that was quickly determining the fate of all journals, including this small socialist one.

Of course, as a librarian in the 21st century, the explanations for that decline was quite obvious, even though I’d never given scholarly communication much thought: Libraries were engaged in serials cancellation projects as we dumped subscriptions to print journals that came bundled in Big Deals, and RT was getting canceled all over the place. I think I’d canceled it twice myself. In the face of the contemporary political economy of scholarly publishing, sending a subscription pitch in the mail, or cold-calling friends who worked in the library, would just be kicking the can down the road, not resolving the fundamental contradiction of trying to remain afloat as a small subscription-funded scholarly journal.

We looked at many options, including working with a commercial publisher, but ultimately decided to work with a library publisher. The University of Pittsburgh offered us structural support, including managing our OJS and helping us establish a production cycle. While Pitt takes care of many details, much of the work is still our responsibility. When we started, a lot of the work was work I am used to at a reference desk that’s often more about hanging indents than it is about research. We lay out our articles in Word, and I always show characters so that I can fix spacing and tab errors. One of our editors continually hits the space bar five times at the beginning of each paragraph, and I need to be able to see when that’s happening. Leonard didn’t understand, and kept asking me how to delete “all these little dots.” After we lay out the text, we apply standard styles to the blocks of text, which is another really big challenge for Leonard, as it was for me initially. Here’s Leonard working to apply styles, and here he is after learning to make a pull quote. For me, these are librarian jobs, and I think many of us have both the patience and the practice for making journals happen. So in 2016, we’ve published a handful of issues on the platform and we have gone from having to shut down unless it could raise $17,000 from a combination of bake sales and wealthy friends, to a lively, vibrant online journal that looks to be sustainable for the long haul. We don’t talk about money at meetings anymore; we talk about politics.

You’ll notice that what’s absent from this story is a commitment on the part of the board members of Radical Teacher to the principles of open access. We often pitch open access as itself fundamentally about a social good: increased access to scholarly communication. But for Radical Teacher, and, I suspect, for smaller independent journals like this one, the politics of open access only entered the equation after we had made a commitment to Pitt, and Pitt had made a commitment to us. The Board saw open access publishing through a library publisher as an economic decision, not a political one. In fact, open-ness was openly resisted by some members of the Board. Linda was concerned that if we were freely and openly available, “anyone could read us, including right wingers.” For Linda, this was a bug, not a feature, and she had fantasies that paywalls could secure audiences and police the boundaries of our community of writers and readers. I think this is part of a fundamental misunderstanding about the ways that paywalls function, which, as we know, is primarily about securing profit of various kinds, the task of corporations under capitalism.

Taking Radical Teacher open access meant working with scholars until they understood that there was work beyond the realm of ideas. And these were Marxist materialists! They didn’t understand that there was an economic structure we were a part of until we had to make decisions about the means of our own production. The most powerful result of our decision to publish open access with Pitt was, I think, the dozen board members who understood for the first time that their work was embedded in a political economy that was as subject to critique as the other forms of the neoliberal, capitalist classroom that board members had been contesting since 1975. Laying out cash was not only for paper and stamps, material things the board understood, but also for software and hardware, the labor of copyeditors and proofreaders, the lights, heat, and water at the university press where we paid our bill. The fact that openness aligns with the political values of the board members was a secondary, if ultimately important, side effect.

I think laying bare the political economy of knowledge production is some of the most important work librarians can do for scholars who, rightly, prefer to focus on the work of creating audiences and discourses through the publication of journals. I see this as particularly critical in the context of journals with content that ought to be made open, where the politics of the writers and readers are natural fits with the values of open access. A year or so after Radical Teacher committed to open access, Susan Stryker and Paisley Currah, two renowned transgender studies scholars, started Transgender Studies Quarterly, a journal meant to consolidate this new discourse. TSQ did not publish on an open access platform with a library publisher. Instead, the editors began the journal with Duke University Press, which required them to raise $100,000 in start up costs to be part of their publishing program. Stryker and Currah put up a Kickstarter to help raise those funds from community members who would then have to pay again to access the journal once it came out. It was so wrongheaded and upsetting, and when I reached out to the editors to ask about their decision making process it was clear that there had not been one: they liked the audiences created by Duke University Press and felt that their imprint could lend reputational authority to the new journal. Maybe that’s true. I think what’s also true is that the means of their own production was never part of the story for the journal, in part because no librarians were on board to explain that, radical content or not, the journal would be emerging in a capitalist, profit-driven scholarly publishing context that the editors would need to be intentional about resisting, and that such resistance would matter, to authors who want to publish in open journals, and to readers who want to be able to read them.

Librarians are well positioned to do the work of flipping existing journals, but I’ll close with a cautionary tale for anyone looking to help a journal make that turn. If you take on the role of cajoler for a journal, expect to do a lot of that. The past few weeks have seen some action at Radical Teacher. We had the close of a call for articles about teaching the Black Lives Matter movement. This meant answering ten gajillion questions about how to make an account in OJS, how to upload an article, what to do with pictures, how do we assign reviewers again. Editors consistently direct these questions to me. There is a learned helplessness that I struggle with, and one that I am still figuring out how to manage. We also closed an issue about teaching with archives that is waiting for me to process before publication. I am still the only person on the board who understands why metadata matters, why author names need to be consistent on the page and in OJS. It’s another job altogether to get someone else up to speed on that, when it’s not their primary line of work. I am taking a sabbatical next spring, so we’ll see then if I’ve been able to pull that off.

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