Access to academic publications online is a feminist issue albeit a hypocritical one for feminist academia

Access to academic publication is the hidden dark heart of academia. Those within ivory towers often forget what it’s like to be outside and far below, without the institutional login to the very stuff of learning. Recent articles by George Monbiot and Ben Goldacre on the highly protective academic publishing cartel have raised attention to how lack of access the general non-academically affiliated public have to scholarship. This is not news to students and those working in academia.

For those without institutional login or access to selected journal publications, purchasing a single academic article can cost between £8.67 on JSTOR to £30 per article on Springer in PDF format. Aaron Schwartz, a fellow at Harvard’s Centre for Ethics and digital activist, has been accused of intellectual property theft for downloading millions of academic articles for widespread dissemination. The punishment for spreading articles that were downloaded legally (without additional fee) through institutional access may be far greater than the cost of all the articles siphoned out by Schwartz.

The highly protected nature of academic publishing bars many without the financial means from access. Mind you, getting having access to journal articles is not like browsing through books in a book shop, leafing through pages of a physical book before deciding whether or not to purchase it. Access is restricted from the get-go, with only a glimpse into the first page of the article or just an abstract and nothing more.

Restricted access to academic publication is an ethical issue that goes deep into the question of power and knowledge and who has them. Feminist academia and its attack against unequal institutionalised power and knowledge are directly implicated in this latest ‘expose’ in contradictory ways. On the one hand, feminist academics, who are typically part of the gender studies set, argue that economically-marginalised groups have long been denied access to institutionalised feminist knowledge through the increasing use of jargons and esoteric writing.

Feminist academics also question the ways such groups are excluded from producing ‘legitimate’ forms of knowledge (i.e. formal, academic, and jargon-heavy) that are taken seriously in the academy. But on the other hand, access to feminist knowledge is so jealously guarded by academic publishers and online journal databases there is no way of entering and experiencing the closed world of academic writing without being already part of academia.

What financial interests do academics need to protect from the siphoning out of academic publications from online databases for free dissemination? Pretty much nothing. Academics do not receive royalties for each time their articles are downloaded. If anything, an academic publication alone for academics is, to varying degrees, like gold dust. Like Goldacre says, it is difficult to reconcile easy access to academic publications with the needs of the distributors who provide them for profit. But those within the academy have a duty to disseminate and share their work in a variety of ways through blogging, vlogging, public lectures, and media appearances.