Friday, 8 March 2013

Some non-academics read academic literature too, believe it or not

In the context of the ongoing debate over writing for free and how that can be exploitative for freelance journalists and writers, Steve Saideman writes:

Our journal articles are written for academic audiences.  If we want non-academics to understand what our articles are about, we need to do other stuff, like blog, to convey our findings.  Non-academics are not going to read fairly indigestible stuff even it becomes free and ungated. If we want non-academics to understand what our articles are about, we need to do other stuff, like blog, to convey our findings.  Non-academics are not going to read fairly indigestible stuff even it becomes free and ungated.
That's true up to a point but I'm neither a student nor an academic right now and I still read academic articles.  (I can because I work for a university in a non-academic capacity and have access to all the resources.)  Okay, there's not that many weirdos like me out there reading journal articles when they don't have to but there's some.  There was a time between graduating from undergrad studies and doing my MSc when I had no such access, which, in addition to being very poor, meant that I had to resort to reading stuff from public libraries, most of which are completely useless for anything vaguely intellectual (and what libraries we have left are being downsized or closed anyway).

More remarkably, perhaps, my mum reads whatever she can find on the various medical conditions members of my family have and she isn't a highly educated woman, never been to university, etc. (not due to lack of interest but due to growing up poor and female and then having a bunch of kids).  She's always had an interest in psychology and sociology and now she reads up on genetics, epigenetics and all kinds of biology.  She ends up reading abstracts and previews of books and articles, including academic ones, that she can't access because these things interest her.  She won't 'contribute' to the debates academics have but she's a legitimate consumer of knowledge and someone who would clearly benefit from more open publishing.

A guy I work with is interested in engineering and says that one of the things he likes about working in a university (he's an IT guy) is having access to all this knowledge.  The list goes on.

So, yes academic literature is written for academics but don't flatter yourselves -- the rest of us can keep up, at least those of us who are thus inclined!

Also, not all academic institutions have access to everything.  I work for a fairly high ranking university (Bristol, as it happens) and there are still plenty of journals we don't have for one reason or another (usually because the publishers screw institutions by packaging a handful of quality journals in with a bunch of rubbish and then insisting that institutions buy the lot for much more than the quality titles would cost alone).

Moreover, very few high schools have any kind of access to academic materials (here in the UK at least) but younger students should have access to this stuff too, if they want it.  I know I'd have been interested in it when I was 16 or 17.  I bought and read Philip Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles when I was 17 just because I read a review in the newspaper that said it was good, so I was into that kind of thing.  (I don't think I understood it, by the way, but that's another story.)

So, of course, if all academic journals went 'open' tomorrow the general public wouldn't suddenly put down their novels, magazines and laptops and start reading academic stuff instead but that shouldn't distract us from the fact that a great many people would gladly consume this knowledge.

The argument for open access is overwhelming.  The only counterarguments I can even think of are born out of either ignorance or cynicism.  Steve doesn't really present a 'counterargument' as such but he does profess a degree of skepticism based on the frankly erroneous belief that no one besides academics are willing or able to consume academic literature.

The laity are interested!  (Some of us at least.)

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