“Freedom To” vs. “Freedom From”

Martin Paul Eve

Unlike Bassel Khartabil, the cost to me, personally, of my free-knowledge work has been cheap. I have not paid with my freedom. In fact, I have been incredibly privileged to have conducted my work in creating free and open systems for the dissemination of scholarly knowledge in a geographical space (the UK and the British university) and political time that for the most part actually rewards such undertakings. If I say there is a cost, I feel it is a difference almost of type by comparison, rather than of degree, with respect to the price that Bassel has already paid.

But there is still some way to go, even in my privileged world. For the most part, academics are assessed on their publication record in a recognised disciplinary space, publishing with known proprietary publishers. There are very few positions available for the practical implementation of change in the academy (praxis). This is so to the extent that Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a fully tenured professor in the States, quit her post to work on publishing initiatives at the Modern Languages Association. Fitzpatrick wrote: “This is of course not to say that one can’t change the world from inside the protections of tenure. But I do think that those protections often encourage a certain kind of caution, certainly in the process of obtaining them, and frequently continuing long after, that works against the kinds of calculated risk that a chance like this requires.”

Even in my own academic publishing, though, there is a double bind. Many of my colleagues continue to find (or at least believe) themselves torn between publishing openly and having a career in the university. Dissemination and assessment find themselves in conflict because proprietary publishers own most of the venues for academic dissemination. And hiring panels look for the books published by the brands whose quality-control procedures they trust. But if those procedures and trusted systems are owned by entities whose business models depend on selling commissioned copies, then despite the fact that academics can give away their work (because they have a salary) this knowledge will remain imprisoned.

Even worse, this coercion (as I see it) to publish in known brand and usually-proprietary venues as a proxy for hiring in the university is defended as academic freedom (the freedom to choose to publish where one wants, rather than being told to publish openly). Certainly, it’s done by “soft power” and a reputational/symbolic economy, but I did not feel free when I had to publish my first book with a commercial press. I’m still grateful to them because I needed the book for my job. They did good work on it and I can’t fault the people who helped me there. But few people can actually read that book now because it is so expensive. I signed away the copyright as the price for a job. In an ideal world, I would have published this openly.

So, even as individuals (such as Bassel) fight for their true personal freedom that was taken away because they developed open-source software and facilitated freedom of expression, people around me continue to claim that it should be their right to lock knowledge away and that this is a freedom for them (see Cary Nelson’s article in Inside Higher Ed. for an example). I do not think it should be. Academic freedom in its real and proper definitional sense is important (the right to speak truth to power) but we should not demean it by saying that it is about one’s right to lock knowledge away from those who cannot pay.

When I say things like this, I am told I am anarchistic, that I want to destroy tradition, and that I am somehow an enemy of quality in academia. I have also been told that this coercive soft-power structure of proprietary publishing doesn’t even exist (usually by people who haven’t tried to get an academic job in the last decade). It does exist, and I am not trying to destroy academic publishing. I am trying to make academia and academic publishing the altruistic spaces of knowledge-sharing that they should be. As academics, giving people worldwide the freedom to read our work should always take precedence over our personal benefit from publishing in closed venues. I have not always been able to negotiate this cost successfully so far, but I will not defend my self-interest as a “freedom” when there are people who have really lost their freedom for this cause.