not just a china thing: thoughts on keep’um stupid governance and open access to academic publications

While in Beijing, I have been reading David Campbell’s Politics without Principle: Sovereignty, Ethics, and the Narratives of the Gulf War. I am grateful that Campbell has made a pdf of this important work available online not least because as an unaffiliated intellectual who happens to be based in Shenzhen, internet access structures my encounters to academic work. One would think that US institutions would be working to make more research available to more people, but alas this is not the case. University libraries and the virtual services they subscribe to continue to function as if they had limited paper copies of books and journals –with no lending privileges extended beyond their hedges.

As others have noted, the refusal of universities (and other research institutions) to share intellectual work through open access shamefully illustrates the relationship between the ongoing production of social value and knowledge.

On the one hand, only members of particular institutions can access on-campus resources. In this mindset, the university is thought to “own” the knowledge contained therein. But in fact, what they possess are books, journals, and documents; the knowledge is available to anyone who can read these materials. With virtual copies of any work limited only by interest and access to a computer, clearly not sharing work is a decision that institutions are making to achieve particular goals.

On the other hand, the knowledge produced through engagement with those resources is rarely directly compensated. Instead, universities and research institutions provide conditions for the production of knowledge to which they make proprietary claim. A university after all is only as good as the discoveries made there and so limiting access to institutional affiliates is one way of insuring that an institution’s researchers will do better work than researchers located at less endowed institutions.

Actually, renown and access are mutually implicated in research. This practice is even more pronounced in privatized research for product development. In short, by sequestering research within virtual ivory towers, US American universities have excluded international intellectuals in order to shore up their relative advantage and prestige within global a global knowledge market place.

(Snarky aside, given the relationship between knowledge, prestige and wealth is it any wonder intellectual property rights are so important?)

So why am I thinking about the question of open access?

Much has been made of the great firewall. Often the great firewall is (understandably) marshaled to demonstrate the level of unfreedom in China. In fact, faraway from my home modem here in the capital where Zhou Yongkang is being formally kicked out of the Party, I have unreliable internet service, and when I do have internet service it is often so slow that my proxy server doesn’t work. But here’s the rub. Even when I do have reliable internet service and a happy VPN (as I do back home in Shenzhen), I remain blocked from books and journal articles that would help me (and others) think critically about what is happening around us. There exists a virtual ivory tower around digital documents that prevents me and other independent intellectuals from reading much contemporary research.

The great firewall is part of “keep’um stupid governance (愚民政府)”. It prevents Mainland intellectuals and curious citizens from accessing alternative histories and accounts of ongoing events that do not jive with the Party line du jour. The great firewall not only frustrates many foreigners, but has also come to symbolize the CCP’s determination to control the thoughts and actions of the population.

However — and this is point du jour, the US universities’ refusal to open access to virtual resources serves the same function as the great firewall. Most people are unaware of what it means to be blocked from academic journals and books. Indeed, even with open access it’s difficult to imagine that virtual university libraries would be overrun with virtual users. But that’s in part the point — it wouldn’t matter if they were because a virtual copy is composed of information, not paper, ink and glue. All one needs (and yes this all is huge) is a computer or smart phone or tablet and one could be reading interesting ideas and engaging with broader debates.

Now, I’m pretty clear why the CCP is employing “keep’um stupid government”. But I’m saddened by the fact that US intellectuals and institutions who condemn the Great Firewall are not acting more proactively on open access because the inability to think critically is a learned handicap. Indeed, in too many ways closed access in the US academy is complicit with “keep’um stupid governance”. Inquiring minds want to know– what’s up with that?

6 thoughts on “not just a china thing: thoughts on keep’um stupid governance and open access to academic publications

  1. I think it all comes back to money and control. There is a very visceral response in this country, as in many others, that the more wealth one has, the more power and control s/he possesses.
    I find this extremely trying when trying to take care of patients. I get on PubMed, the NIH brainchild and start finding articles relevant to a particular problem. If I am not a member of that particular journal, I have to pay 15 to 30 dollars FOR THE ONE ARTICLE.
    Shared information makes for better decisions and better decisions make for a healthier, more aware. More connected community.

    • I’m disturbed that closed access to knowledge directly impacts the health of those outside privileged circles. Also, that money is paid to the service provider rather than to the author of the article. This is why intellectuals need to support open access.

  2. Mary,
    don’t forget there such an item called intellectural property. PRC China have ZERO IP protection and even the Chinese courts continue to condone IP theft by chinese companies, given the massive fake and counterfeit products (shan jai goods, A-goods) and massive IP theft and PRC gov’t sponsored hacking. I don’t blame American institutions having security given their IP is their most valuable asset. True, US gov’t also hacks, but scales much less and scopes only military in nature.

    If you spend millions (or billions) developing an idea or a product, would you give it away for free only to have a competitor (ie in China) turning around trying to sell this product elsewhere?

    I highly suggest you get out of China, your access to universities should improve vastly. Second, use a satelite/VPN download, albeit expensive should be viable when you are away from ‘home’

    • Hi Nulle,

      We disagree on what the primary value of a university is. I think it is to produce knowledge that all people can use to improve the lives of other people and end suffering. You think that the primary purpose of a university is to make money.

      Also, my name is Mary Ann. Please use it.

  3. Hi there, just thought I’d point out that Oxford University gives its graduates JSTOR access. I wonder if other universities have similar programmes for their alumni? It’d be worth checking. Might make a big difference.

    For them (OU) I guess it’s an extension of the right of all members (which, as a graduate, you continue to be) to use all libraries and attend all lectures, etc.

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