A friend of mine is completely enamored by danah boyd’s writing, which to a degree I understand. She’s a PhD student at Berkeley, and she often writes some pretty smart things about online information and networking systems. However, I think her writing too often resorts to sloppy use of terms and fails to take into account some very important aspects of social theory. For example, Jeff Rice has called her out on misusing hegemony and subaltern in one “online article,” arguing (in part) that “reductive categories like the ones Boyd constructs (not to mention the mis-usage of terms like hegemony) are not gong to be much help other than to reconfirm what we already feel (X group is oppressed).” I have also noted elsewhere about her sloppy use of terms.
I’m not trying to state this out of an ad hominem attack (that there is something wrong with her character or her abilities or something); the point I am trying to convey is my history of frustration with her work. This brings me to what I read today. Via Spinuzzi, I read a response to boyd’s call to “boycott locked-down academic journals.”
I vow that this is the last article that I will publish to which the public cannot get access. I am boycotting locked-down journals and I’d like to ask other academics to do the same.
â€¢ Young punk scholars: Publish only in open-access journals in protest, especially if you’re in a new field. This may cost you advancement or tenure, but you know it’s the right thing to do. If you’re an interdisciplinary scholar or in a new field, there aren’t “respected” journals in your space and so you’re going to have to defend yourself anyhow. You might as well use this opportunity to make the valued journals the open-access ones.
â€¢ More conservative young scholars: publish what you need to get tenure and then stop publishing in closed venues immediately upon acquiring tenure. I understand why you feel the need to follow the rules. This is fine, but make a point by stopping this practice the moment you don’t need it. (emphasis original)
Anne Galloway’s response is a smart one. She points out that boyd overstates the “lock-down” of academic journals (which she does), but most importantly:
danah’s overall tone is so patronising to academics that I can’t help but feel insulted. I mean, really, how do unsupported claims like this one – “If scholars are publishing for audiences of zero, no wonder no one respects them” – help our shared cause of reforming academic publishing?
I, like Galloway, fully support open-access publishing, and I think Galloway’s point about boyd’s tone is important.
However, I’d like to finally bring this around to my major objection to boyd’s claims. She’s upset because the general public cannot read her article she has published in a “lock-down” journal. What she fails to understand is the differences between and among various types of publics. In other words, she’s completely misunderstood audience here. She misunderstands who academics speak to in specific contexts. An academic does not always speak to the “general public,” but must speak to and help build dialogue within counterpublics (in Michael Warner’s sense â€” so not necessarily subaltern as Nancy Fraser uses the term). Certainly, there are problems with access to some journals even for academics â€” while I agree with her complaints that academic journals are too expensive, she also blows this out of proportion (if no academics subscribe to journals, as she claims, how is it that I subscribe to three as an instructor?) â€” but the solution isn’t boycotting those journals.
Part of boyd’s desire, it seems, is to have academic work open to the public. This is a good goal, but boyd conflates two important goals of academic writing: 1) influencing the “public” and 2) creating disciplinary knowledge. This is a matter of audience. While some academic pieces work for both the general public and for one’s discipline, others are meant solely for an academic audience. Boyd writes:
I think that scholars have a responsibility to make their work available as a public good. I believe that scholars should be valued for publishing influential material that is consumed by anyone who might find it relevant to their interests.
I agree. But some articles and books are about creating disciplinary knowledge, about discourse within an academic counterpublic, and making this work available to the public isn’t as useful because the general public isn’t part of that “discourse community” (a term I try to avoid). It should be available to the public, I believe, in the name of transparency, but this is another issue. Boyd, I believe, has missed the whole point of audience of academic writing.