Reading at the Margins of Open Access

This is the sixth in our current series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library, these from Fellows in the Spring 2022 cohort. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY.

Nadia Augustyniak is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at The Graduate Center. Her dissertation examines psychological counseling in Sri Lanka’s public health sector, focusing on how gender and class relations as well as everyday ethics of care shape therapeutic practice. She teaches medical anthropology and ethnography of South Asia at Queens College.

The anthropology courses I teach tend to be heavy on readings, and to focus on peer-reviewed scholarly articles and ethnographies. This is true for introductory classes, and even truer for upper-level courses intended to give students a grounding in specialized areas, such as the medical anthropology course I redesigned as part of the Open Knowledge Fellowship. Though students often protest at the amount of readings, I insist. I have found that with encouragement and a clear understanding of why a given text is important, as well as  explanations of the more obscure content, students come to appreciate the labor of reading. Although not all are Anthropology majors, and likely only a few of those who are will pursue academic careers, I nevertheless want all students to learn how to navigate and interpret the layered, scholarly conversations that constitute the field.

I remember my own anxiety when reading for the first time authors like Foucault, Veena Das or Mahmood Mamdani in masters-level anthropology classes—my head was left spinning because while I could ostensibly grasp the content (though sometimes not even that), I seemed to be missing its real import. In fact, I was missing the broader picture—the conceptual infrastructures that held up arguments, and an understanding of the political contexts and disciplinary histories that are woven into these texts. This is the understanding I want to help my students develop, because I believe that, together with our lived experience, it enables us to read not just the scholarly literature but also the world around us in more intentional and critical ways. My hope is that by reading and analyzing specialized anthropological texts, students may sharpen their ability to question and deconstruct the dominant categories and ways of being that we are asked to accept as a given but that often narrowly reflect hegemonic values and perspectives.

However, the desire to help students navigate the maze of scholarly writing in anthropology stands in tension with another, admittedly newfound priority—to ensure that my scholarship and teaching support the movement for open access publishing within the academy and therefore truly free, public access to the knowledge we create. Before participating in the Open Knowledge Fellowship, I had little sense of what the terms open access (OA) or open educational resource (OER) really mean and how they fit into the wider struggle to break down the prohibitively costly paywalls academic publishers have put up. What mattered to me is that students don’t have to pay for course materials and that my friends and colleagues in institutions that are not as well-resourced as my own can access the articles and books they need. To that end, I shared materials I could access through my GC institutional affiliation as well as shadow libraries (more on that below).

The fellowship proved an incredible opportunity to learn about what it means to create and share scholarly knowledge in accessible ways, including by paying attention to the unresolved structural inequities inherent in this effort.[1, 2] The workshops introduced me to resources I had no idea existed and with that, to the immense possibilities of OA and OER to enrich our courses not only in terms of public access but also our own imagination as scholars and instructors. While I did try to find OA versions of texts on my original syllabus, I also came across valuable new sources. For example, I found OA books on the colonial history of medicine in India, on critical medical anthropology in Latin America, and an incredible series on Asian medicines in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic in the flagship open access journal Cultural Anthropology. I also discovered the open accessMedicine Anthropology Theory journal. The Literature Review of Open Educational Resources in Cultural Anthropology written by Claudia Crowie and Miryam Nacimento proved invaluable, as did the OAPEN repository. These sources will be freely available to my students even after their institutional affiliation ends. What I find even more exciting is that, thanks to the openly licensed course website, I can share the syllabus and course materials beyond the classroom.

Having highlighted all of these positive aspects of OA, I nevertheless admit that I was not able to make a syllabus that I felt would fulfill the objectives of my course using only open access materials. As I described at the outset, one of my priorities is to help students navigate specialized scholarly texts and to become versed in the debates and conceptual frameworks that have defined the field. This does not mean blindly reproducing the canon but rather helping students build up their knowledge of the discipline, including what the canon has been and how it is transforming. I was not willing to cut older, seminal texts as well as texts that I felt were particularly eloquent and illustrative—my favorite example would be Kuriyama’s essay on the visual epistemologies of classical Chinese medicine.[3]

There are different estimates for the percentage of scholarly publications that are open access. On the lower end, one 2018 study suggests that nearly 28 percent of all DOI-assigned journal articles are open access.[4] In the US and many EU countries the percentage of all publications that are OA ranges from 40 to 50 percent.[5]  The more recent a publication, the more likely it is to be OA, which makes sense given that the OA movement has gained greater momentum in recent years. But what about the articles and books which remain behind the paywall? While I strive to increase students’ access to scholarly literature, does it make sense to cut out this pool of texts, especially when students do in fact have an institutional affiliation that gives them such access, even if only temporarily?

With this question, I thought about the enormous collection of PDFs of academic articles and books that I have amassed as a graduate student and that have been circulating through the scholarly networks I’m part of, spanning three continents. I started to think about the significance of such personal archives and the informal paths through which scholarly knowledge travels. These paths are part of the much wider world of shadow libraries such as Library Genesis and Sci-Hub, which sit on the margins of legality yet sustain the intellectual labor of scholars around the globe and represent more subversive efforts to dismantle the publishing industry’s monopoly over scholarly knowledge. As the headline of a 2018 Science article states: “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone.” Ironically, the article is behind a paywall I could not circumvent.

These online repositories, considered piracy by some and embroiled in legal battles with giants like Elsevier, have been built explicitly in response to the enormous inequities in access between wealthier institutions in the Global North and institutions basically everywhere else in the world. In some cases, they are linked to wider histories of dissent and struggle for intellectual freedom such as the samizdat practices of Soviet-era intellectuals who reproduced and disseminated censored texts.[6] These efforts remain a critical—if fraught—element in the wider struggle for open and equitable access to knowledge.

Committed to OA as a collective movement against the current system of academic publishing, I attempted to strike a balance in my syllabus by finding as many OA sources as I could, while continuing to rely on institutional library access where needed. Equipped with a much better understanding of the landscape and stakes of open access pedagogy, I look forward to engaging in critical conversations about the politics of knowledge creation with my students next semester and to thinking together about how each of us can help to pick away at the paywall—one brick at a time.

[1] Kowaltowski, Alicia, Marcus Oliveira, Ariel Silber, and Hernan Chaimovich. 2021. The Push for Open Access Is Making Science Less Inclusive. Times Higher Education, August 31. Accessed 28 April 2022.

[2] Jähne, Joachim. 2021. “The future of scientific publication is Open Access, but needs diversity, equability and equality!Innovative Surgical Sciences 6(2): 49-51.

[3] Kuriyama, Shigehisa. 1995. “Visual Knowledge in Classical Chinese Medicine.” In Knowledge and the Scholarly Medical Traditions. Don Bates, ed. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, pp. 205-234.

[4] Piwowar, H., Priem, J., Larivière, V., Alperin, J. P., Matthias, L., Norlander, B., Farley, A., West, J., & Haustein, S. 2018. The state of OA: a large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access articles. PeerJ, 6, e4375.

[5] Jähne, Joachim. 2021. “The future of scientific publication is Open Access, but needs diversity, equability and equality!” Innovative Surgical Sciences 6(2): 49-51.

[6] Bodó, Balázs. 2018. “The Genesis of Library Genesis.” In Shadow Libraries: Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education. Joe Karaganis, ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 31-37.

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash.


About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.