This semester, I teach a large undergraduate core course on contemporary sociological theory. The University of the West Indies has a good research library (see for yourself: http://www.mainlib.uwi.tt/). Nonetheless, when 150 students begin to search for books and journal articles on a broad range of theories, disappointment will ensue. This is a normal part of teaching such large courses, and libraries and lecturers have means for an at least somewhat effective response. What I find much less normal and acceptable is the ‘paywall problem’: The range of journals that are accessible to students simply is not enough to cover all the various aspects of a comprehensive course in sociological theory. As one of my students but it in an e-mail this week, nothing is more frustrating than finding the article you need for your essay, read the abstract, and be beaten back by a paywall. Trinidad and Tobago are highly developed countries, the University of the West Indies is quite well funded. It is obvious how little access to important research there is for students in less endowed universities around the world.
The same goes for book publishing. I also teach a postgraduate reading course in sociology. In this course, I work with MA and PhD students to connect their particular research projects to broader themes and issues in sociological theory. I would like my students to be able to place their local research in broader international trends in sociological theory, and books such as Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory are important fundaments for our discussion. In particular, the recent work of scholars such as Connell is notable for its far-reaching critique of sociology’s Eurocentrism. It is ironic, then, that the book is very hard for students to obtain here. Imported academic books are not generally on sale at local bookshops. One could order them through online bookshops in Britain or in the USA. This, in turn, requires a debit or credit card. Debit cards are not common features in the local banking system, and one needs a certain level of income to get a credit card. The university bookshop will order core texts for my courses, but some academic publishers will not deliver to the Caribbean. And once a book has found its way into the bookshop, an exchange rate of about 10 to 1 to the Pound makes it a very expensive form of entertainment. There are, of course, strong academic publishing houses within the English-speaking Caribbean. However, efforts to link local debates into international trends in the disciplines are easily thwarted by exorbitant costs. Membership in professional associations, such as the International Sociological Association, allows access to some journals, but does not really resolve the problem.
On the whole, I find it ironic that interesting current debates about sociology’s Eurocentrism and calls for a more truly global sociology take place in journals and books that are likely to be inaccessible at many, many universities around the world. These debates should be truly open to a global audience, instead of being limited to localised academic elites. This problem has already been recognised, and a campaign against a leading and particularly expensive academic publisher is currently underway: http://thecostofknowledge.com/. Equally, open-access journal publishing is more and more seen as an alternative to commercial outlets. But how effective can such campaigns be?
The colonisation of academia by management discourse and commercial worldview seems to be a very powerful counter-trend. Within this discursive universe, for instance, international university rankings have solidified as a means for justifying ‘excellence’ and academic superiority and as a platform for attracting research funding and student-customers (Ethel Hazelkorn’s recent Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education is a good example of the underlying commercial rationale). Within the resulting hierarchy, there is arguably little incentive to level the playing field and a lot of incentive to just keep going (consider the Western universities’ new habit of setting up ‘colonial campuses’ in other world regions). Likewise, the pressure on individual scholars to publish in highly-ranked, typically paywall-protected journals is fierce and difficult to counter.
The establishment of a still broader and internationally more diverse range of high-quality open-access journals might be one concrete pathway to pursue. Some of the activities that make a high-quality journals, such as peer reviews or participation in editorial boards, are not necessarily attached to specific costs at all, while others, such as the recruitment of editorial staff, do require some financial commitment. In an era of cutbacks of public funding for higher education in many countries, universities might not be willing or able to commit to free open-access publishing. Nonetheless, I wonder whether this is not a problem that could be worked around.