Publishing As an Act, Not an Industry

— 9 minute read

Open licenses are a hugely powerful tool in education. They have opened the door to a whole world of possibility and change. But if you start scratching at the surface of openness, to see what it means beyond open licenses, what do you find? For one, by expanding our definition and understanding of openness, we potentially have an even more powerful tool at our disposal to begin addressing systemic inequities in education, and society more broadly. As Ethan Senack recently pointed out in his post, A Broader Form of Openness, “it’s unfair to expect open licensing alone to fix [problems of inequity], or for open advocates to tackle them all at once. Lack of access, inequity, exclusion: these power structures are too deeply ingrained in, and perpetuated by, our education system.” I would add, these power structures are just as deeply ingrained in the publishing industry that produces and delivers content into that education system. But they don’t have to be.

Clearly, open licenses won’t and can’t be expected to fix these issues themselves, but as we work to create a system that produces open content, we have an extraordinary opportunity to reimagine publishing as a powerful, exciting process, instead of a closed and deeply problematic industry. When I think of a broader form of openness in education, I think of an open, democratic, inclusive publishing ecosystem that enables students, faculty, instructors, librarians, instructional designers, postdocs, other educators, and others invested in the value of education to create the content they need. In other words, content that speaks to their contexts. With that as a different kind of foundation, this community of people can, together, form a broad, accessible, vibrant ecosystem of creators and content, making education more inclusive and equitable worldwide. Dream big, right?

For now, however, I want to dig into one area that is critical to this vision, and which we need to be deliberate in addressing as a community: the question of how we can avoid replicating the issues of the traditional publishing industry. For a start, it means addressing the contrast between the process or act of publishing versus the industry that has emerged to carry out that process.

This is a difference I think about a lot. I’ll spare you a deep dive into the history of the publishing industry and the 500 years of tension between the ‘creative’ and the ‘commercial’ (buy me a drink sometime if you’re interested). Nonetheless, it does seem that some of the worst commercialisation and industrialisation of the creation process has played out in the education publishing sphere. However, nothing about it is inevitable or immutable. The act of publishing—of *making public—*of sharing your work for others to use and build on, is wonderful. And its value is not (or doesn’t have to be) commercial.

What excites me about OER is the fact that the value of the ‘product’ is not monetary. Instead, it is valuable as a teaching & learning tool, as a contribution to your field, as a publication to go on your tenure application, as a way to join a community of practice, and so much more. I don’t want to erase the money that does go into creating OER, but there’s something radical about this exchange of value in which we’re all participating. We are investing in the creation of content, and the return is that it is shared with the world for free.

Stripping away the commercial imperatives from educational publishing also allows for a radically different approach to deciding what content should be published. Traditional publishers play what could be called (if we’re generous) a “curation” role—that is, by picking and choosing which books to publish at any given time. A less generous (and more accurate) name for this role is “gatekeeping.” It is the concentration of power in the hands of a few to decide what is worthy of being made public. Yet those decisions are driven almost entirely by commercial imperatives and, even when other motivations are considered, decision making still always occurs within a commercial framework. This means, among other things, favouring books that will likely sell well, or else pricing lower-selling books at significantly higher prices. It also means prioritising ‘mainstream’ approaches, which results in far-from neutral choices. That is, whether or not the people making these decisions are white, privileged, or of higher social strata (though chances are they are – research shows that those working in publishing are overwhelmingly white and the dominance of unpaid and low-paid labour as a pathway into the industry create socio-economic barriers to entry), the interpretation of “mainstream” or “neutral” that is made generally replicates such a narrow segment. All kinds of publishing—educational, academic, and trade—tend to exist as monocultures, and this limits the opportunities for those seeking to publish from the margins.

So. How do we change this system? For one, we could and absolutely should put every effort into addressing the systemic inequalities in the publishing industry itself. However, even having the right people in the room won’t be enough if the conditions, structures and demands they are operating within don’t radically change as well. As I see it, one way to ensure real change occurs is to make the act of publishing the focus—making the processes visible and accessible, not locking them away in a closed, privatised industry. If we equip people with the means to create content as they see fit [1], they become the decision makers, with those working in publishing (that’s me, folks!) then becoming the support for this work. And really, it’s the people on the front lines of teaching and learning who know best what they need. This means if your course has small enrollment numbers, or is hyper-localised, or is made up of a majority of refugee students, or has any other number of unique and wonderful needs, you don’t have to rely on a publisher to decide whether your course is worth creating content for: you decide that for yourself. And, on the other end of the spectrum, larger institutions can come together to identify shared areas of focus, and then collaborate to create full suites of content for a particular subject, degree pathway, or other common cause.

An aside: Recently, in the context of arguing for OER creation as part of an institution’s diversity efforts, I was trying to articulate why it’s important to develop a diverse pool of creators and a focus on making content more inclusive. As I see it, affordability is about diversity—getting a more diverse group of students in the room by reducing financial barriers to accessing education. Once they are there, making them feel included (inclusivity) requires content that is relevant and representative—it is a cue that reinforces that they belong there. Seeing themselves in the content, or having it resonate with them and their experiences, is a powerful way to underscore that they belong. Okay, just wanted to get that out. Now back to my previous point.

But, I hear you asking, what about quality controls? If anyone can publish, how do we know what is good and worthwhile? Excellent question, dear reader! Had you asked me a few months ago, I would have said: Peer review! Peer review is the solution. And I do still think that it’s part of it. Although perhaps more true for monographs than textbooks, a publisher’s decision to acquire a book remains a major mark of quality. And if you remove the acquisitions process as a measure of quality, then you can, arguably, replace it with peer review. That said, I’d like to add some nuance, since peer review itself is a system that has emerged out of a fairly narrow conception of what is ‘good’ and what is not. In deeply troubling ways, peer review can and has been used to marginalise certain voices, certain worldviews, and certain ways of knowing, both throughout history and today. As such, it needs its own critical review, and I would encourage us all to think about what other measures of quality we can establish or identify—not least of which, the value the creator places on a resource by putting the time into creating it for their purposes.

Returning to where I started, Ethan prompted us to ask: “When we advocate for openness, do we do it in a way that further entrenches these problems, or do we do it in a way that keeps a broader set of values in mind?” To further the conversation, I ask: “As we develop a new publishing system to support the creation of open content, how do we do it in such a way that doesn’t further entrench the problems of the traditional publishing industry, and instead builds it on a foundation of our shared values?”

This is far from an exhaustive list of things we can do better but I hope it’s a start. Fortunately, there are some very smart and capable people working on these issues, and I do believe it’s possible for us to succeed. At the same time, however, possible doesn’t mean certain. We have to be deliberate in how we go about this, and work actively to ensure we don’t replicate the problems of the past. We can’t just stop at re-creating the same stuff, and slapping an open license on it. It would be dangerously easy to do—many of the same historic power dynamics that have shaped the existing publishing industry remain in society today, and none of us are immune to them. But hey, we’re dreaming big, remember? We can, and have to, do better.

[1] Note that I am largely referring to technological publishing solutions, but completely acknowledge that even technologies with low barriers to access have, well, barriers to access. Digital redlining is a critical consideration of any new systems of publishing, so while I’m gesturing to the advantages here, there are valid criticisms and concerns that I hope to address in another post.

With thanks to David Szanto and Ethan Senack for comments, edits & idea-bouncing, because creation is always collaborative.