Libraries and Learning

Curation, Evaluation, and Open Access for Teaching

November 22, 2016

I had the pleasure of serving on a panel at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Minneapolis that brought together teachers, many of them from community colleges, to discuss how (and whether) to use open access materials in the classroom. It was a lively discussion that touched on how valuable open access journals are for cross-disciplinary research, how difficult it is for faculty with heavy teaching loads to find the time to curate readings and select texts, how valuable textbooks (as opposed to a menu of primary articles and other readings) can be for students who are struggling to see the big picture, and how much effort and thought goes into designing a textbook. We also had an interesting detour into students’ reading habits and the value of books that aren’t online. Panelists were Nina Brown, Anthony Balzano, Evin Rodkey, Ryan Anderson (who I’ve “known” online for years but hadn’t actually met) and Anne Brackenbury, who provided a valuable publisher’s perspective. Katie Nelson was our discussant and general cat-herder. I promised to share my remarks, so here they are.

The description of this roundtable discussion – how do we curate and evaluate open access materials in teaching situations? – reminds me of the near panic some teachers were in as students began to use the web. They suddenly wanted sessions on how to evaluate online sources even thought they were perfectly used to students using out-of-date books or poorly-chosen articles. The questions asked of a website are no different than those one should ask of a book or a journal article. The problem was that faculty were so used to judging books and articles, the filters they had in place to sort out options had become automatic, deeply embedded tacit knowledge. When confronted with a website, they were nearly as lost as their students were when confronted with a shelf of books in the library. What do we look for? How do we know what’s good?

Curation is not native to the Web, nor is evaluation only difficult with open resources. Library shelves have lots of out-of-date books on them; our databases are full of third-rate journals and worse – because in addition to our prejudice that something is good if it’s expensive, we also have been persuaded that the more consumer choice we can offer, the better. This makes both publishers and vendors fill library databases with stuff that has little value.

Let me give you a couple of egregious examples. For years, a general database that is available in most academic libraries included two white supremacist journals: Mankind Quarterly, founded to publish articles that would scientifically prove the biological superiority of the white race, and American Renaissance, which is far less subtle about its neo-Nazi and white nationalist mission. These were included because one thing librarians ask for from databases is more full text content. They finally were removed from the database, but it took effort, and some librarians accused those of us who wanted them removed of censorship. An additional irony: American Renaissance is free online. Students who found those articles on their website would be far more likely to see those articles in a context that would help them grasp what they’re looking at, whereas in a library databases, the articles are mixed in with others and it’s harder to see where a particular article originated.

Here’s the thing: The virtues of academic publishing don’t depend on a particular revenue model. Equating quality with exclusivity betrays what is perhaps the most important of academic publishing values: advancing knowledge for the public good. If your model depends on ensuring that only the most privileged will have access to what you publish, that’s an automatic fail.

It’s important for students to understand why good research can be useful. It’s not because peer reviewed research is better than any other kind of research, or that articles dressed a certain way are more true than articles that aren’t, but that academic research is driven by values that matter. Researchers ask genuine questions without knowing the answer in advance. They gather evidence ethically. They weigh alternative interpretations. When they make their findings public, they let readers know how they arrived at their conclusions. They also explain how their work builds on others’ efforts to understand this world, and they make all of this public so that others can build on it. This is collective action for the public good.

The scholarly record documents an ongoing conversation, one that we invite students to join. By issuing this invitation and asking them not just to consume research, but to reflect on it, apply it to other situations, and even contribute their own original research to the conversation, we are giving them agency and suggesting that research isn’t just a thing you do for school, it’s a lifelong disposition to inquire and a set of cognitive practices that can help us make up our minds, solve problems, and act on the world we’re in.

When we treat research as a commodity that we judge based on its price and branding, we obscure the real value of research and we position students as mere consumers. Worse yet, when we suggest that a particular business model – one that gives five corporations that make obscene profits legal control over 70 percent of social science research – we are complicit in making knowledge a luxury good that is deliberately withheld from the public for reasons of exclusivity, prestige, and profit. We are participating in a system that increases tuition costs to students while guaranteeing they won’t be able to consult the research we told them was important as soon as they stop paying tuition. This is wrong.

So what do we do? Here are some thoughts.

  • Help students see what makes research good or not so good by looking at actual content, not by training them to recognize brands or to check the “peer-reviewed” box in library databases.
  • Don’t say “this would be a good journal for your paper.” Explain what a journal is – the ongoing record of conversations among a specific group of people asking a certain kind of question.
  • Don’t say “you must use peer-reviewed sources from scholarly journals.” Explain why, in a particular context, peer-reviewed research is preferred over other kinds of sources. But first, make sure it’s true. Sometimes an investigative journalist has done research that’s highly ethical and may be more helpful than the peer reviewed research available on the same subject.
  • Don’t say “use library resources, not stuff you find on the web.” You’re not preparing students for the world into which they will graduate.
  • Don’t pretend that research matters and then hide your own research in journals whose business model promotes injustice and public ignorance. Your students won’t have access to your research unless you take steps to make it accessible. Luckily, that is increasingly possible.
  • Don’t despair. Asking students to do research is a valuable learning experience. If we clear away the clutter of our tacit knowledge and think about why research matters for our students – and for the world – we can design authentic experiences that help them develop intellectual muscle that will serve them after they graduate. Work with them to frame questions that matter to them and help them query the things they encounter as they explore answers, and help them recognize quality research design and ethical argument. And be comforted that good research will be accessible to them – because so much more of it will be open in future.
  • Finally, think about how an open access journal like Cultural Anthropology could be used as a textbook for understanding the conversation of the field. The websites has not only the journal and its articles, which is great, but a variety of types of texts: Hot Spots and Dispatches and podcasts and so on. [At the conference, I also learned about Sapiens, which also presents anthropology research in a timely, accessible format.] Together they present a much richer conversation than what you find by searching for articles by topic using a library database. It seems to me to be proof that open access isn’t the problem, it’s the solution.

Something a student told me stuck with me. She was struggling a bit to keep up with all the assigned reading and felt in some ways unprepared, but she talked about why she loved anthropology. “I took Cultural Anthropology my first semester … it’s really interesting that there’s so many theories and it makes so much sense sometimes. It amazes me how much sense it makes.” Learning about anthropology made a deep connection for her. If it matters, and she thinks it does, then we shouldn’t lock that knowledge away.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.