Libraries and Learning

Sharing and Attention in the Academic Gig Economy

June 17, 2019

It struck me today that there is a parallel between the way Big Entertainment appears to have abandoned its attempt to extend copyright terms yet again and the way Big Academic Publishing is beginning to learn how to stop worrying and love open access.

As you may recall, in 1998, Congress rolled the public domain back with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, often called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act because Disney was particularly worried about its signature rodent graduating from their limited copyright mouse monopoly. Instead of the 14-year, once renewable, monopoly granted creators specified in the Constitution, it had been extended multiple times to finally reach 70 years after the death of the author (or 95 years for works owned by a corporation). The mouse is approaching liberation again, but Disney isn’t likely to reboot its lobbying efforts for at least two reasons: it would be massively unpopular with a much more organized public and it turns out letting people remix culture is good for business. Free marketing! Besides, it’s hard to go after everyone who takes inspiration from pop culture in a world of ambient social media.

Today, Big Academic Publishing seems to have grudgingly accepted the inevitability of open access and has been developing new business models to preserve their profits, by publishing large volumes of open access articles and launching new OA journals funded by author-side fees and by creating workflow infrastructures that will provide publishers with fees and data. Defending toll-access publishing has proven increasingly unpopular with the authors they depend on, funders are increasingly insisting on public access to research results, and it turns out making research sharable is good for business – not just for publishers, who want content they can publish for a fee and plenty of marketing, but for authors living in a world where sharing is the natural state of things. Everyone wants to be an influencer these days.

I am an open access advocate, and have been for years, but I’m worried about the idea of sharing knowledge being reframed around the assumptions of that problematic euphemism, the “sharing economy.” Isn’t it great to share your guest bedroom with strangers or pick up people who need a ride in your own car? Yeah, but it turns out that kind of sharing, at vast scale and without regulation, worker protections, or any kind of public planning input causes a lot of problems.

Of course publishing has never been a purely altruistic practice of making research public. Authors who signed away their copyright depended on getting prestige and CV lines in exchange. Now with sharing there are even more rewards in the form of influence metrics – not just times cited but downloads, retweets, and other measurable forms of attention.

Making research findings available to anyone with an internet connection is certainly an improvement over limited access. But if we embrace a vision of open access based on more and more production from an increasingly precarious academic labor force, still vastly controlled by the same five mega-corporations as before, I’m not sure we are advancing knowledge so much as we’re advancing a weird combination of the “sharing economy” and the “attention economy” – leaving little time to actually keep up or slow down and think. The academic attention-sharing economy has something in common with driving for Uber, which quite possibly is something some precarious academics do to make ends meet as productivity quotas go up and steady jobs give way to the gig economy.


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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.