It Is Not Only a Matter of Publishing: The Issue of Access

The power geometries in academic publishing are not only dependent on ‘immaterial’ factors such as language, discourse, academic power, and cultural traditions, but also on ‘material’ access to scientific knowledge and, most notably, to academic journals. Thus, even if we would be able to challenge the Anglo-American hegemony with respect to language and the shaping of a more truly international discipline, we would still have to resolve the issue of access.

Some journals have already taken steps in this direction by making their full contents available on the Internet without charging readers for downloading papers. Assuming a scholar has access to the Internet (and preferably through a fast connection), this is a large improvement. Recently, human geography has witnessed the establishment of independent, freely accessible academic journals. These journals seek to disrupt Anglo-American hegemony in international academic publishing not only by adopting a policy of free electronic accessibility, but also by explicitly opening up these journals to non native speakers and by taking a ‘critical’ stance in publishing and refereeing procedures. In doing so, these outlets show their awareness of the intimate relationship between issues of ‘material access’ to scientific knowledge and more immaterial factors related to the production of discourse in academic work. Yet, to break down the geographical disparities in access to journal more steps need to be taken, starting from already existing journals, in order to make them more easily accessible to scholars, especially to those working in less favored countries and regions. The debate that has developed around the issue of ‘open access’ can be illustrative in this regard.

As a point of departure, contributors to this debate generally recognize the fact that it is nearly impossible for a library to carry subscriptions to every single journal that ‘may’ be relevant. The Internet has in some ways been a liberating development in this regard, but in most cases it has not solved the crucial issue that withholds access: money. With some exceptions, such as the newly established PLoS Biology, the most successful journals have been well established publications that switched from exclusively hard copy formats to online access. Furthermore, while Internet access does not solve the accessibility problem for everyone, and certainly not in an equal way, as access to computers and the Internet can be a serious problem in some countries, the Internet seems to provide better opportunities for access than printed formats, especially when electronic access is free.

An ‘open access’ strategy would undoubtedly have beneficial effects on the community of scholars and other science practitioners, considering the fact that freely accessible articles are downloaded and cited two to six times more often than those that require subscription (as both Lawrence, and Harnad and Brody have demonstrated) because they attract new readers, increase usage, maximize impact, and speed up scientific progress. There is also a more ethical reason for charging authors or persuading publishers to provide free access: most research is publicly funded and should thus be accessible, while dissemination, which is increasingly seen as an integral part of a research project, should be included in research costs. In short, the debate on access to academic journals shows how the goal of internationalizing human geography must take into account the issue of access: access is not a sufficient condition for scientific progress, citation, or geographically equal opportunities, but it is a necessary one. Currently a (r)evolution is taking place in scholarly communication and it seems that most human geographers are not in the forefront of these changes that would benefit them both as writers and as readers of academic papers.