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I made an off-handed comment on my Facebook page last night:

Protip: If your book is not available in “preview” through Google Books search, i’m not going to read it, cite it, or make any effort what-so-ever to get my hands on it. My (oh-so-21st century brain’s) ability to care to make a Huge Effort to hunt down your book (that only accidentally came up through a vague Google search) is rather slim. I reserve Great Effort for the people i already understand to be Awesome.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Also, to the volume editors who upload (or refuse to take down) their works on public “borrowing” sites – je t’aime! (You know who you are)

The usual academics chimed in, “Hear, hear!” and the like. Those of us living at poverty level while completing a degree, or even after having completed the degree but attempting to get careers going (e.g., adjuncts), struggle to keep up with all of the things we are dying to read. The University of Washington Library is amazing (and the librarians are even more amazing) but i have, on more than one occasion, been in a silent tussle with an invisible person who has continually recalled a book when i borrow it (i’ve been known to leave notes in the book for the person who won’t let me use it for more than day – or worse, i’ve purposefully accumulated massive fines, just out of sheer stubbornness – i may as well have just bought the book, really). And massive cuts in the past five years has meant that there are fewer copies of the books that we need (and fewer subscriptions to the journals). But one academic colleague chimed in with Scott Turow’s article, The Death of the American Author. For her, it was a turning point in her thinking about copyright law, and what did i think? My response became entirely too long for Facebook:

1. Scott Turow is a novelist, the head of the Author’s Guild, and a lawyer, and his argument is arranged from within that frame. There is, in my opinion (and wholly not supported by any evidence), quite a difference between trying to have a look at academic books vs. novels (which, although the author mentions the push by academics to loosen copyright laws – it’s clearly not his focus as he doesn’t actually address what academics’ true issues are, but rather, makes a wholesale dismissal of the movement). Academic work is dependent on a vast accumulation of knowledge, keeping up with the latest works, knowing the breadth of the field. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good or bad thing that we now have so much available at our fingertips, but it certainly has changed processes of knowledge production.

I recently came across a conversation online. Someone had alerted an academic (someone whose work i enjoy) that his book was on a pirate site. His response? Oh good – i’m glad people are reading it. The publisher had insisted the book be published in hard back, and then after only a certain number of copies were sold, would it be printed in paper back. Academic authors have very little (if any) negotiating power over the price of published works (whether articles or books). At its most base, the question, could be said to be, which do we work for? Money or the production and dissemination of knowledge? Clearly, it’s much more complicated than that. But i have spoken to more than one academic who was crestfallen by the out-of-reach price of his or her book.

2. Studies have continually shown that when people have access to books (and music) online or from libraries, they are more likely to buy the products. I can speak for myself in the many (MANY) moments i have been so excited about a borrowed book, or so desperate to finish the chapter that Google Books cut off (for having seen “too many pages”) that i quickly bought it. I don’t know how this evens out across academic work, more generally, however. For instance, for people who don’t have access to journals and cant afford to get through the pay wall – what happens? We receive requests for access to academic articles through listservs regularly. They are from students as much as from professors. Many of them from the Global South, others from small (less wealthy, less elite) colleges in the Global North. That so much academic work is paid for by research grants, too, leads to the question, who is really paying? And i have found some amazing (as-yet-unpublished) dissertations that i wouldn’t have found at any other time. However, the forced online publication of dissertations by universities poses yet another question.

I think the difficulty with this article, as i see it, is that he is approaching the question from within the law – a system that has continually reduced our relationships with each other through codified systems. The law does not make room for the more interesting questions of relationality, not just between each other, but also between individuals’ and others’ works. In his rubric, there is a “good” and a “bad” that is already pre-scripted within the discussion. As i have tried to think through just a tiny fraction of the many questions that have been raised in academia, alone (and the only area i feel i can actually comment with any semblance of understanding), i am left wondering about others’ responses to this article.

The American Library Association responded, miffed at his dismissal of libraries. This article, in the Guardian gives an interesting take on not only the article, but also  other authors’ responses. And Mike Masnick at Techdirt gives a blow-by-blow fact check to the article. And then, not a direct response, but an overall other-side-of-the-argument… there is Cory Doctorow, of whom i have accidentally become a fan.

And finally, at the moment, i have very little skin in the game. My (and a colleague’s) first book proposal is in review. When we were solicited, our first question was: how do we keep the price low? We were told by our committees that it simply was not anything we had a say in. That was devastating for both of us, as we are firm believers in public access to academic work. Will i feel differently later in life when (if) i am published? Academia was never, for me, about making money. It has been the sheer joy of the pursuit of learning, of sharing that learning with students and the people in my life. I am giddy with the thought that i have the privilege to join a conversation that has been in the making for 1000’s of years, made giddier by the prospect that there are so many trying to open the doors, to make learning less of a privilege and more of a right. I realize my optimism is early – the rising costs of education, the soaring student debt, the reproduction of elitism through institutions all constitute problems of the present. I also realize that my Pollyanna optimism and commitment is precisely one of the reasons that academia has gotten to where it has today. But i always have hope.