In trying to capture the essence of this post, I am finding myself stuck in what it’s not. It’s not another set of predictions about how the world will change post-pandemic (I’m sure you’re as tired of those prognostications as I am). Nor is it simply a case for a shared, open future or an argument for the deep, systemic changes needed in our society and organizations (though it is both of those too).

Forced to slow down and stay in one place, 2020 has been a year of deep reflection for me. Both personally and professionally, I’ve been privileged and lucky. I can comfortably work from home, my organization has proven itself to be creative and resilient, and my close circle of family and friends are all doing fairly well. At the same time, there have been many moments when events have pierced that bubble of security and I’ve felt wrong-footed, uncomfortable, frustrated, angry, guilty and deeply saddened. As I reflect on the work PLOS and many other scholarly communication organizations are doing to address the current racial reckoning, I’ve come to the same conclusion both personal and professional: it’s not enough.

But even if we do all of the right things within our organizations, it’s not enough. We need to deliver a fundamental shift in the way we work internally and with all of our stakeholders in response to a watershed moment. It’s about strategy as much as it is our people policies.

Today’s challenges reach far beyond discrimination and marginalization in the workplace. Yes, we are far more aware of the weight of systemic injustice and racism borne by our coworkers of color. But even if we do all of the right things within our organizations, it’s not enough. We need to deliver a fundamental shift in the way we work internally and with all of our stakeholders in response to a watershed moment. It’s about strategy as much as it is our people policies. We have to grapple with the reality that the racism and inequality we are collectively calling out has been going on for centuries. And that our organizations have played a role in perpetuating it.

Young Sprout Grow In Dirt With Sun

Beyond DEI

Following the killing of George Floyd by police, I deliberately chose not to make a public statement on behalf of PLOS, limiting myself instead to internal conversations. That’s partly because I didn’t feel that my voice needed to be foregrounded and partly because I felt personally somewhat out of my depth. I know what it feels like to be marginalized as a professional woman, to be talked over or down to, to have someone less knowledgeable than me given the floor and yes, to experience sexual harassment (all topics I have written on before). But I have no lived experience of the incredible burden of racial inequity. In fact, my life has been extraordinarily privileged from that perspective.

(A quick detour here to acknowledge that race and gender are deeply connected. It’s important to recognize the negative impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on women of color in particular. Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees – for example, only 58 Black women were promoted to manager level for every 100 men. And now theses same marginalized communities are dealing with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and the emotional toll of racial violence.)

Knowing something about the science of implicit bias, I’m skeptical when yet another organization gets caught out in the way Starbucks was, and then “solves” the problem with organization-wide implicit bias training. Diversity training has borne far too much of the burden of addressing inequality at work. Research even shows that typical diversity training programs not only fail to promote diversity but can also backfire, creating a blame culture and even reducing diversity.

I am very lucky to have a Chief People Officer with a deep background of DEI programmatic leadership in the profit, nonprofit and public education sectors. She has led an approach that is wary of “diversity and inclusion” which tend to focus on numeric and immediate environment factors that are detached from the complex systems that produce inequity. Our emphasis at PLOS on “equity” represents a deeper exploration of how micro-interactions and macro-systems perpetuate the marginalization of underrepresented groups, with the underlying belief that until we understand and interrupt root causes of inequity, equitable outcomes will be impossible.

Equity is fundamental to strategy

While open access is a critical piece of the equity puzzle in scholarly communication, there’s a much deeper agenda at play here. PLOS has from the outset been focused on designing broad-scale systemic change. More recently, we have been clear about the limit and barriers of the APC model and have begun to pilot alternatives, including our new Community Action Publishing model. But we have largely left to one side any deep engagement with our role (individually and organizationally) in perpetuating inequity. Like far too many, we’d assumed that passive support was enough. Understanding what it means to be “anti-racist” is now the cornerstone of PLOS’ DEI work and has supported increased clarity around our long-term strategic direction.

It’s now been 50 years since the publication of Milton Friedman’s seminal essay on the social responsibility of businesses: to maximize profit. Massive technological, social, economic and geopolitical change have dramatically changed the ways in which we think about managing organizations, as well as their value and role in society. But the obsession with maximizing profit has heavily contributed to economic, racial and health inequalities. It’s not surprising that an increasing number are losing faith that the current system can deliver the equal, inclusive, sustainable future they want.

What does this mean for our organizations as we look to the future – is it enough for us to pledge to equity and diversity in our organizations and a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders? I think not. The current system of scholarly communication was created by the Global North and for the Global North. Not surprisingly, this has created deep inequities that reflect historic power structures. Unless we examine our part in this, we are not doing enough. We need to act to permanently and fundamentally disrupt the status quo.

There are many barriers to equitable knowledge making and distribution – one of which is the APC model. As I’ve argued before, the current push towards Gold OA via so-called “transformative” agreements risks hardwiring the exclusion of many researchers, especially in the Global South. Far from being “transformative”, these deals run the risk of locking in the high cost of subscriptions into an open future and of reinforcing the market dominance of the biggest players as subscription funds simply flow in full to new deal models, further entrenching existing inequalities.

A central goal of open access has always been to make access to research more equitable and democratic, but from our current vantage point it’s clear that we need to expand our vision and objectives. The UK government has just published study undertaken by INASP to understand the challenges and opportunities that OA presents to low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). While LMIC stakeholders believe that they clearly benefit from OA – particularly with regard to access – the picture that emerges is significantly more complicated. In particular, a conflict emerges between a desire to strengthen local platforms and outlets that better serve local needs and feeling pulled to “play the game” in which norms have been set by the Global North. Many of these challenges are driven by the need to achieve credibility and visibility within the global research system – one in which LMIC researchers are significantly disadvantaged by prevailing metrics. Leslie Chan has also written about the challenges for research in the Global South when it has to be certified by standards set in the Global North, often with commercial interests embedded:

“The implicit message is that research from the South has to mimic that from the North, even if it means abandoning research that would contribute to local well-being, while favouring research with international appeal, which means finding readers in journals published in the North.” 

While the disadvantages are very real for the Global South, the fact is that the current system isn’t a level playing field for anyone. As Catriona MacCullum of Hindawi noted on this blog last week:

“These biases favor men over women and the old guard over the young or stack the deck in your favor if you are white, or straight, or from the ‘right club’… If you’re not published in the right journal or trained at the right institute or come from the right region, you have many more hurdles to overcome than those that do fit the ‘required’ but often unspoken phenotype.”

And while I personally believe that open research is an essential tool in addressing these challenges, I also think that there’s a requirement for us to examine more deeply the ways in which we as publishers – inadvertently or otherwise – perpetuate this dynamic.

Michael Porter and Mark Kramer introduced the notion of creating shared value nearly a decade ago, noting the importance for organizations of not only advancing their own competitiveness but also advancing the economic and social conditions of the communities in which they operate. More recently, there’s been an explosion of interest in purpose-driven organizations to create deeper connections with customers, do more for the communities with which they work, attract and retain talent, and in the process, to achieve greater results and impact. But this somewhat transactional approach misses the enormity of this moment.

As we seek to grapple with this at PLOS, we’ve centered a deep dive into the concept of what it means to be community-centered in our strategic planning over recent months. It’s a phase that we, like many publishers, have tossed around frequently without too much thought. Our future strategy is firmly rooted in building partners and allies for open science around the world to expand and deepen our impact. Our first steps will be to spread our roots deeper; taking advantage of our infrastructure to listen and test. Our approach to global is most definitely not the academic imperialist model of the past but centered on listening, learning and building together. Perhaps most critically, it’s an embrace of the notion that strategy and business models cannot be separated from our strive for equity.

Back in April – which now feels like a lifetime ago – I was moved when reading Arundhati Roy’s piece The Pandemic is a Portal about the impact of the pandemic in India. Towards the end, she notes that “…in the midst of this terrible despair, [this moment] offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.” Written well before the killing of George Floyd and its repercussions, Roy nonetheless brings into sharp relief the inequity and brokenness of our systems.

This is a watershed moment. It’s not simply about fully open research, more work from home, less travel, diversifying our editorial boards and reviewers, a commitment to DEI or an embrace of our global communities (although it is also all of these things). For me and now for PLOS, this is a very intentional embrace of a moment of transformation, one that focuses on building a more just, equitable and resilient system. As Roy concludes, “nothing could be worse than a return to normality”. For scholarly communication as elsewhere, this has to mean a shift in power, a recognition that communities are the best designers of their own future.

As 2020 winds towards a close, I find myself increasingly energized by our individual and collective opportunity if we are prepared to step up to the challenge. I acknowledge both the privilege and responsibility I have to do so and am committed to leaning into the uncertainty and discomfort that will be required. But action by one or even a few individuals or organizations isn’t enough – this work requires more resources, energy and creativity than any of us can deliver. How many of us are willing?

With thanks to my two PLOS colleagues, Bekah Darksmith and Sara Rouhi, for their thoughtful reading and suggestions.

Alison Mudditt

Alison Mudditt

Alison Mudditt joined PLOS as CEO in 2017, having previously served as Director of the University of California Press and Executive Vice President at SAGE Publications. Her 30 years in publishing also include leadership positions at Blackwell and Taylor & Francis. Alison also serves on the Board of Directors of SSP and the Center for Open Science.

Discussion

18 Thoughts on "In Search of Equity and Justice: Reimagining Scholarly Communication"

Thanks Alison, for an excellent and thoughtful post, I know a number of people have similar views and ideas to make a difference, I truly hope we’ll be able to coordinate, discuss and align as an industry and ecosystem to make a real difference. Personally having lived and worked in Asia for a number of years, you do get a real sense of differences and strengths in local markets. I look forward to talking more together.

Great piece. thanks!

Perhaps time to take a second look at the faces in the right gutter on every page in TSK? For example, should your only non-human avatar be a white, male puppet who may not be particularly appreciated by the folks from the puppet’s purported country of origin?

#OpenAccessIsSocialJustice

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for raising this concern. We’ve been using that avatar from a children’s show for around 5 years and yours is the first complaint raised about it. We all have our own internal biases and blindspots, and communication is really important in helping us all learn to be more respectful of one another. I’ve now changed it to a generic chef’s hat image and apologize for any offense that we may have caused.

Alison wrote: ” It’s not another set of predictions about how the world will change post-pandemic (I’m sure you’re as tired of those prognostications as I am).” I am not sure how this aside fits into the rest of the post, but I wouldn’t be so dismissive. Trying to anticipate what the future holds is the primary responsibility for the leaders of any organization. The present is the future calculated with a discount.

Fair point, Joe, and my intent here wasn’t to be dismissive of trying to understand how the pandemic or any of the major events of 2020 will impact our businesses. It was rather to indicate my own tiredness with the overwhelming number of (in my view) fairly unimaginative articles starting with something like “10 things that will change after the pandemic”.

Very Nice and Bold Writing But I like the Concluding Sentence – Action by one or even a few individuals or organizations isn’t enough – this work requires more resources, energy and creativity than any of us can deliver. How many of us are willing?

Thanks Alison. The deep change you talk of is long overdue. Let’s not waste this crisis.

I was interested particularly in this phrase and wondered if you could share any examples of interrupting the base inequity from an organisational perspective?

“Our emphasis at PLOS on “equity” represents a deeper exploration of how micro-interactions and macro-systems perpetuate the marginalization of underrepresented groups, with the underlying belief that until we understand and interrupt root causes of inequity, equitable outcomes will be impossible.”

Hi Alison. I think you’re asking the right question. But most people “answer” it all wrong. Our tendencies, at least in this space, are to coalesce around like-minded individuals and push for change that fits our narrative of the world. “Clearly the commercial publishers and their high prices are to blame,” leads to policy approaches that seek to vilify and marginalize commercial publishers. “There’s a moral imperative for research information to be free and immediate” leads to policy approaches that don’t consider the full spectrum of concerns and possible solutions. “Open access is about social justice” denies the reality that there are different motives and incentives behind open, many which have nothing whatsoever to do with justice. In order to “answer” your question the right way, I think we first need to embrace and appreciate that there is a great deal of diversity in this space, and trust that the best way we can help improve the world through open access is to first find common ground amongst ourselves so we work together more effectively on the important challenges ahead.

Glenn, I think that’s a great point and my intent here wasn’t to point to any single outcome – or even pathway – as the right one. My hope is rather that our organizations will start asking themselves the right questions – the deeper, harder ones. If we’re serious about equity and justice, we have to be willing to put everything on the table, and not simply to sweep it all under a veneer of “diversity” training. That means understanding that strategy and business models are part of this work – although, as you say, this doesn’t mean that the solution can or should be the same across the board.

Excellent post Alison! You’re right that the changes that are needed are on many levels and we shouldn’t think there are quick fixes. We need to start making changes on all the levels you outline – organizational DEI policies, in our publishing, and in our community engagement. While no one step is sufficient, each is moving us in the right direction. I appreciate your note of caution that it will require resources, effort and creativity, and your rallying cry to make this happen.

I appreciate this post very much and hope it filters up to the top at my organization and all others. Great writing and impressive content!

Hi Allison,
Apologies but the article wasn’t fully clear to me.
I understood some parts but, others, I had to read them a few times to try to read between the lines.
Honestly, in some paragraphs, I come across statements or assumptions that need being called out for clarification or debate.
Not because they are false, but because they serve to build a bridge to a later conclusion which is not directly related.
Like in this case:
“But the obsession with maximizing profit has heavily contributed to economic, racial and health inequalities. It’s not surprising that an increasing number are losing faith that the current system can deliver the equal, inclusive, sustainable future they want.”
Where you got this from, or is a personal opinion? What do we mean by “the current system that delivers an equal future”? Is it meant to say equal opportunities or equal outcomes?
I am simply confused after reading this post.
Obviously agree with the conclusion and the initiative but not with the explanation behind it
PS: for diversity, we could start by looking at the right hand picture of SK chefs (all top players in their own league) and recognizing there’s an opportunity to improve on diversity in that front too.
Warm regards.

Hi Paolo,

We’ve discussed our own efforts to improve diversity among our regular bloggers elsewhere (will try to dig out the specific post), but to summarize:
Yes please, we would love to add more regular bloggers from different backgrounds, geographies, etc. It is difficult to do for many reasons — first, blogging is something that only a small portion of the world’s population enjoys doing, so that reduces our overall pool significantly. Further, we want bloggers who will voice opinions and analyze issues, and that probably limits us to authors who are in a position of privilege, and have a relative level of career safety where they don’t have to fear upsetting anyone.

One way we’ve been working around these issues is through our guest posts (already at 50 posts for this year!), where we’ve brought in a much better mix of authors from different ethnicities, orientations, professional positions, and geographies (full list of guest authors here: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/chefs/guest-authors/). With that, we also offer guest authors the ability to do anonymous posts if they have concerns about potential backlash against raising their voices.

But we can always do better, and continue our efforts to do so.

Hi Pablo, apologies that you’re finding this difficult to follow! Let me at least try to clarify your one example. As with any SK post, there’s much in here that is opinion but I have also provided a number of links that provide support for many of the specific claims here. But my specific assertion that the focus on maximizing shareholder value has deepened inequality can be seen in a whole range of data. It’s that focus – particularly dominant in American capitalism – that more people are questioning.

Thank you for these words, “But I have no lived experience of the incredible burden of racial inequity. In fact, my life has been extraordinarily privileged from that perspective”. I feel the same, and as such, feel so inadequate to lead these discussions or suggest a change. Your words inspired me to look more closely at the things I have not seen, or not experienced from a new perspective. We have a lot of listening to do to hear about another person’s cultural pain. However, it is so important to realize how hard this work will be. We can never revert to what we thought of as normal –
Thank you

Hi Kathy, glad this was helpful! In addition to listening, I’ve been an avid reader of a wide range of different books that have helped me understand something of other’s perspective and pain, but also the historical context (just finished – and highly recommend – John Lewis’s autobiography, Walking in the Wind). And even if we sometimes get it wrong – which we will – I’ve also understood why we have to be willing to stand up and not ask marginalized communities to bear the burden of leading this change.

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