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.
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.