Like Joseph, Martin, and the innumerable brothers and sisters living in the shadows of our nation, I’m a dreamer. Even though prevailing winds seem charged with uncertainty, I remain grounded in my hope for change. If 2020 was supposed to be a year of vision, let’s make 2021 our year of action.
I’m a proud black man, steeped in Ethiopian heritage — with its weighty pentatonic music, incense-filled coffee ceremonies, exuberant holidays, and spicy food. My culture and consciousness of the BIPOC struggle helps me appreciate values like determination, diversity, hospitality, collective responsibility, and faith. These values prompted my exploration of how our profession (scholarly communications) addresses societal issues, particularly rising inequality.
Let me begin by saying we owe a debt of gratitude to The Scholarly Kitchen Chefs — both regular contributors and guest writers — for paving the road ahead with words of solidarity throughout 2020, as well as the catalyzing behind-the-scenes work of the C4DISC. We all have the opportunity to help effect change and, during this time, I have been contemplating what participation would look like for me. I kept asking myself: What more can I add? Will the desired change ever come? Or in the words of Solomon:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
But eventually, the Preacher’s words came full circle for me:
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Right, wrong, or somewhere between, I decided to add my voice to the conversation.
We Make Great Declarations
Like a choir singing in unison, we (scholarly communication professionals) resolutely lift our voices in support of advancing knowledge (enlightenment) for the benefit of humanity. And you can count me in! But remove the rosy lens for a second and consider how we measure the “for the benefit of humanity” part. One indicator that I explore throughout this self-reflection — global inequality — has gotten worse over time despite scientific advancements. We broadly discuss access; however, more open access (OA) publications or transformative agreements won’t solve humanity’s most pressing problems if living in a world society stricken by poverty and privilege remains the status quo. As Thoreau summarized, we have an “Improved means to an unimproved end”. In the US, for example, a crisis of healthcare disparities persists despite tremendous advances in biomedical research (see here and here). Interestingly, this troubling trend of growing income inequality is prominent in the very countries that produce the most scientific and engineering publications (e.g., China, the USA, and India) and those with high publication growth rates like Russia.
Publication Output, by Region, Country, or Economy
If we recognize the importance of bridging science and society, let’s then consider how our industry can be a conduit for socio-economic improvement. We might not solve “the world’s problems” alone, but we can spend more time thinking about the gaps between the economically privileged and the precarious. We can put more energy into developing a shared understanding of impact (in terms of societal transformation) and commit ourselves to support practical solutions. We must realize that, in addition to the growing inequality crisis, there’s a widening chasm of values coupled with a barrage of misinformation campaigns, which together allow little room for humanity to stand together. For times like this, we need more than declarations.
Recall how the scientific community, fundamentally supported by our scholarly communications industry, articulated climate change as an existential threat. The urgency of the climate issue transformed politics and inspired the next generation (Greta Thunberg is one such example). The scholarly community’s response to the Trump administration’s handling of COVID-19 was unequivocal and unprecedented. When Plan S was first announced, researchers, societies, and publishers galvanized to petition government and institutions, resulting in changes to the implementation guidance (and hesitancy by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to adopt). Are we acting with similar urgency to ensure our industry’s footprint on inequality is a net positive?
To drive real change, we need unity in values and action. Otherwise, reason can be ignored, forgotten, or superseded by bigotry and greed.
As we move through this year, I challenge us to look at our organization taglines, strategic plans, budgets, and values statements and to exercise healthy debate about who benefits from advances in science and scholarship. Then consider what concrete steps we should take to offer equitable improvements more holistically.
Ideas for Addressing Disparities
We live and work in a digital economy, with digital objects that aren’t limited by geographic borders, class, gender, or race. So let’s not limit ourselves either. We shouldn’t expect governments alone to solve issues where we, as a community, can and should play a pivotal role. That said, there are some good government-led initiatives that we can learn from. For example, I support using the recently announced bipartisan Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth as a model to emulate within our industry, perhaps as a formal part of existing structures like C4DISC.
Such a committee/program could support and report on activities within our industry. It could:
- Organize capacity-building workshops for underrepresented communities working in the knowledge creation and preservation space. Budget pro bono hours to assist underrepresented communities with grant writing, business development, and expanding partnerships with educators
- Galvanize funders, publishers, and open infrastructure partners to expand language support for OA articles, preprints, datasets, and metadata. DOAJ could also play a key role in advancing language support by including language support elements in their indexing requirements
- Masakhane, (isiZulu for: “We build together”) is an example of a grassroots community working to advance natural language processing research in African languages. Groups like this can be pivotal partners in terms of improving automated, machine-based translations (in addition to building tools with research applications in medicine, science, engineering, education, and government)
- Embrace pay transparency practices – reports show pay gap reductions as a result
- Divert a portion of travel funds freed up by virtual meetings and invest in learned publishing programs that empower underrepresented communities (e.g., AfricArXiv, IndiaRxiv, RINarxiv, redalryc/Amelica). And/or support projects that address other urgent needs like sex trafficking, access to clean water, food security, and education
Having the Courage to Act
When all is said and done, ideas and values without action are just vanity. My desire in writing this post is to inspire the courage to act, both individually and collectively. The Black Writers’ Guild demand for change in publishing in the UK in response to the tragic murder of George Floyd was courageous, as was Timnit Gebru’s fight against bias in Google’s AI program, and their employees’ subsequent decision to unionize in response to her retaliatory termination. These events and more inspire me to make 2021 my own personal year of action.
What inspires you? Are there actionable ideas for reversing disparities that we should embrace? Please feel free to share them here!
When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men… Science has provided us with adequate means of survival and transportation, which make it possible to enjoy the fullness of this great earth. The question now is, do we have the morality and courage required to live together as brothers and not be afraid?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community