Social Justice and the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Research Agenda

Rebecca Kennison

This piece, researched and written by K|N’s Rebecca Kennison, appears as Appendix 1 in this larger work: Association of College and Research Libraries. Open and Equitable Scholarly Communications: Creating a More Inclusive Future. Prepared by Nancy Maron and Rebecca Kennison with Paul Bracke, Nathan Hall, Isaac Gilman, Kara Malenfant, Charlotte Roh, and Yasmeen Shorish. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2019.

What is social justice? It is fairness, justness, and equity in behavior and treatment, specifically in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges. Where diversity and inclusion are about groups, social justice is about systems (Mathuews, 2016).

Putting aside for the moment the sometimes contested terminology of “diversity” and “inclusion” (e.g., Who is being diversified? Is “inclusion” code for white-centricity?), the concepts have deep resonance within the library community (Semenza et al., 2017). As our survey revealed, while other forms of social justice were not considered as crucial, diversity and inclusion received a resounding response: 138 of 365 respondents (37.81%) considered diversity and inclusion an urgent issue, and another 161 (44.11%) considered this issue very important. We saw a similar response on the question of retention and promotion, particularly of underrepresented minorities: 127 out of 365 (34.79%) considered the question urgent, and 138 out of 365 (37.81%) considered it very important. Diversity and inclusion efforts have been organizational priorities for ALA and ARL, among others (see, e.g., American Library Association, 2012; Anaya and Maxey-Harris, 2017; Society of College, National, and University Libraries, 2018). Despite such efforts, much more needs to be done (Swanson et al., 2015; Vinopal, 2016).

As Toni Anaya and Charlene Maxey-Harris (2017) pointed out in the most recent ARL SPEC Kit on diversity and inclusion, both terms cover not only race and ethnicity, but also include “gender, sexual orientation, ability, language, religious belief, national origin, age, and ideas,” yet two pressing personnel issues concern primarily librarians of color. The first issue relates to hiring, retaining, and promoting of librarians of color. Lack of diversity in this area is a problem found in academic libraries of all kinds, as well as across the broader scholarly communications system, including academic publishing. Its roots can be found in a lack of diversity within LIS schools among both faculty and students (see, e.g., Anaya and Maxey-Harris, 2017; Kim and Sin, 2008; Subramaniam and Jaeger, 2010). Specific strategies, such as diversity scholarships and resident librarian programs, have been uneven in their success unless coupled with training and opportunities to advance (see, e.g., Anaya and Maxey-Harris, 2017; Fontenot, 2010; Freeman, 2014; Hathcock, 2015; Henry et al., 2015; Kumaran, 2015; Lyon et al., 2011; Pickens and Coren, 2017; Schonfeld and Sweeney, 2017). In particular, most academic libraries have not done well in allowing librarians from underrepresented groups to embrace their social identities within their professional lives (Andrews, 2018; Downing, 2009; Puente, 2010). The second concern is the lack of engagement of librarians of color in any kind of research agenda. Research opportunities are often curtailed for scholars of color, and this reality that has not much changed despite decades of diversity efforts (Alabi, 2015; Chou and Pho, 2017; Damasco and Hodges, 2012; Riley-Reid, 2017; Thornton, 2001). These fundamental systemic inequalities must be successfully addressed before academic libraries can become a model for a more open, inclusive, and equitable research and scholarly communications system.

Issues of social justice are not related only to hiring and personnel practices; they touch on each of the areas of the scholarly communications workflow: creation, production, credentialing, sharing, and preservation. It is a broader area than diversity and inclusion or even equity when it comes to race and ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, language and geography, or disability. The concept of social justice covers a broad range of issues, including, for example, the challenges of the global digital divide and information inequality, decolonization, democratization, empowerment and social responsibility, equality, ethics and moral responsibility, fairness, financial opportunities available only to some, the fundamental human right to communicate, intellectual freedom, openness to contributions from participants at all levels of society, the politics of technology, privilege (or lack thereof) of all kinds, the public or common good, the reliance of the entire system on “invisible” labor, transparency and accountability, unbiased policymaking — and so much more.

Not surprisingly, openness of all kinds plays a crucial (and sometimes complicated) role in discussions of social justice. (For a range of views, see Alexander et al., 2016; Baker, 2009; Cohen et al., 2013; Crissinger, 2017; Cruz and Fleming, 2015; Ford, 2017; Gilman, 2015; Glushko and Shoyama, 2015; Heller and Gaede, 2016; Inefuku, 2017; Jones, 2010; Neylon, 2017; Padilla and Steeves, 2018; Peters, 2013; Salaz et al., 2018; Scherlen and Robinson, 2008; Veletsianos and Kimmons, 2012). But, cautions Audrey Watters (2014), “open” can mean almost anything, depending on who is using the word:

Does “open” mean openly licensed content or code? And, again, which license is really “open”? Does “open” mean “made public”? Does “open” mean shared? Does “open” mean “accessible”? Accessible how? To whom? Does “open” mean editable? Negotiable? Does “open” mean “free”? Does “open” mean “open-ended”? Does “open” mean transparent? Does “open” mean “open-minded”? “Open” to new ideas and to intellectual exchange? Open to interpretation? Does “open” mean open to participation—by everyone equally? Open doors? Open opportunity? Open to suggestion? Or does it mean “open for business”?

As Nora Almeida (2017) notes, “Ideologically, openness is intimately tied up with social justice and the assumption that the internet and higher education are in the business of fixing social disparities.” In practicality, however, often those who engage in open scholarship, embedded as it is in an unjust system, are ripe for exploitation. Not all who participate in the commons do so on an equal footing, observe George Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons (2012):

In the case of open scholarship, issues surrounding the provision of MOOCs, use of open access journals, accessibility and use of OER, participation in scholarly networks, and use of social media by diverse audiences will arise and should be a matter of concern for participants when considering who profits from, and can efficiently and practically use, their collaborative or shared work. As a simple example of this issue, while we can advocate that individuals should publish in OA journals or that they should use social media in their professional practice, we must recognize that if we engage professionally with these practices ourselves, our advocacy [as white men] comes from a position of power and we might be better positioned to benefit from these practices than others whose individual circumstances prevent them from fully adopting such practices.

Similarly, Almeida (2017) argues that openness (in all its aspects) is not a magic solution — perhaps far from it. What she says about open educational resources can just as easily be said about other “open” efforts as well: “OER do have value … [but] OER can also lead to the exploitation of knowledge producers, can reinforce a Western-centric perspective that leads to forms of educational colonialism, can confuse autonomy for liberty, and can privilege a neoliberal formulation of education that precludes real social change.” Or, to return to Watters (2014), “What are we going to do when we recognize that ‘open’ is not enough. I hope that we recognize that what we need is social justice. We need politics, not simply a license. We need politics, not simply technology solutions. We need an ethics of care, of justice, not simply assume that ‘open’ does the work of those for us.”

While “openness” plays a large role in all discussions of social justice, concerns about social justice within the research environment and scholarly communications cover all aspects of the scholarly communications workflow and (crucially!) all the people involved in the process, no matter what role they play. Some of the issues raised in the literature, as well as (in various ways) in our focus groups and survey, are these, listed here in alphabetical order:

  • breadth (and limitations) of collections and their impact on knowledge creation and production (Bear, 2014; Ciszek and Young, 2010; de jesus, 2014; Inefuku and Roh, 2016; Mathuews, 2016; Mbembe, 2015; Welburn, 2010);
  • commitment to high ethical standards, understanding that all aspects of scholarly communications affect real people and real lives (Padilla and Steeves, 2018);
  • complications around intellectual property (Almeida, 2017; Association of European Research Libraries, 2014; de jesus, 2014; Lor and Britz, 2005);
  • digital literacy and information literacy as crucial decision-making tools for administrators, faculty, and students to enhance scholarly communications social justice efforts (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2013; Davis-Kahl et al., 2014; Koltay et al., 2015; Ogburn et al., 2018; Roh, 2017; Ryan and Sloniowski, 2013; Sutton, 2013; Swygart-Hobaugh, 2013; Tewell, 2015);
  • discrimination and harassment (online and offline) faced by scholars of color and gender minorities that can adversely affect their publishing practices and subsequent credentialing and curtail their public scholarship (see, e.g., Matthew, 2016);
  • exploitation of knowledge producers and the modes and mechanisms of knowledge production (Almeida, 2017; Duffy and Pooley, 2017; Kansa, 2014);
  • the global digital divide (and other forms of information inequality) placing limitations on the human right to communicate (Baker, 2009; Birdsall, 2011; Inefuku, 2017; Marrall, 2014; Yu, 2011);
  • lack of recognition of and reward mechanisms for what is often “invisible” labor, especially by scholars of color and contingent faculty (Almeida, 2017; de jesus, 2014; Roh et al., 2016);
  • legacy platforms and tools that reinscribe and reinforce bias (Roh, 2018);
  • limitations on equity throughout the entire scholarly communications process that go well beyond access to full participation in the research and publishing process (Czernowicz, 2013; Greco et al., 2016; Library Publishing Coalition, 2018; Raju, 2018; Sondervan and Fitzpatrick, 2018);
  • the need for ample funding for numerous projects, not just those that (for whatever reason) garner attention (Kansa, 2014);
  • the need to abandon the fiction of neutrality while still maintaining objectivity (Baildon et al., 2017; Bourg, 2015; de jesus, 2014; Gilliland, 2011; Jimerson, 2007);
  • the neoliberalism at the heart of the current scholarly communications system, including open access (Baildon et al., 2017; de jesus, 2014; Hathcock, 2016; Kansa, 2014; Kember, 2014; Lawson et al., 2015; Neylon, 2017);
  • the opacity of the role of machines within the system (Alexander et al., 2016; Fleischmann, 2007; Manoff, 2015);
  • the primacy of English (especially “proper” academic English) for determinations of quality, discoverability, citationality, and so on (Inefuku, 2017; Library Publishing Coalition, 2018; Roh, 2018);
  • problematic word choices and terminology (see, e.g., Norris, 2014);
  • technical systems and platforms that privilege some users over others (Gil, 2015; Padilla and Steeves, 2018);
  • tensions between academic freedom and protection of vulnerable populations (Dreyfuss and Ryan, 2016; Pearson and Lowry, 2000); and
  • the whiteness of the academy and (even more so) of scholarly communications and limitations of the white-centric “monocultural” experience, especially in decision-making as to resource allocation, priorities, and selection processes (e.g., people, content, materials, collections, services) (Brook et al., 2015; Buschsbaum, 2009; de jesus, 2014; Greco et al., 2016; Hathcock, 2016; Inefuku and Roh, 2016; Mbembe, 2015; Society for Scholarly Publishing, 2018; Roh, 2018; Tuhiwai Smith, 2015).

Many of these issues are raised in more depth in the three areas we highlight in the new ACRL research agenda: people, content, and systems. Social justice, while offering a smorgasbord of areas of inquiry, is certainly fertile ground for future research. In this research agenda, our focus has been on the spaces where scholarly communications and the research environment cross paths with, or are otherwise affected by, issues of social justice.


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