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Imagine Otherwise: Zach McDowell on Open Access Publishing

Imagine Otherwise: Zach McDowell on Open Access Publishing

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January 11, 2017
Zach McDowell wearing a blue checked shirt

How is the digital landscape changing, and what does this mean for academia? How can digital technologies transform how we teach and how we think about sharing the information we produce?

In episode 28 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with guest Zach McDowell about the relationship between the open access movement and other social justice movements, how decreasing the “digital divide” isn’t the only thing needed for true media justice, and what it really means when people say “information wants to be free.”

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Guest: Zach McDowell

Zach McDowell is a research fellow at the Wiki Education Foundation working on a large interdisciplinary project evaluating student learning outcomes using Wikipedia-based assignments.

He is also a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Digital Government and an instructor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the University Without Walls and the School for Public Policy.

Zach founded and edits the peer-reviewed Open Access journal communication +1.

Zach is also graduate of Ideas on Fire’s Grad School Rockstars Program.

Text reads: People say "information wants to be free." I think it's more than that. That's the point of information: it's supposed to be shared.

We chatted about

  • How using Wikipedia in instruction can transform both student learning and Wikipedia itself (02:50)
  • Zach’s experiences with our Grad School Rockstars community (05:30)
  • What the digital divide means to academia and how it can affect access to information (08:40)
  • Imagining otherwise (13:20)

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Takeaways

Why Zach uses Wikipedia in the classroom

I kept getting assigned these boring classes that students didn’t really like. I wanted to find a way to transform these traditional papers into a way that students could engage with and feel like they were giving back.

How the Grad School Rockstars community helped Zach

Grad school can be very isolating, so it was a really good place to find some camaraderie and to be able to talk about things outside of my own department.

Open access goes beyond providing internet access to all

“Digital divide” means a lot of things to a lot of people. It can mean things like age and understanding of computer systems; it can mean having access to the internet. Really at the end of it, even when everyone in the world is has access to the internet, we’re still going to be talking about access to information.

The serials crisis and the role of libraries in the open access movement

Libraries all over are trying to encourage faculty to publish in open access journals because they know that 20 years down the line, libraries are not going to have the money to be paying the big publishers bundled journal fees. It’s going to be devastating for all our access to information.

The urgency of open access work

There are a series of people who have been trying to utilize their access [to information] to thwart these systems, to open these closed systems off. This is a case of social justice.

Imagining otherwise

The way that I want to level the playing field is to give as much access to information as possible, and to free up the things that have been pinned down by corporate greed.

More from Zach McDowell

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host Cathy Hannabach.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

    Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by Ideas on Fire and academic editing and consulting agency, helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome texts in live and public conversations and create more just worlds. This is episode 28 which is brought to you by our Grad School Rockstar Program and Dissertation Boot Camp. Our guest today is Zach McDowell who’s an alumni of the rockstar programs and is here to talk about his work on digital media activism as well as how he put the rock star programs to use in building his interdisciplinary academic career.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:59):

    Enrollment is now open for the spring programs and you can find out more about them at ideasonfire.net. So on with the show, Zach McDowell is a research fellow at the Wiki Education Foundation working on a large interdisciplinary project to evaluate student learning outcomes using Wikipedia based assignments. He’s also a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Digital Government as well as an instructor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for the University Without Walls and the School for Public Policy.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:31):

    Zach founded and currently edits the peer reviewed open access journal Communication Plus One. In the interview I talk with Zach about the relationship between the open access movement and other social justice movements, how decreasing the so-called digital divide isn’t the only thing needed for true media justice and what it really means when people say that information wants to be free. Thanks so much for being with us, Zach.

    Zack McDowell (01:57):

    Thank you Cathy.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:58):

    So you’re currently a research fellow at the Wiki Education Foundation. I’d love for you to tell listeners a little bit about that organization and what projects are you working on there?

    Zack McDowell (02:09):

    So the Wiki Education Foundation is a grant and donation funded nonprofit that supports bridging academia and Wikipedia through a variety of projects. So most prominently it’s the education program that I’ve been involved in and which I’m working with, which assists instructors throughout North America and utilizing Wikipedia based assignments in lieu of traditional papers. It does this without charging any instructors or anybody else. So over the past six years, hundreds of instructors and thousands of students have utilized Wikipedia based assignments and in lieu of these traditional papers, too much benefit both to the students’ learning as well as Wikipedia itself. Somewhere around 99% of past instructors say that they teach with Wikipedia again, and although there’s ample evidence to support the benefit to Wikipedia, because during the busy months of the term, students add up to 10% of previously underdeveloped content.

    Cathy Hannabach (03:05):

    I didn’t know that. That’s impossible.

    Zack McDowell (03:06):

    Yeah. It’s really, they do a lot of work, but there’s only anecdotal evidence to suggest what the learning outcomes are by using Wikipedia based assignments, which brings me to what I’m doing. I’ve been hired as a research fellow this… It was for like one semester and now it’s become like both semesters to work on a large mixed methods research project to assess learning outcomes of Wikipedia based assignments. This is a triangulation approach, mixing assessment, qualitative and quantitative surveys, participation data from dashboard on servers as well as focus groups. And there are over 5000 students enrolled in 200 classes across North America right now.

    Cathy Hannabach (03:49):

    Wow. That’s ambitious.

    Zack McDowell (03:52):

    That’s what the IRB said to me too.

    Cathy Hannabach (03:56):

    Well, you’ve long used Wikipedia in your courses and regardless of the topic that you’re teaching, advocated open access, knowledge production, kind of collaborative knowledge production, kind of getting your students to think creatively and critically about how knowledge and ideas and transformative projects can happen with digital technologies, right?

    Zack McDowell (04:21):

    Right. I mean I first got involved with this because as a grad student I got really involved with open access stuff. I remember I had a question about ferry use one time and I actually wrote Lawrence Lessig about it and he wrote me back and kind of schooled me on ferry use. And then like I got really involved and of course then I wrote my dissertation and everything all about that kind of stuff. And I found to me that when I was… Because as a grad student you don’t really get to choose what you teach usually. So I kept getting assigned these kind of boring classes that students didn’t really like. And I wanted to find a way to transform these assignments, which were kind of traditional papers into a way that students can kind of engage with and feel like they’re giving back. And I found the public policy initiative, which was run by the Wikimedia foundation, but then eventually spun off into what is now the Wiki Education Foundation.

    Cathy Hannabach (05:30):

    So in addition to being a research fellow, you are also a graduate of Ideas on Fire’s Grad Rockstar Program, which is the other reason why I’m super excited to have you here on the show. And that’s the group coaching program that we offer to help progressive interdisciplinary. Academics kind of apply lessons from social justice movements to their grad school and academic careers. So I’d love to hear from you, what were your favorite parts of that program and what did those things let you do?

    Zack McDowell (06:00):

    My favorite parts of the program might not have been the parts that were most beneficial to me because I’m kind of an organization freak and…

    Cathy Hannabach (06:08):

    We love those. I am one.

    Zack McDowell (06:11):

    I know. And so that was very compelling to me. Although, I was utilizing a lot of those skills beforehand, I think that, that was my favorite part because I don’t think that enough grad students realize how important that is and how I’ve seen someone at grad school, grad students that they’re just constantly crazy and don’t know what’s going on and they’re like, “I have too many things.” And I’m like, “What do you use to organize?” And they were like, “What are you talking about?” So I think that, that was my favorite part because I think that there needs to be more education and kind of instruction on how to kind of find your way that way.

    Zack McDowell (06:54):

    And I really liked the way that it worked because it wasn’t really like this is the only way to do something. It’s like there are different ways of doing it and let’s explore. I needed a group to rely on and to communicate with and to hold my feet to the fire because I was really good at organizing, but I was also very good at procrastinating especially when you’re writing comps or dissertation, grad school can be very isolating. So it was a really good place to find some comradery and to be able to talk about things outside of my own department, which that can be a little bit strange sometimes. You don’t want to complain too much inside your own department, right?

    Cathy Hannabach (07:31):

    True. A lot of folks often talk about how they get nervous or embarrassed or feel like they should already have the stuff together. And so they don’t want to talk to people in their department and they like being able to talk to people who they’re not going to run into in the hallway or at the colloquium on Thursday or at a future event or something like that.

    Zack McDowell (07:50):

    It’s really nice to spread out and to kind of see that we all have a very shared experience and it’s good comradery to be able to be supportive. And I made some good friends in the Grad School Rockstar Program. We’re Facebook friends and we’re looking forward to seeing each other at NCA. And so I’m really excited about actually getting to meet them in real life.

    Cathy Hannabach (08:11):

    Nice. So as you were kind of talking a little bit about your research and your work at the Wiki Education Foundation, you’re a long time advocate of open access as a mode of knowledge production as a method of research, as a distribution practice. And I’d love to hear more about how you conceptualize open access and why you think this is so important for knowledge production and for distribution.

    Zack McDowell (08:39):

    I mean a lot of people talk about the digital divide and digital divide means a lot of things to a lot of people. It can mean things like age and understanding of computer systems. It can mean actually, access to having the internet. But really at the end of it, even when everyone in the world say, “In this future perfect place is perfectly wired up and everybody has access to the internet, we’re still going to be talking about access to information.” And to me that’s where I kind of stake my ground at because that’s where I see the least promise of pushing forward. Because people are trying to put internet in all sorts of role areas across the world. But we still have a huge issue with closing off access to information very specifically in academia.

    Zack McDowell (09:34):

    I think it’s one of the most egregious problems within academia. One of the… I mean, for example, I had a friend who actually wrote me to get a book review that I wrote about his book so that he could submit it for tenure review because his library didn’t have access to the journal. And it kind of flipped a switch for me and I said, “Are you kidding me?” And then I had another person who had the same thing. They actually had an open access book, but the way the publisher had actually published it and done the peat and had the PDFs done, they had put the PDFs behind a firewall even though, or not a firewall, a paywall, even though that they were creative commons license. So I said, “Do you have access to this to download?”

    Zack McDowell (10:26):

    And I said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Can you give them to me so I could put them up somewhere?” Because they wouldn’t give them to him. I’m like, “This is his book. This is even a creative commons book.” Your listeners can Google the serial crisis in libraries. The serial crisis in libraries is a huge thing right now, especially in academic libraries because their budgets are spinning out of control because of access fees for journals and so much so that Princeton and Harvard and I believe Yale as well have all created open access policies that basically say that unless you get specific permission you must publish in open access journals and UMass has a policy as well. It’s not quite as stringent but libraries all over are trying to encourage faculty to publish in these open access journals because they know that 20 years down the line libraries are not going to have the money to be paying these journals. The big publishers kind of bundled journal fees and it’s going to be devastating to our access of information.

    Cathy Hannabach (11:31):

    Reminds me a lot of what the previous guests on a previous episode on episode 27 Jesse Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite, we’re talking about, Polly has this long history in act up and AIDS activism and she’s a librarian and she was talking about how one of the ways that she kind of serves that social justice movement is getting access to academic information into the hands of people, in this case, who are living with HIV and or AIDS and yet can’t access the medical research that literally can save their life.

    Zack McDowell (12:03):

    Absolutely. There are a series of people who’ve done this. There’s a woman in Russia who has been kind of taking the helm of what Erin Schwartz was trying to do and there are a series of people who have been trying to kind of utilize their access to kind of toward these systems to open these closed systems up. This is a case of social justice. I think in the words of Richard Stallman, information wants to be free, but it’s more than that. I think that, that’s the point of creating information and creating this is that it’s supposed to be a shared.

    Cathy Hannabach (12:42):

    You edit and open access journal yourself, right?

    Zack McDowell (12:45):

    Yeah. I founded Communication Plus One with Brickell Cheng and yeah, we’ve been running it for, oh geez, six years now. It is fully platinum open access. We don’t charge anybody. We get support from the library and the SBS school at UMass, we have double-blind peer review and we only publish one volume a year because we don’t have that much time, but so far we’ve had about 28000 downloads. So we think that we’re pretty successful in that regard.

    Cathy Hannabach (13:19):

    Is indeed very impressive. This brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask people, and I think it dovetails nicely into what you were saying about information wanting to be free, you wanting to make information free. So I’ll ask you, what’s your vision of a better world, that world that you’re working towards when you edit your journal, when you are working at the Wiki Education Foundation, when you do your research, when you step in front of a classroom, when you advise a student, what’s that kind of world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?

    Zack McDowell (13:49):

    I think that the university is still a place that is important, that people go to open up ideas to learn how to be better critical thinkers. And I think that my vision of a better world is one where we all have access to the same information. Where we all have a more level playing field and we live in a world where nothing is really fair. The way that I want to level the playing field is I want to give as much access to information as possible and to free up the things that have been kind of pinned down by, not to be hyperbolic, but corporate greed.

    Zack McDowell (14:30):

    And I think that, that’s at least getting there. And I don’t know what the perfect world or what that’s all going to look like, but I do know that this is a part that I can help and I can take part in creating that part of that better world because I think that whatever the better world is, is not going to be my vision. It’s going to be a shared one and I think that this is going to be part of it.

    Cathy Hannabach (14:54):

    Thank you so much for being with us today.

    Zack McDowell (14:56):

    Thank you very much, Cathy. It was great to be here.

    Cathy Hannabach (15:03):

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Check out our website at ideasonfire.net to listen to full episodes, read show notes and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. While you’re there, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to find out when new episodes are released and to get tips to help you rock your interdisciplinary career.

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