Imagine Otherwise: Zach McDowell on Open Access Publishing & Why “Information Wants to Be Free”

Zach McDowell, Imagine Otherwise blog image

Imagine Otherwise: Zach McDowell on Open Access Publishing & Why “Information Wants to Be Free”

January 11, 2017 Podcast


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 this episode 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.”

We invite you to check out the episode, as well as the highlights and show notes below.

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 Rockstar Program.

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)


  • On how he began using Wikipedia in his own instruction: “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.”
  • On how the Grad School Rockstars community helped him: “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.”
  • On why 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.”
  • On 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”
  • On 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.”
  • On 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:

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 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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About the author

Priyanka Kaura: Priyanka is a Marketing Associate at Ideas on Fire, as well as an education reformer in New York City who frequently traverses the private and public sectors to promote educational equity.