Paths Ahead, 2: Questions about “Academic Colonialism”

The notion of academic colonialism that is used to refer to the extraction of information from one place, which is then repackaged, reconstructed, and published in another (often at a cost that proves prohibitive for buyers in the place from which the information was extracted) is something I have found to be both useful and problematic as a concept. Ultimately, this discussion should show us how decolonizing academic knowledge production and open access (even open source) are intimately tied into each other.

The problem with “academic colonialism” as set out above is that it is state-centric. In addition, it assumes that the problem of the locus of publication has been entirely within the hands of academic authors. I will use an example from my own experience to illustrate the problems here. When first advancing the idea to publishers for what would become the edited volume titled, Indigenous Resurgence in the Contemporary Caribbean, I explicitly set out to give Caribbean publishers the first chance to publish the volume. This was, after all, an entirely unique book: there simply has been, and there is no other volume on this topic about the Caribbean. Caribbean publishers could have claimed something unique. Instead, Ian Randle Publishers in Jamaica said it was “not on their list.” The University of the West Indies Press, without even seeing any of the chapters, immediately and up front demanded that it be half as long–and that they would forward an advance contract, which was never sent, and thus never arrived. What was the result? A Switzerland-based transnational corporation is the publisher. In other words, there was no way to re-place knowledge derived from the Caribbean back in Caribbean hands, simply because those in the Caribbean who were in the position to take it back instead tottered and fumbled with themselves, or, worse yet, had some anti-indigenous prejudice.

The only way this material could have been made available, at little or no cost, to people in the Caribbean region, would have been by publishing it in its entirety on the Internet–here is where decolonization meets open access. So why was that not done?

The first problem is that the editor of the volume–myself–is an academic. In academia we still suffer the foolishness of conservative ideologues who uphold an obsolete system for evaluating knowledge production in terms of print publications, published by an entity other than the author. If seeking to secure one’s position in an academic setting, then abiding by these elitist and ignorant rules becomes necessary for survival. And this is not just true about academics–among our many correspondents in North America, it was clear to all of us who participated in the volume that, despite the thousands of printable pages we previously put on the Internet, such as can be found at the CAC and KACIKE, it was only once the book above came out in print that there suddenly was a massive “buzz” among all the parties we knew, as if something unique, groundbreaking, and fundamentally novel had happened. The reality is that the volume just flowed straight from the networking and collaboration that built up the CAC and KACIKE, a kind of version of these, but on paper. So the paper bias is not one unique to academics. Poor trees that suffer all of our stupidities.

What we see then is that for decolonization to meet open access it must also meet de-professionalization (a revolution in the norms of academic life), while also countering the cultural biases of the wider population.

This sounds, in fact, like an “anthropological” endeavor…except that it might be more proper to call this an open anthropological endeavor.