Open for whom? Challenging information privilege in social work

Accepted CSWE 2020 Conference APM presentation proposal, in the Values & Ethics track.

A majority of the knowledge produced, shared, and sustained by social work scholarship is inaccessible. Apart from faculty, students, and researchers at well-funded universities in North America and Europe, paywalls, copyright maximalism, and the inheritance of social privilege marginalize the least powerful from engaging with scholarly information for social change. Even within North America, a recent study found that over half of social work journal articles cannot be accessed without a subscription or payment, and for those that are available, authors skirt copyright law to share their research (Pendell, 2018). For practitioners, community stakeholders, and international colleagues, the inability to engage with knowledge furthers social oppression and injustice.

Open access calls attention to the practices and policies surrounding the creation and transmission of knowledge. Information is not inert; information has multiple dimensions of value, and it is inherently political (Hare & Evanston, 2018). Indeed, “access to knowledge is a human right that is closely associated with the ability to defend, as well as to advocate for, other rights” (Willinsky, 2009, p. 143). Within both social work and all of science, the majority of scholarship is owned by a handful of commercial publishers, scholarly societies, and other private companies. As a result, it is highly costly to obtain (Larivière, Haustein, & Mongeon, 2015). These information monopolies and walled gardens are the products of neoliberalism and antiquated scholarly practices that are contradictory to our contemporary ability to produce, review, and share information. While commercial publication can effectively disseminate knowledge, the dramatic barriers to access, reliance on unpaid academic labor, and demand for copyright transfer are in stark contrast to the 40% profit margins of Elsevier (Lowe, 2019) and the over 1000% hike in textbook costs over the past 50 years (Popken, 2015). Additionally, many federal agencies are still not in compliance with mandated public access to taxpayer-funded research (GAO, 2019).

Information privilege is defined as the “advantages, opportunities, rights, and affordances granted by status and positionality” to information and knowledge building (Booth, 2014). Information privilege impacts individuals and communities locally and internationally. Professionals are cut off from the very research that evidence-based practice demands they utilize. Community members, as participants and stakeholders of research, cannot access and use that same research to inform social change and practices. Developing nations cannot afford journal subscriptions, software licenses, or commercial textbooks–inhibiting people from using the corpus of existing Western knowledge to the benefit of oppressed and marginalized groups. A vicious cycle, these barriers also reify the role of Western nations as producers of knowledge and objective scientific truth while scholars in the rest of the world are positioned as passive recipients of Western knowledge, not as producers of knowledge themselves. 

For these reasons, the open movements were born, including Open Access (OA), Open Educational Resources (OER), and Open Science. These movements fight for the public access and distribution of scientific research, measures and data, and educational resources. Open movements help actualize the right to education and free expression, i.e. “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Cate, 1989, p. 374). It was these ideas of universal human rights that grounded the Budapest Open Access Initiative, the Open University, the Free Software Foundation, and many other organizations. However, making research and pedagogy “open” is not as simple as publishing with particular journals or using an OER; in fact, neoliberal market forces are already co-opting the intentions of the open access movement through mechanisms like article processing charges (Ghamandi, 2018). 

This presentation will explore open practices in relation to social work research and education, as well as challenge the earlier universalist frameworks of “open” to engage with ethics of care and critical social justice perspectives that consider knowledge production holistically. Open practices challenge the traditional, hierarchical structure of information sharing only among predetermined and wealthy audiences. Instead, open practices encourage engagement broadly and inclusively. How can the process of publishing become more collaborative and communal? How can the benefits of publication be extended beyond the author and the information privileged? Utilizing these perspectives, authors will position the philosophical and values-orientation of open movements as well as the practices and policies that support them within social work values and ethical frameworks. Presenters will highlight how community-based and open alternatives to textbook and article publication can reflect a caring and more equitable “investment in accessibility for present and distant others” (Nadim, 2018, p. 31). The presentation will conclude by contextualizing “open” as central to addressing the Grand Challenges. 


Booth, Char. (2014). On information privilege [Blog post]. Info-Mational. Retrieved from:

Cate, F. H. (1989). The first amendment and the international “free flow” of information. Virginia Journal of International Law, 30, 371.

Ghamandi, D. S. (2018). Liberation through cooperation: How library publishing can save scholarly journals from neoliberalism. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 6(Special Issue: The Role of Scholarly Communication in a Democratic Society), eP2223.

Government Accountability Office (2019). Federal research: Additional actions needed to improve public access to research results. Retrieved from:

Hare, S., & Evanson, C. (2018). Information privilege outreach for undergraduate students. College & Research Libraries, 726–736.

Larivière, V., Haustein, S., & Mongeon, P. (2015). The oligopoly of academic publishers in the digital era. PLOS ONE, 10(6), e0127502.

Lowe, D. (2019, March 1). California tells Elsevier to take a hike [Blog post]. In the Pipeline, Science. Retrieved from:

Nadim, T. (2018). Friends with books. In S. Moore (Ed.) The Commons and Care (pp. 26-33).

Pendell, K. D. (2018). Behind the wall: An exploration of public access to research articles in social work journals. Advances in Social Work 18(4), 1041-1052.

Popken, B. (2015, August 6). College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977. NBC News. Retrieved from:

Willinsky, J. (2006). The access principle: The case for open access to research and scholarship. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Published by kpendell

Social Work and Social Sciences Librarian at Portland State University

%d bloggers like this: