Christina Xu

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I first became interested in the issue of open access publishing at a Free Culture conference at Northeastern, where a librarian held up a thin book and announced that it (a volume of Brain Research) cost the library over 20 thousand dollars a year to subscribe to. I immediately recognized that this was something that could be fixed with the help of the internet and, ever since, I've been trying to mobilize Harvard into make some changes in the way knowledge and research is circulated.

Now that I think of it, it might have been a mistake to merge this extracurricular project with a classroom assignment. So much of what really makes a difference (like contacting people, networking, and talking with them in person) is unquantifiable for grades, and the restrictions of a classroom project (deadlines, certain guidelines or formats to follow) are often non-conducive to a really well-organized movement. Most of all, however, I think that the false confidence that comes with knowing the subject matter very well is dangerous to a class setting, where the priority should be on new ways of looking at and thinking about a topic. Perhaps my previous experience with open access advocacy led me to believe blindly that I knew what I was doing—never a good thing when it comes to projects, I've found.

My bubble burst a few days before the project was due, when I realized that even though I had all of the ingredients lined up, I didn't really know what form would be best. Of course, I could have picked anything and made the best of it, but I needed to convince myself that what I was doing was actually important and effective.

In the end, I chose to create an informative portal, Open Access 101, that had a primary emphasis of educating the Harvard community on issues of open access. I felt that this site needed to exist for a variety of reasons. First, I am trying to assemble a coalition for people interested in open access at the university and, since this group cuts across traditional community lines, we really needed a home base. I think having a site that aggregates all the different initiatives and projects being worked on is a great organizational tool for such a decentralized structure. Secondly, while there are lots (and lots and lots) of great sites out there about open access, many of them can be quite intimidating in terms of amount of content or are too narrow for introductory purposes. While OA101 isn't a breakthrough in material and, in fact, borrows content from many other pages, I feel like it is useful as an “elevator-talk” website as well as a good place to do more in-depth research for those who are interested. Lastly, just the creation of such a site at Harvard is important as an act of support from the Harvard community to the open access movement. Without it, maybe others interested in the issue on campus would not know that it IS an important issue, and one that is capturing the attention of administration.

While I am pretty happy with the results, I can't help but think that maybe I could have done better. I find myself worried about whether I've included too much material and people won't read through it, or whether people will even find the site. I'm planning to use the site as a follow-up, something to point people to after I've already grabbed their attention, but I wonder if I could make it more attention-grabbing by itself.

I guess ultimately, I'm worried about the faith we are all putting in the internet as a powerful tool in the court of public opinion, or maybe even the fact that we are assuming there IS a court of public opinion. In my experience anyway, much of the public doesn't have an opinion. They don't even know what they're supposed to have opinions on. As such, persuading the public starts with arresting the public in their day to day routines and causing them to ask questions and rummage for answers before all else.

As such, the internet element of an argument before the court of public opinion often feels like just the victory lap. In my case, if people are interested enough in open access to look it up online, I've already won: getting them to read my site and join my fight is just a bonus. And while there is a small number of people who browse the web for salient content, by and large most people can live their entire lives without ever seeing a popular YouTube clip, so what can we do?

First, we can recognize that the internet is not a panacea. It is a useful tool for connecting people and passing information, but only if there is someone to connect with and send to. It is useful for finding other people like you, but only if they're already online. In some sense, the whole internet is a web 2.0 phenomenon—without users, it would be useless!

Secondly, recognize that there are other solutions that, along with the internet, can create more visibility leading to social change. In my class on art and activism, I've learned that the real way to engage the public is to go to the public, not make the public come to you. For example, a much better place to engage the Harvard community about open access is the library—an awareness campaign that puts information on posters and bookmarks, for example, would be a much better publicity tool for my purposes than any snazzy YouTube video. However, once I've captured someone's attention, I could redirect them to the website and let them find out more.

Basically, I'm advocating a higher level of empathic argument, or what I like to call the platinum rule. If the golden rule is “do for others what you would want others to do for you,” the platinum rule is “do for others what they want done for them.” We as activists and lawyers and swayers of opinion need to engage those we are wooing on their terms and their home turf. If we are requesting that, initially, they have to go out of their way to find our arguments, we are not empathizing enough. Before we argue before the court of public opinion, we must assemble it.