Information privilege is possessing the position, opportunity, or advantage to access certain information and/or the ability to participate in existing modes of information dissemination where others may be excluded (Booth, 2014). Privileged access to information and information systems can come in many forms and that access can be impacted by a number of intersectional factors, such as access to technology, socioeconomic status, individual identity, or institutional affiliation (Duke University Libraries, n.d.).
When learning the ins-and-outs of the scholarly communication process, it is important to not only examine our own privileges within the existing information ecosystem, but also contextualize, critique, and, eventually, disrupt, current information systems with a focus on “justice and access” (Booth, 2014, para. 1). At this end of this guide, you will be able to...
Define the term information privilege.
Reflect on the ways that higher education reinforces information privilege.
Recognize the steps involved in the scholarly communication process and begin evaluating the inequities embedded in this system.
Assess the barriers students, staff, and faculty of color may face when seeking or creating scholarly publications.
Explain why the Open Access movement challenges conventional modes of publishing and the inequities those conventional modes sustain.
As discussed on our Scholarly Sources page, the "scholarly communication" process refers to the publication process in academia. You can find it outlined below:
"Scholarly communication" is how we create, share, and disseminate knowledge within an academic context. However, this process can often take the form of gatekeeping, where some knowledge users and/or creators have more privileged access to this system than others. That access (or lack thereof) is what we are referring to when we say "information privilege." Using the above steps as a guide, we've highlighted some of the barriers that exist to participating in this process below.
Faculty--tenured, tenure-track, non-tenured--can spend an extensive period of time researching and drafting a scholarly article. This is all too often unpaid labor that they find time for--or, due to the tenure process, are required to find the time for--on top of their additional job responsibilities. The time as well as the physical and cognitive labor involved in the creation process will impact their professional and personal lives. Furthermore, the continued adjunctification of higher education leaves most contingent faculty out of the process altogether, limiting stable job prospects and creating a permanent underclass of faculty (AAUP, n.d.). This is especially concerning when we look at the racial make-up of full-time faculty countrywide. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2021), as of fall 2018, around 75% of of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions are white. Those who identify as Hispanic or Latino and Black or African American, only make up about 12.9% of full-time faculty. Additionally, women, in general, are both underrepresented in the full-time faculty category and overrepresented in contingent positions (AAUP, 2020).
If faculty are permitted the time to conduct research, depending on the individual/group, discipline, and/or institution, the initial creation phase may include grant or fellowship funding secured by the faculty lead. There are a range of inequities faculty may encounter in seeking this funding. For instance, some projects which challenge mainstream, white knowledge systems may not receive funding because they are deemed by larger organizations to be too unconventional, "biased," or "activist" (Inefuku p. 200). Moreover, grants are extremely competitive and often once funding is secured, work for the project may be sustained through additional layers of inequity, including but not limited to, underpaid graduate or undergraduate student assistants.
Finally, the process of creation also includes theoretical and/or empirical research gathered from databases costing institutions thousands of dollars and usually hidden behind institutional logins and passwords.
The inequities addressed in the creation process are further exacerbated once the article is submitted to a journal and the peer review process begins. Conventionally, the “peer-reviewed journal article” must be approved by two (sometimes more) reviewers (faculty) considered experts in the field or discipline. However, as the peer review page in this guide illustrates, the process itself can become inequitable due to reviewer biases, both in the review process itself and, in the case of editors, the scope of the research topics and methodologies that are chosen to be included.
Though the journal may designate a timeline for peer-review, feedback may not reach the individual/group for months. Not only does this cause a great deal of stress for the writers(s), but depending on the discipline, their results/conclusions could be invalidated by swift changes within the field during that time.
Ultimately, reviewers can reject the manuscript, ask for a series of revisions, and/or accept it with minor revisions. The quality of feedback, including the reviewers’ attentiveness to cultural competence, antiracism, and disciplinary social justice issues, may vary greatly.
The economics of scholarly publishing are complicated. As mentioned previously, faculty produce and edit content for scholarly journals, usually as a requirement of their job, without any financial incentive from the publishers. In exchange, publishers then evaluate and distribute the material, usually charging libraries and institutions an extreme mark-up in the process. As the Association of College & Research Libraries (n.d.) notes, "this unusual business model where the "necessary inputs" are provided free of cost to publishers who then in return sell that "input" back to the institutions that pay the salaries of the persons producing it has given rise to an unsustainable system begging for transformation." This is just one of the many ways in which labor within higher education has been monetized to the benefit of corporate interests, often to the detriment of faculty and students. While libraries are able to provide items free to patrons in the short term, the long-term impacts of these costs impact everything from librarian salaries and budgets to the ever-rising cost of tuition (Ellenwood, 2020).
Many of the large academic publishers have created a virtual monopoly on the publishing business, effectively allowing them to charge whatever they want. However, the university also plays a role in this relationship. The institutional pressure for faculty to publish in "high impact" journals (journals with a high number of "citable" items) is strong. However, assessing a journal on impact factor alone (or choosing to publish in one) doesn't take into account the variety editorial practices that may make a journal more or less equitable than others. For more information about the economics of scholarly publishing and the complications of impact factor, please see:
Privileged access to information and information systems can come in many forms and that access can be impacted by a number of intersectional factors, such as access to technology, socioeconomic status, individual identity, or institutional affiliation (Duke University Libraries, n.d.).
Access to scholarly materials, specifically, is often only available via expensive databases that require institutional affiliation or through an individual paid subscription or per article purchase. For example, a single article that may be free at the point of access to CityU students through the library, may cost an individual user anywhere between $20-$50 (non-refundable). As such, access to scholarly material is financially prohibitive to most individual users. This inequitable access is not only a problem at the individual level, but can also stifle scientific progress more broadly, as many are excluded from the scholarly conversation.
Even within academia, there are disparities. For example, a large, well-funded, public university will have access to more funding and materials than a smaller, private institution. Overall, the cost of database and journal subscriptions is rising---studies have shown that since the 1980s, the cost of journal subscriptions has outpaced inflation by around 250%---the amount offered through these subscriptions is dwindling, and library budgets, on the whole, remain stagnant or diminished (Bosch et al, 2020; Meadowcroft, 2020; Open Society Foundations, 2018).
The academic article is a commodity. Scholars are not paid by publishers for their contributions and publishers grossly overcharge libraries/universities so that scholars may have the privilege to access their own intellectual property and that of their peers. This exploitation of intellectual labor is a growing problem that academia must challenge.
Everything we've discussed up until this point reflects whose voices are heard and prioritized, what counts as "knowledge," and who can be creators and holders of knowledge. When we only publish or value certain identities, topics, or viewpoints for publication, those voices are the ones that get preserved and reused over time. It is no secret that academic institutions, whether public or private, are elitist and exclusionary. This is due to a range of interconnected historical, sociocultural, racist, classist, sexist, ageist, and ableist factors which have solidified over at least the past two centuries. By extension, the knowledge that academia generates and circulates through the scholarly communication process reflects this exclusivity and entrenchment in white supremacy (Inefuku, 2021).
Preserving scholarly articles---and making them available for reuse---relies on several factors, including database indexing, subject headings, and promotion. And as you may have guessed, database indexing and subject headings can be heavily skewed towards whiteness and mainstream disciplinary topics. Librarians can do a lot to help combat this inequity; they may highlight articles on intersectional topics in research sessions and/or link them on guides for students, faculty, and staff to more easily access. They can also use tagging features to help bridge the gap between content and available indexing terms.
Preservation can also involve institutional repositories and archives. Many universities have online repositories where students, faculty, and/or staff can upload papers, capstones, articles, and other projects. Equally, archives--digital and non-digital--often preserve vital documents, including publications by scholars. But if these repositories and archives are hidden or they're only accessible to people at the institution, articles may be well-preserved, but not readily reusable.
A final consideration is copyright. Once the article is published, who does it belong to and who has the "right" to use? And in what manner? Copyright doesn't always solely belong to the author(s) after publication and increasingly, faculty and librarians have had to wrestle with copyright issues when creating class or seminar reading lists.
In order to challenge information privilege, we must first examine our own privileges within these systems. Privilege is multi-layered and may change over time. For example, the privileges that you experience now as a student, especially with regards to access, may not apply to you once graduate. As you work on your degree and start engaging with and producing scholarly content, try to critically examine your position and identify ways in which you can help make information sharing more equitable.
What barriers exist to accessing information? Some examples include access (or lack thereof) to technology--either personally or through institutional affiliation, as well as barriers due to geographical location or personal socioeconomic status.
How might your affiliation with an US- or Canadian-based academic institution allow you to bypass some of these barriers?
Have you ever been in a position where you did not have readily available internet or library access?
Does where you live impact your ability to access certain content?
What roles do conventional search methods play in information privilege? Who has access to these processes? Who may be excluded and why? You may, for instance, wish to consider the difference between doing a Google Search vs. an advanced search in a database like Sage Premier or ProQuest.
What sorts of information has academia privileged in the past?
What types of voices may you be missing by only relying on traditional scholarship?
To what extent do the materials in library databases produce dominant research methods and occlude underrepresented, i.e. non-white, knowledge systems? For example, consider the same databases and whether or not they primarily index articles that promote conventional disciplinary methods or whether you can find articles in them that propose methods with a strong diversity, equity, inclusion, and/or antiracist approach.
What other types of expertise exist?
Where can you find them?
How might we be complicit in the dissemination and reuse of exclusive information and hegemonic methodologies? There's much to consider here that can center upon the courses you take or have currently taken and the research methods promoted in those classes.
What kinds of alternatives to conventional scholarly publishing exist?
Are you and/or your instructors talking about them?
Finally, how does information privilege help us better understand other types of privileges as well as the concept of intersectionality? We love this question. It pushes us to think critically about how the scholarly communication process impacts our lives and the lives of others, both within academia and beyond.
"As creators and users of information, experts understand their rights and responsibilities when participating in a community of scholarship. Experts understand that value may be wielded by powerful interests in ways that marginalize certain voices. However, value may also be leveraged by individuals and organizations to effect change and for civic, economic, social, or personal gains. Experts also understand that the individual is responsible for making deliberate and informed choices about when to comply with and when to contest current legal and socioeconomic practices concerning the value of information."
- ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education
So, how do we work towards combating privilege in our current information ecosystem? In order to make changes to the existing system, we have to actively participate in system-wide efforts to create anti-oppression and anti-capitalist disruptions (Inefuku, 2021). Championing more open (i.e. less restricted or “unrestricted”) publishing and distribution models, like those outlined in the Open Access (OA) movement, and supporting more equitable forms of peer review are just some of the ways in which we can change the status quo (Open Society Foundations, 2018). You can find a list of examples below.
"Open access is a publishing and distribution model that makes scholarly research literature—much of which is funded by taxpayers around the world—freely available to the public online, without restrictions" (Open Society Foundations, 2018). The following video from Open Society Foundations, does a great job explaining why open access is important, using publishing in the sciences as an example:
Championing more open (i.e. less restricted or “unrestricted”) publishing and distribution models, like those outlined in the Open Access (OA) movement, and supporting more equitable forms of peer review are just some of the ways in which we can change the status quo.
Take action by... using OA content in your research and writing, as well as seeking out OA journals when deciding where to publish your work. When evaluating scholarly sources, look beyond Impact Factor and take note of their editorial and information sharing practices.
Even though you have access to certain items now through the library collection and via interlibrary loan, we highly recommend familiarizing yourself with some of the tools that are available to help you legally access open access scholarly materials.
Take action by...downloading these browser extensions. Please note: sources of questionable legality, like ResearchGate, SciHub, and Academia.edu, are not reliable outlets for OA materials and are not crawled by these tools.
There is growing movement around information sharing called "Citation Justice," which exists within the broader realm of Citation Politics. It aims to encourage academics to evaluate their own traditional notions of authority and knowledge creation. Some examples include #CiteIndigenousAuthors and #CiteBlackWomen, which focus on elevating the voices of scholars who have been historically marginalized across academia. It is vital for students and scholars to consider their practices of citing sources, as these practices are part of how we attribute knowledge and ideas. These practices reflect whose voices are heard and prioritized, what counts as "knowledge," and who can be creators and holders of knowledge.
Take action by... centering the the voices of BIPOC scholars in your work and acknowledging the intellectual production of scholars of color. Here are some resources aimed at amplifying diverse voices in academia:
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.