Equity in Open Knowledge: A bridge between academics, practitioners and communities

I learnt about Open Access Week only now and I found this year’s theme “Open for Whom? Equity in Open Knowledge” especially exciting because one of the core principles of the organisation I work for and the journal we publish is that of knowledge production 'from the ground up'.

I work at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) – an international feminist NGO network based in Bangkok, Thailand, which advocates for the rights of migrant and trafficked women worldwide. We publish the Anti-Trafficking Review – the first open access, peer reviewed journal dedicated to examining the issue of human trafficking in its broader context and intersections with gender, migration, and labour.

Since its inception in 1994, GAATW has placed high value on the knowledge and lived experiences of communities, in particular, of migrant and trafficked women, by employing the principles of Feminist Participatory Action Research. FPAR is carried out under the premise that ‘when people are directly involved in an analysis of their situation, they are often stimulated to find answers to these problems’.[1] It therefore aims both to produce an analytical description of a complex issue and to radically change it. In FPAR, researched communities are not simply ‘respondents’ or ‘interviewees’ – they are active participants.

These same principles guided us when, in 2012, we launched the Anti-Trafficking Review. We framed the journal explicitly as an ‘outlet and space for dialogue between academics, practitioners and advocates seeking to communicate new ideas and findings to those working for and with trafficked persons.’ We try to achieve this in several ways. First, our submissions guidelines explicitly encourage articles written in an easy to understand, jargon-free English, with a recommended length of 4,000-6,000 words, and an appropriate, but not excessive, number of citations. The aim of these ‘restrictions’ is to ensure that articles can be understood by a broad range of readers. Second, in addition to full-length scholarly papers, we have a ‘short articles’ section where we publish blog or op-ed style articles of 1,000-1,500 words. This section is particularly used by practitioners, advocates and NGOs who have invaluable practical knowledge of on-the-ground work, but not necessarily the time or capacity to develop a scholarly article. Third, several members of the journal Editorial Board are representatives of NGOs and UN agencies, and as much as possible and feasible, we invite practitioners to serve as peer reviewers. And finally, after publication, we invite authors to turn their scholarly articles into shorter, blog-style pieces, which we publish on Open Democracy through an internal agreement between the journal and its editorial team.

This strategy has had some success. We have published articles written not only by academics and researchers, but also by current or former sex workers, survivors of human trafficking, service providers, attorneys, and representatives of NGOs and UN agencies. I cannot count the number of NGO colleagues who have expressed their high appreciation for the journal and how much they have learnt from it. In fact, for better or worse, it may be that the journal is more popular among NGOs, practitioners, and advocates than academics. Furthermore, as an advocacy NGO, GAATW uses the research published in the journal in its international advocacy for rights protections for migrant and trafficked women. In this way we ensure that academic knowledge and evidence does not simply ‘sit on a shelf’ but is actively used for the improvement of the lives of affected people.

At the same time, many challenges remain to achieving full equity in knowledge production. Language is one major issue. We publish only articles in English and the vast majority of contributors are from or based in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. We rarely receive submissions focusing on Latin America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Middle East and North Africa, despite their importance in the fields of interest of the journal. Even with our short articles section, the majority of contributors remain academics, as articles written by community members or service providers often do not pass peer review. On the plus side, the overwhelming majority of authors we have published are women.

While grappling with these challenges, and actively trying to find solutions to them, we remain committed to open access publishing with, by and for affected communities. In an age of “fake news” and post-truth politics, including in the fields of human trafficking, migration, and women’s rights, this is more urgent than ever.

[1] Boesveld, M. and Boontinand, J. ‘Practicing Feminist Participatory Action Research Methodologies’. GAATW Newsletter, January 1999, pp. 14-17.

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