I wanted to interview Ernesto when I saw this tweet:
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a full-time academic in a London University. I have both British and Mexican nationality. My background is in English Literature and Cultural Studies, and my PhD was in Information Science, looking at the way comic books relate to reproduction technologies in the context of the so-called “digital age”. I have a wide array of interests that could all be covered by the general umbrella term of “culture” (this includes science of course). I am interested in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, specifically in Library and Information Science, Scholarly Communications and Critical Theory, but also in Computer Science and other related, hybrid fields that do not fit neatly under the usual categories. I am the founder and editor-in-chief of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, an open access peer reviewed journal now published by the Open Library of Humanities.
How did you land up in academia?
I became an academic because I loved reading and I wanted to write about what I read. Growing up in Mexico, without access to well-stocked libraries and before wifi and the Web became commonplace, I understood what it meant not to have access to the information you wanted from a very young age. Sometimes you would even have the money to buy the books but the books would not be sold in Mexico anywhere. The postal service was corrupt and not trustworthy, so even if you bought by mail order it would either take ages to reach you or it would get “lost” in customs or somewhere along the way (this still happens today).
Getting to University was salvation, as UNAM has a fantastic network of libraries. Networked computers took their time to reach them though, and as undergraduate students we were not trained in looking for online resources. (I am talking about the late 90s here).
Did you have all the access you needed at UNAM?
Photocpying of whole books happened inside the library, in a service provided by the university library itself, and this was done by most students and encouraged by the library as it was the only way to satisfy demand of required textbooks as there were never enough copies for everyone.
For me, and I am sure this must be true for other curious people, information is vital. It does not matter if you label it “scholarly” or “scientific”, information is something you crave. The more you know the more you realise you don’t know remotely enough and you want to find out more. One reference leads to another, and if what you find is a wall instead of the sought reference frustration ensues. The journey is broken. One of my interests is poetry, which I try to write. I would find inspiration anywhere and often I would reuse scholarly texts. (See my collaboration with American poet John Bloomberg-Rissman, Inheritance.)
What about the sciences?
My father used to subscribe to magazines like Discover, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics and Starlog, and I also got into science and science fiction that way as a kid. I would often want to check the science behind the fiction, for example stuff about quantum mechanics, black holes, atomic energy, neruoscience, genetic algorithms, machine learning, robotics, whatever. The scientific papers would be there, somewhere online, but paywalled.
My father (him again) died from consequences of old age, Lewy-body dementia and Parkinson’s disease. He was a super healthy person all his life; he exercised, didn’t drink alcohol, never smoked, ate a balanced diet. A motor-neuronal disease hit him suddenly like lightning. Doctors in Mexico said it was Parkinson’s but when he started hallucinating I started do some research and found out that a lot of the literature I wanted to access to show my father’s doctors and my family were paywalled.
This is the kind of thing you don’t always feel comfortable publicising online. Privately I asked colleagues in wealthier unviersities to locate and share with me PDFs of articles that talked about this thing called Lewy-body dementia that I had never heard of before and the (several) doctors who saw my father never mentioned. I talked about this with the doctors and for them it was like an eureka moment. Perhaps there was nothing that could have been done but we spent painful months not knowing what my father had. It caused a lot of distress. Knowing, at least for me, gave me some level of peace of mind: at least I could understand what was going on.
Are you involved in other health issues?
Around the time my father died Ebola was all over the media. Wanting to understand more I did some research and realised most of the relevant, or most cited, research was paywalled. I created a dataset and crowdsourced on Twitter the access and license types of these articles. I shared the resulting dataset.
Something similar could be done with Zika. These are diseases that kill thousands of people, and yet the most significant research remains behind paywalls, and many doctors and nurses in hospitals, in the developed and developing world, face lots of obstacles to access. Access to this research should be reliable and quick. Quick is key because time is money and time saves lives.