Culture Clash

Inside Higher Ed has a good recap of the controversy kicked up by Anthrosource going to Wiley/Blackwell from U of C. The title of the piece says it all: it’s all about values. But which values? On the one hand, the value of a publication is that it generates the revenue to sustain a scholarly society. On the other, the value of the research and the values of the profession are all about making knowledge more widely available. Technology has made the second value easier and the first more complicated.

(The absurdity of trying to lock up “intellectual property” in a digital age reminds me that we just saw the first conviction of a criminal who was caught in the act of filming Transformers in a movie theatre. A girl who happened to have a camera with her took a twenty second clip to show her little brother. In spite of all the scare tactics, it just didn’t occur to her she was engaging in piracy. She was just doing what comes naturally in an age of digital gadgetry. And now has a criminal record for it.)

One irony mentioned in the IHE article: as libraries make online bundles more conveniently accessible, scholars are dropping their memberships, presumably because the benefit it once gave them – access to journals right on their desktop – is being provided by libraries now, whereas you used to have to hike over to the building to get your hands on your membership journal. Societies and their members need to find new ways to support the dissemination of their work and to fund their own professional organizations. Honestly, shouldn’t professional communication itself be not only easier but less expensive in a digital age? We need to figure out what our values are – and then figure out how to carry them out in an affordable manner.

ACRL itself could practice what we preach. We could use our own society as a sandbox to create some innovative models for sustaining an organization and fostering its values using new technologies – and then show other societies how to follow our lead.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

3 thoughts on “Culture Clash

  1. “Societies and their members need to find new ways to support the dissemination of their work and to fund their own professional organizations. Honestly, shouldn’t professional communication itself be not only easier but less expensive in a digital age?”

    There’s a misconception at work here. Digital communication *done well* is not necessarily cheaper than print. Sure, you save paper, ink, and shipping, and you can reach far bigger audiences. But particularly in this rather long developmental period of moving scholarship from print to online, you have a lot of technology development costs, a need for new or retrained staff, and time to develop quite new workflows. And then there are the endless developments and upgrades, not only in technology but also in user expectations.

    Another point of this very good article is that scholarly societies and university presses generally do not have the capital to invest in facilitating this shift. Commercial publishers generally *do* have that capital, and they’ve made good use of it.

    Creating a new business model for scholarly communication is easier said than done (perhaps analogous to creating a better OPAC?) Let’s not start with the premise that it should be cheaper. How about starting with the idea that it could be done better (more flexibly for more potential audiences) and look carefully at what that costs.

  2. Good point. I wasn’t thinking so much about publishing as I was conferences, and even then I was thinking of the perspective of the individual member. Paying to fly to a big city, stay in an expensive hotel, and go listen to papers or conduct association business in person one or twice a year seems so much less helpful (and far more expensive) than the kind of communication I have daily with academic librarians at no added expense to me. When I first got into the field, in the Jurassic period, conferences were a rare chance to meet people who do what I do and get some fresh new ideas. I don’t need to leave my computer to do that now.

    If members of scholarly societies think “what am I getting for this membership? A journal that I can already get through the library and the chance to blow a lot of money at a conference where people stand at a microphone and read papers?” then they might drop the membership. Societies may have to rethink what value they actually offer and how they can foster knowledge in the way that serves its members and society at large – even if that takes reinventing what they do.

    As far as publishing goes, the Ithaka report (now available in an interactive edition) made the interesting observation that libraries had the resources and passion, but not the marketing savvy that UPs do. It will be interesting to see how the mergers of some UPs with library organizations will fare. Maybe another culture clash is in the works…

    Final point – your “better OPAC” comment gives me hope. I think we probably will have a better (and probably cheaper) OPAC very soon largely because librarians fed up with the expensive and totally unsatisfactory ones being sold to us now have decided to try our own open source versions. The momentum is there. And when you see something like LibraryThing come up with constant innovations it makes you wonder why it’s taking us so long.

  3. Monica raises an important point–You can’t easily create innovative new forms of scholarship and simultaneously develop their path to sustainability. If you could, you’d think we’d have done it by now.

    Paul Courant’s August 2006 article in First Monday includes a useful gloss on discussions of scholarship as a “public good” and the intersection with the economics of electronic publishing. He writes: “Unfortunately, although public goods can be extended to more users at zero cost, they can still be costly to produce in the first place. The case of digitally produced scholarship is of course an excellent example. What the theory tells us is that we ought to charge nothing for it at the margin — give it away. It tells nothing about how to pay for its production or how to determine how much to produce.”

    See http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_8/courant/index.html

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