Category Archives: Idiocy

Is A Response Even Worth Our Time

A Facebook friend messaged me to say “ACRLog needs to take this on”, in reference to this comment associated with a Slate piece on why tenure should be abolished. Andrew Sullivan who blogs for The Atlantic shared a few paragraphs from the Slate piece with his readers. It generated a fair number of comments in favor of and against tenure. No one in the academic librarian community seemed to care much about the original piece or the bulk of the comments until one of them attacked our right to have tenure.

My personal inclination is to ignore this comment completely. What I would like to take on is why academic librarians get their panties in such a twist so worked up about this sort of thing? This is an off-the-cuff comment to an opinion piece. It’s not like it’s a well researched, well thought out essay in The Chronicle that might actually dignify a response. For all we know the comment is from a disgruntled librarian who got turned down for tenure and now holds a grudge against librarians who have tenure. Are we so insecure about our professional status and our right to claim tenure status that we have to defend it against every feeble critique. And what’s the point of doing so anyway? Is there anything any of us could write that would change the commenter’s mind – or the mind of anyone who’s against tenure? We’ve all seen dozens of impassioned arguments for and against tenure. Have you ever read a single response or comment along the lines of “What you had to say actually made me change my mind on this issue”? I sure haven’t.

You answer, “but Steven, we should respond not to change this writer’s mind, but to make sure that all the other people who read it know that tenure for librarians is a good thing – and that we conduct really valuable research and that we are really, really busy helping faculty and students and that we really deserve tenure – and that if nothing else we have to correct misstatements and attack outright lies”. I understand that argument – we want the truth to be known. But who is it that we are so worried will read this tripe and believe it? Our faculty colleagues? Our academic administrators? Do we have so little faith in their ability to think critically about the issues that we feel the overwhelming urge to offer up a counter-argument? Do you think your provost will be swayed by this comment’s exquisite logic and well documented arguments? “Hmm, according to this anonymous comment, our librarians don’t have anything to do now that all research can be done with Google. Why did we let them have tenure in the first place? Maybe we should rethink that.” I’m sure that’s how it’s going to go down. Didn’t this article convince us that our academic administrators really do like us and that they have our backs – or are we going to let our inferiority complex get the best of us once again?

My preference is to just ignore this negativity all together. Rather than taking the time to write an impassioned essay defending an academic librarian’s right to tenure (which has already been done anyway) or justifying why we deserve to have our jobs, I suggest we all put our effort into doing what we do well every opportunity we have which is making a difference in our academic communities in service to our students, faculty and staff. If we do that well I think we’ll have no reason at all to constantly allow ignorant fools to push our buttons and manipulate us into responding just the way they know we will. So get your panties untwisted take a moment to think about this and then get back to work.

Manual Labor

As if health care reform, the mess in Afghanistan, and H1N1 weren’t enough to ruin your day, having to cope with new editions of two major style manuals (neither of which actually keeps up with new information formats because they keep changing) is one of those “in the cosmic scale of thing it’s really incredibly trivial but ARRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!” events.

MLA has finally decided it doesn’t matter what library you were in when retrieved an article or what “service” happens to be selling your library a particular database this contract year. Ten points for the rationality team. But leaving out URLs because anyone can do a search and find a website? One with no discernible author and several phrases at the top of the page, any of which might be the title – or the site name – or the sponsor? All of which are commonplace phrases that retrieve 5 million possible URLs? Okaaaay…. Deduct five points and go stand in the corner.

But it’s undeniably APA that has won the World Series of Stupid Style Manual Changes. DOIs? Not a bad idea. Citing the web site of the journal? Bad idea. Issuing seven pages of corrections and making excuses by saying they are “nonsignificant” errors?

Priceless.

This could be the tipping point. The time has come for faculty and librarians working with undergraduates to loosen up. In the cosmic scale of things, this manual labor really is trivial, but it carries a huge carbon footprint. For every hour spent writing a paper, at least an equivalent hour is spent trying to figure out whether you need a comma or a period here, which city out of the six on the title page is the one to use, what database you printed that article out of, or trying to identify the website of a journal for an article published in 1986 that you printed off JSTOR, given the publication changed titles three times and switched publishers five time since then. As this activity always happens in the wee hours of the morning on the day the paper is due, lights and computers have to be running, so we’re talking about a major energy drain. That’s not counting the environmental damage caused while creating and shipping the large amounts of carbonated caffienated beverages consumed in the process. Or the evening hours of the professors who are doing much the same while marking papers. Or the librarians trying to update their websites, guides, and class materials.

And what exactly are the learning outcomes of creating an error-free list of references? You learn that research is a pain in the butt. You learn that it’s really, really important to follow pointless rules with utter scrupulousness. You learn that, at the end of the day, you’ll get points off because you didn’t follow the pointless rules – unless, of course, you’re making a bundle off book sales, in which case “nonsignificant” is a valid defense.

I recommend that librarians stop teaching citation styles. (Why did we get stuck with that job, anyway?) That professors stop spending hours trying to correct student work using new style manuals as unfamiliar to them as to their students and go play with the baby or take a walk instead. That students are told “the reason we cite sources is because they serve as your expert witnesses; people need to know who these witnesses are, so provide their credentials, ones that readers can use to find the sources themselves, because they may want to learn more about the subject. That’s why we cite things. Oh, and to give credit where it’s due and avoid a plagiarism rap. That’s important, too.”

As for all those arcane rules? “Don’t worry about it. They’re nonsignificant. Just give me the information I need to find the source, and make it easy to read. That’s all I ask.”

We might not save the planet, but we would save a lot of pointless aggravation. Not to mention a few bucks buying updated style manuals.

CC-licensed photo courtesy of Jonno Witts; part of the Writer’s Block set.

I’ll Take the Humanities for Ten Thousand

Jennifer Howard of the Chron (subscription required) offers a preview of a study commissioned by the National Humanities Alliance and funded by Mellon which looked at the back office costs of flagship journals published by scholarly societies (many of them in the social sciences, oddly) and concluded that they actually cost more than STM journals. Articles are longer, and rejection rates in these disciplines is higher, meaning more costs for handling the gatekeeping functions.

This does not surprise me given that STM authors often pay page charges, and they pay on the other end, too; one biologist recently told me that she had to pay $250 to a publisher get a .pdf of an article she’d written. She was surprised to learn that this isn’t standard practice in other fields. The full-color and expensive paper often used in STM journals isn’t as common in humanities and social sciences journals, but those journals also don’t get significant ad revenue from corporations published on glossy full-color pages.

And the fact is, there’s a lot of money sloshing around STM research that hyperinflates its prices. Grants fund research, and so can also fund publications bills. (Your tax dollars at work!) And STM information has a “street value” that doesn’t exist for the humanities or for most social science research. The people with deep pockets in medical, engineering, and other applied science fields don’t buy or publish in journals that discuss Latin American history, theological views on compassion, or examinations of the effectiveness of mixed-income housing replacements for public housing projects.

What does surprise me is the cost of producing these flagship journals. According to the study:

It cost an average of $9,994 in 2007 to publish an article in one of the eight journals analyzed, compared with an average of $2,670 for STM journal articles.

Frankly, I’m dumbfounded. Are they are figuring in the salaries of the faculty who do all the free work? That’s the only way I can come up with that math. The report isn’t on their Web site as of this writing, but I’ll be looking for it.

I’ll also be looking for its recommendations, since the author-pays model will not work for these disciplines (your tax dollars not at work!) and clearly something here is badly broken.

And maybe this number should be discussed by every tenure and promotion committee in the country. Couldn’t we make our decisions based on quality and significance rather than on quantity? What we’re doing now is hopelessly wasteful in every possible way.

This Journal Brought to You By . . .

It was shocking at the end of April when The Scientist reported that Elsevier had published a scholarly-journal-like series that was actually advertising paid for by Merck. The peer-reviewed-like articles in the journal-like object were either reprints or summaries of articles that reported results favorable to Merck drugs. There were also “review” articles that had only a couple of references. Reviewed that. Merck good. Go prescribe.

Now it turns out this wasn’t an embarrassing one-off. Elsevier published at least six fake journals – er, sorry, got my terminology wrong: “sponsored article publications.” (The Scientist article is free, but requires registration.)

Mistakes were made. Elsevier officials regret the error. The nasty people who did that left the company long ago. Besides, it was in Australia. The CEO of Elsevier’s Heath Sciences division says it’s going to be looked into, but he’s sure it’s not ever going to happen again. “I can assure all that the integrity of Elsevier’s publications and business practices remains intact.”

Um, isn’t that up to us to say? Seems to me Elsevier’s integrity was in question even before this disgraceful and embarrassing revelation.

Anne-Marie posted some thoughtful comments about this issue at Info-fetishist – particularly the implications for information literacy.

Maybe we can’t talk about peer review at all anymore without talking about the future of a system of knowledge reporting that is almost entirely dependent upon on the volunteer efforts of scholars and researchers, almost entirely dependent upon their professionalism and commitment to the quality of their disciplines, in a world where ultimate control is passing away from those scholars’ and researchers’ professional societies and into the hands of corporate entities whose decisions are driven not by commitment to quality, knowledge creation or disciplinary integrity.

We’ve been focusing on “why pay attention to scholarly work and conversations going on on the participatory web” mostly in terms of how these things help us give our students access to scholarly material, how they help our students contextualize and understand scholarly debates, how they lay bare the processes of knowledge creation that lie under the surface of the perfect, final-product article you see in scholarly journals. And all of those things are important. But I think we’re going to have to add that “whistleblower” aspect — we need to pay attention to scholars on the participatory web so they can point out where the traditional processes are corrupt, and where the gatekeepers are making decisions that aren’t in the interests of the rest of us.

Excellent food for thought.

Another approach to the news popped up at the LSW room at FriendFeed where Steve Lawson proposed “the LSW needs to get Elsevier to publish the Australasian Journal of Library Science.” And in the over 80 responses you can find helpful suggestions like “your article will be reviewed by a panel of representatives from library vendors,” “there should be one issue deliberately missing. Supplements should be completely unavailable electronically,” and “it’s only available on one computer on campus. There is a login & password if you want off-campus access, but you can’t share it with ANYONE. … and we’ll publish 4 issues per year. But if we can’t come up with enough content for 4 issues a year, we can just combine them, like 1/2 or 1-2-3 or 2-4 or whatever.” See how productive pent-up rage can be? Thanks to all the brilliance behind this thread for the best serials humor ever.

Amongst all the giddiness some commenters pointed out a previous little scandal involving a high-impact journal that got its high impact by having one allegedly “crackpot” author publish multiple papers., as many as five in a single issue, all of them citing himself. The publisher? You guessed it – Elsevier.

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photo courtesy of London Permaculture

Heather Has Two Mommies and Just Canceled her Amazon Account

A current kerfuffle on the Internets has to do with Amazon de-ranking GLBT-themed books as reported on the LA Times Jacket Copy blog.

Amazon’s policy of removing “adult” content from its rankings seems to be both new and unevenly implemented. On Saturday, self-published author Mark R. Probst noticed that his book had lost its ranking, and made inquiries. The response he got from Amazon’s customer service explained:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Probst wrote a novel for young adults with gay characters set in the old West; he was concerned that gay-friendly books were being unfairly targeted. Amazon has not responded to the L.A. Times request for clarification.

Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs, “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel, “The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1″ by Michel Foucault, “Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), “Little Birds: Erotica” by Anais Nin, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), “Maurice” by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and “Becoming a Man” by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

Maybe this is just a new marketing gimmick – create viral annoyance to get your brand out there. Certainly Kindle 2 got a lot of attention when the text-to-speech feature was disabled because the Author’s Guild has put its head in a place that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company.

In any case, libraries have one thing going for them – we defend intellectual freedom. Let’s see if we can tweet that to the world. Support your free (as in beer and as in speech) library.