Category Archives: information industries

Balancing Act

I’m kind of in the pickle that Maura describes – subscribed to too many sources of information that I would read if I weren’t so busy keeping up with the stream of new information. But Current Cites is always a good ‘un for finding a cross-section of interesting new stuff and this week it pointed me to a twig I must have missed in the current. Sometimes it’s only when you see it the second time, maybe just as you’re pouring a second cup of coffee int he morning, that it catches your eye.

First Mondays (an excellent and long-established open access journal) has an article by Brian Whitworth and Rob Friedman on “Reinventing Academic Publishing Online.” In a nutshell, it examines the fact that the “top” academic journals remain vested in a traditional system in which maintaining barriers and exclusivity because their exclusivity is perceived as rigor and therefore value. The higher your rejection rate, the prouder you are. But there are two mistakes academic publishing can make: publishing stuff that isn’t any good and not publishing stuff that turns out to be good. It’s the cost of the latter – failing to publish something innovative and challenging for fear it might be wrong – that these authors feel is left out of the equation.

These error types trade off, so reducing one increases the other, e.g., a journal can reduce Type I errors to 0 percent by rejecting all submissions, but this also raises Type II errors to 100 percent as nothing useful is published. The commonsense principle is that to win a lottery (get value) you must buy a ticket (take risk). In academic publishing the rigor problem occurs when reducing Type I error increases Type II error more . . . Pursuing rigor alone produces rigor mortis in the theory leg of scientific progress.

The authors point to the fact that the publishing industry essentially determines who is hired and fired in universities, which flies in the face of the mission we are supposedly on and the intellectual freedom that should enable our work.

When a system becomes the mechanism for power, profit and control, idealized goals like the search for truth can easily take a back seat. Authors may not personally want their work locked away in expensive journals that only endowed western universities can afford, but business exclusivity requires it. Authors may personally see others as colleagues in a cooperative research journey, but the system frames them as competition for jobs and grants. As academia becomes a business, new ideas become threats to power rather than opportunities for knowledge growth. Journals become the gatekeepers of academic power rather than cultivators of knowledge, and theories battle weapons in promotion arenas, rather than plows in knowledge fields.

The authors suggest that under the color of “rigor” this model sustains a system in which cross-disciplinary and innovative research is unwelcome. “As more rigorous and exclusive ‘specialties’ emerge, the expected trend is an academic publishing system that produces more and more about less and less.” (And hey, it’ll make the Big Bundle even bigger and more expensive, therefore more profitable.) They think instead technology could offer ways to facilitate information exchange rather than creation of further citadels of isolated specialization. Paying more attention to the mistake of failing to publish something that turns out to be worthwhile will require the creation of a democratic open knowledge exchange which can better balance the equation.

The funny thing is that this tension has existed for a long time. Well before the Internet enabled the opportunity for fundamental change in the way we share research, both Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn described the delicate tension between maintaining an agreed-upon understanding by fending off crackpot theories and the need to allow something new to challenge the dominant paradigm. Both self interest and a more idealized notion of rigor conspire against innovation. What I find interesting about this First Monday article is the idea that our current dominant publishing model has let self-interest reign supreme, and that a new open model could let the more idealized urge to preserve that which is solid and true duke it out with ideas that challenge it. It could balance the risk/reward tradeoff involved in choosing what to publish and which questions to pursue.

By the way, what is your library planning to do for Open Access Week?

(Photo courtesy of rptnorris.)

Sustaining Scholarship

As Jennifer Howard of the Chronicle reports, collaboration between libraries and presses was a theme at the most recent meeting of the Association of American University Presses, but there seems to have been some heat generated over library/press relations and the open access movement.

One option is the “Michigan Model” in which a press becomes a part of the library’s operations, sharing a common vision, but having to adapt to library culture or risk marginalization. For some presses, this probably sounds like “resistance is futile. You will be absorbed.” But Michigan is not the only press to be aligned with the library’s operations. As reported by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed, Penn State University Press is also part of the library division, and according to Patrick H. Alexander, that means adjusting to very different experiences.

Presses, he said, “look outward” and are “very much concerned about professors at other institutions, relationships with external vendors — we work largely with people outside the institution. That is not the perspective of the university library,” he said. University presses must be constantly thinking about revenue, while libraries, he said, are focused on service. At a university press, he said, the motto must many times be “just say no,” as editors turn down book proposals they can’t publish and must do so all the time. The library, he said, is much more of a “yes we can” place, trying to satisfy the faculty and students of the campus.

Maybe through this cultural collision we’ll both learn something valuable.

Doug Armato of the University of Minnesota Press criticized the “polarizing and self-serving rhetoric” of the open access movement. This year’s president of the AAUP, Alex Holzman of Temple UP, predicted that the electronic revolution for book publishing is about to take off and change everything, though he doesn’t see open access as the future of university presses.

But Michael Jensen of the American Academies Press (whose books have been browsable for free online for years) had a different prediction.

In the conference’s final plenary session, “Directions for Open Access Publishing,” Michael J. Jensen, director of strategic Web communications for the National Academies Press, made an extreme version of the adapt-or-die argument for incorporating open access into scholarly publishing. Mr. Jensen entertained the audience with a description of his longtime obsession with crises that threaten life as we know it. Then he went for the Darwinian kill and linked print-based culture with global warming.

“C02 must be radically curtailed,” he said. “Print is CO2-heavy.” How about a business model that would rely on 50 percent digital sales, 25 percent print-on-demand books, and 25 percent institutionally funded open-access publishing? “Open access in exchange for institutional support is a business model for survival,” Mr. Jensen advised, all joking aside.

“If we fail to make these changes, we will be knowing participants in the death spiral,” he warned. “The print book must become the exception, not the rule, as soon as possible.”

Inside Higher Ed has further coverage of the debate over open access and different possible models for long-term sustainability.

More immediate threats to presses facing closure were also on the agenda. Take, for example, LSU Press. They have a terrific list, books that have won Pulitzers and become bestsellers as well as scholarly books that might not find a home elsewhere. Check it out – maybe you’ll find some books that fit your curriculum that should be on your shelves. And maybe it will help sustain a valuable press while together we figure out the best way to disseminate scholarship in the 21st century.

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

Non-rival is non-relevant

I’m glad that Elisabeth Jones wrote to our tip page about her post–Fighting for non-rival pudding–because I’ve been wanting to spout off about non-rivalness for a while now.

Anytime you hear someone talk about intellectual property you are going to wind up hearing the phrase “non-rival.” The idea is that information or knowledge is a non-rival good. What this means is that when one person consumes information, it does not prevent another person from consuming it. So information or knowledge is not like land or pudding, which are “used up” when other people consume them. Ok, fine.

But from this idea many people quickly get to conclusions like: information just wants to be free; intellectual property is evil; DRM is the devil; and the Kindle is a giant threat to intellectual freedom. Maybe all those things are true, but I don’t think you can get there from the claim that information is non-rival.

First, I’m not even sure that information is non-rival. What about a juicy piece of gossip? The more people hear about it, the less juicy it becomes, the more it is “used up.” Or what about the secret to a magic trick? Or an insider stock tip? Or a trade secret? Or any information that gives someone a competitive advantage?

But even assuming that information is non-rival, nothing follows from this about intellectual property rights. Information and knowledge should be widely distributed because everyone in society will be better off (not because they are non-rival). But that doesn’t mean information has no value, or that the creators of information can’t charge for it, or put restrictions on who uses it and what they can do with it (within reason).

And even assuming that information is non-rival, that does not mean that books as containers of information are non-rival. In fact books are not non-rival in all respects, as anyone who goes to a library and finds the book they want “checked out” knows. If someone is using a book, someone else cannot simultaneously use it, hence it is not non-rival. Oh unless it’s an electronic book, with the right kind of DRM set up.

In her post, Jones jumps from the idea that information is non-rival to the idea that the Amazon Kindle will do “monumental and egregious harm…to intellectual freedom and the maintenance of an informed populace” because a person cannot take their Kindle book content to a used bookstore or donate it to a library like one could with a physical book. Jones claims that books are like bottomless cups of pudding because others can consume their contents hundreds or thousands more times.

This is going too far. It’s an open question whether Kindle will lead to a more or less informed populace. Kindle books are less expensive (after you shell out for the device) than physical books. Kindle makes it easier to carry more books at one time on a train or a plane. Perhaps for these reasons, Kindle will lead to a more informed populace, not less. As for not being able to sell or give away Kindle books, that is a disadvantage, but if people could give away digital books there’s a good argument that that activity would undermine the whole market because sharing networks would be set up. We may like that, but I don’t think there’s an inherent right to it simply because information is non-rival or because information is a public good. Physical books are not, as Jones claims, bottomless cups of pudding. Eventually they wear out, especially if the first owner treats them roughly or writes in them. The more they are used, the more they are used up. As far as I know there is nothing stopping someone from loading up a Kindle and selling it or giving it away, or even lending it out, as some libraries have done.

The debate of ownership vs. access for libraries is not a simple one, and it’s quite a stretch to blame the current economic meltdown on access over ownership. Intellectual goods may be non-rival, but physical books are not. Something follows from the fact that information is non-rival, but I’m not sure what and I’m not sure it’s interesting. Whatever it is I don’t think it has anything to do with intellectual property rights, the debate between ownership versus access in libraries, or if the Kindle is a boon or threat to intellectual culture.

Local Food (for Thought) Movement

LJ Academic Newswire reports that U Penn is the latest to offer scan-on-demand with quality print output. Emory uses the same Kirtas machine to offer a curated collection of books relevant to Emory and to the South, unique in their collections. UMich, which has a rich collection of books scanned through their own efforts and with the Google project, has an Espresso machine standing by reading to instantly print copies. Cornell sells thousands of scanned books printed on demand through Amazon’s POD company.

And Boston Public, in a partnership with the Open Library that seems to have gotten far too little press, will digitize a public domain book of your choice within a matter of days, letting demand drive mass digitization. All you have to do is press a button in their catalog. How cool is that?

It’s interesting how these efforts are described. “An ATM for books.” “Library as Bookstore.” “Library as publisher.” “Amazon partnership.” We’re not quite sure what to call this effort – which is making public domain books available in multiple formats to as many people as possible while recovering costs. Basically, it’s interlibrary loan of non-returnables that happen to be book-sized and often go direct to the patron. It’s a terrific development. But . . . you knew there’d be a but, didn’t you?

By now some of you will have twigged to the fact that partnering with Amazon – particularly for POD fulfillment – is going on my “hey, wait a minute” list. Amazon is a hugely successful company that is able to set terms because it is so big. Their strategy is vertical integration and ownership of every piece of the industry that can be integrated. The only POD company they support is the one they own. The only e-book format they will sell is the one they bought – MobiPocket (which also fuels Kindle). They are the Microsoft of books. Don’t like the way we do things? Tough, ’cause we’re the biggest. You go through us, you get the audience, but you play by our rules.

The more we partner with Amazon, the bigger it gets and the harder it is for local independent bookstores to survive. It’s the same Faustian bargain libraries stuck with Google to digitize books, but it’s harder to argue it’s totally win-win. Independent booksellers lose. That’s a choice we make.

I suggested an even more radical partnership partnership in Library Journal last year, but so far no takers. I’m not really surprised, since it would require regional library consortia having a new-generation machine and expanding delivery of print-on-demand books to local booksellers. But a partnership of publishers, regional library systems, and the local book trade could lead to a greener, more reader-driven supply of books to borrow or buy – and a healthier local community.

I recently caught a blog posting from a bookseller who said of hard times “it’s Mardi Gras over there at the library!” We’ve all seen the news stories about the surge in library use. We have the mojo to refresh a broken book culture using new technologies and new ideas, but before we fashion ourselves as publishers, we should think about what that means to our communities near by.

I know a lot of indie booksellers, and they are dedicated to connecting people to books because they believe that connection matters. They aren’t getting rich. They aren’t trying to boost their profit margin. They’re just trying to pay the rent and stay open. My own campus bookstore is one of the few that isn’t outsourced. It’s an independent bookstore, and I’m proud of that.

If we’re going to become part of the book business, let’s think about how to do it in a way that doesn’t screw over our local partners in connecting books and readers.