A Scholar’s Regrets

Danah Boyd is happy to be part of a special issue of Convergence, a journal devoted to new media technologies. But she’s sad that the only people who can read it will be those who subscribe (or whose libraries subscribe – she notes that the institutional subscription is over $500 a year.) Certainly, there’s some irony in using old media to explore new media. From it won’t happen again, because from here on out, Boyd plans to only publish in journals that allow open access – and she urges other scholars to join her boycott.

I should probably be sympathetic to academic publishers. They are getting their lunch eaten and the lack of consistent revenue from journals makes it much harder for them to risk publishing academic books and they are panicked. Yet, frankly, I’m not humored. Producing a journal article is a lot of labor for scholars too. Editing a journal is a lot of labor for scholars too. Academic publishers expect authors to do both for free because that’s how they achieve status. At the same time, they are for-profit entities that profit off of all of the free labor by academics. Some might argue that academics are paid by universities and this external labor is part of their university job. Perhaps, but then why should others be profiting off of it? Why not instead publish with open-access online-only journals produced as labors of love by communities of volunteer scholars (i.e. many open-access journals)? Oh, right. Because those aren’t the “respectable” journals because they don’t have a reputation or a history (of capitalizing off of the labor of academics). The result? Academics are publishing to increasingly narrow audiences who will never read their material purely so that they can get the right credentials to keep their job. This is downright asinine. If scholars are publishing for audiences of zero, no wonder no one respects them.

She recommends that tenured faculty focus on open access-friendly journals, that libraries add open access journals to their catalogs, and that tenure and promotion committees take open access into account. She also suggests funding agencies follow NIH’s lead and mandate open access. And that publishers “wake up or get out.” In an addendum, she points out that patterns have changed; in the past, publication in a top journal meant everyone would read an article, but now younger scholars are less deferential to the idea of prestige – partly because they don’t browse a handful of journals now, they seek out relevant material that they identify by other means.

Boyd is pointing toward a shift in how authority is defined among scholars, but I suspect there’s a practical, technical reason for this change as well: the disaggregation of a journal’s contents into individualized articles that can be discovered by means other than following a particular journal is changing the way people keep up with and discover scholarship.

Open Access at Harvard – Seriously

Sorry to tread on Steven’s heels with another post so quickly – but this is a story worth reading.

Publish or perish has long been the burden of every aspiring university professor. But the question the Harvard faculty will decide on Tuesday is whether to publish — on the Web, at least — free.

Faculty members are scheduled to vote on a measure that would permit Harvard to distribute their scholarship online, instead of signing exclusive agreements with scholarly journals that often have tiny readerships and high subscription costs.

Although the outcome of Tuesday’s vote would apply only to Harvard’s arts and sciences faculty, the impact, given the university’s prestige, could be significant for the open-access movement, which seeks to make scientific and scholarly research available to as many people as possible at no cost.

“In place of a closed, privileged and costly system, it will help open up the world of learning to everyone who wants to learn,” said Robert Darnton, director of the university library. “It will be a first step toward freeing scholarship from the stranglehold of commercial publishers by making it freely available on our own university repository.”

If adopted, the system will be opt out, not opt in – and as experience from both the NIH and library repositories goes, opt in hasn’t created a groundswell among researchers. This is a bold move.

UPDATE: The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has approved the plan. Wow.

ts;db

I’ve noticed that several of my favorite writers have resolved to post more frequently in 2008. Dear favorite writers: at the risk of sounding ungrateful, would you be terribly offended if I begged you not to follow through on this resolution? The odds are, I like your writing because:

  • You publish relatively infrequently. I think you’re great, which is why I read your writing, but I don’t want to know everything that’s on your mind. Generally, somewhere between once a week to once a month is fine by me.
  • Your pieces tend to take me at least five minutes to read, though ideally you’ll allow me the privilege of spending 15-50 minutes on ideas that have taken you several hours to put into words.
  • You publish almost nothing that’s off-topic, in particular almost nothing that’s both off-topic and solely about you. Once or twice a year, at most, going off-topic or writing about yourself is actually endearing. And it can be useful in our post-postmodern world if you acknowledge personal reasons for your opinions. But I’m reading your writing in order to learn about the topic of your blog. Abandon that topic too often and I’ll mostly likely unsubscribe from your feed.

The above criteria were the “ah ha” I got from Steve Yegge’s “Blogging Theory 201: Size Does Matter,” in which he suggests that his website, Stevey’s Blog Rants, is popular not in spite of the fact that he posts long pieces more or less monthly, but because he does.

Let’s start with the obvious. People expect blogs to be short – at least, shorter than mine. They expect that because it’s pretty much how everyone does it. Short entries, and frequent. Here’s my cat today. Doesn’t he look sooo different from yesterday? No wonder so many people hate bloggers.

When I write my long blogs, I’m bucking established social convention, so it’s natural that some people will whine that they’re too long.

Well, how far off cultural expectations am I? Doing a quick print preview in my browser shows that my last entry, formatted at about 14 words per line (typical for a printed book) weighs in at about ten pages. So it’s roughly essay-sized. I’m not talking about those toy five-paragraph essays they made you write in high school. I’m talking about real-life essays by real-life essayists. Real essays can range from three pages to 30 or more, but ten pages is not an unusual length.

If I were attempting to publish these entries as books, publishers would laugh at me. They’re way too short to be books. Sure, I could bundle them, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, two different real-world audiences have entirely incompatible views on what the proper length for my writing should be.

Yegge’s interpretation of online publishing convention is how the notion of length in particular (and essays in general) relates to academic librarians. Steven Bell has written recently on ACRLog and (with David Murray) in College & Research Library News about faculty members who publish online and the importance of our reading their work. As a new academic librarian, this is the sort of idea that is both challenging (Where will I find the time?) and welcome (Cool! More great stuff to read!). He’s also written recently about the idea of tenure for librarians, which, naturally, leads back to what tenure is really all about, on what basis it should be awarded, and whether anyone should have it. Of course, this is interesting on a theoretical level for librarians who have cleared the tenure hurdle or amassed a body of work that would allow them to do so relatively easily if they end up working at an institution where librarians have faculty standing. For those of us new to the profession, discussions about tenure elicit somewhat more practical concerns.

My reading of these discussions is that it comes down to publishing: are we giving back to the profession, and to society, by publishing valuable new ideas and discoveries? Does the protection afforded by tenure foster more valuable writing? For some, peer review is the starting point in determining value, especially for tenure committees, which are often made up of faculty from many departments. Reading standard tenure candidate portfolios is arduous enough; expecting committee members to read the contents of a web-based archive could be interpreted as asking for trouble. After all, how much value could there be in something that was posted online, for free, without the benefit of a formal review process? It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to to notice the difference between the sort of entires you’re likely to find in someone’s LiveJournal and the investigations published in Nature.

Of course, if all non-peer-reviewed online writing were the academic equivalent of I Can Has Cheezburger or Alan Sokal’s parody, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” then Steven’s posts probably would not have elicited the responses that they did. But we know better.

WordPress, MoveableType, and other software packages, by making it easy for people to publish their ideas, have helped create an Internet awash with mundane posts. But widespread use of these software packages by highly esteemed writers has also helped create not only an expectation that the best writers will make their ideas available online, but also an expectation that, with a little legwork, we’ll be able to find their work online for free.

That last part—the notion that non-digital or firewalled writing doesn’t exist—is beyond the scope of this piece. By way of extricating myself from that briar patch, I’ll invite you to imagine a world in which we could download podcasts of the “A Room of One’s Own” lectures Virginia Woolf gave at Cambridge in 1928, or subscribe to feeds of Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” articles or Pauline Kael’s essays on cinema. Once you’re finished imagining that, I suggest that you subscribe to book reviews by Salon’s Laura Miller, Judith Martin’s Miss Manners column, and to join me in counting the minutes until someone offers an Alice Munro feed. Certainly, given the present state of copyright and OCR technology, we may be farther from a fully Googleable world than some of our constituents would like to believe. But we’re also a lot closer than some of our colleagues seem willing to acknowledge (e.g. Laura Miller, Judith Martin, and hundreds or thousands of other brilliant writers making some of all of their best work available not only for free, but via feeds). I think it would be great if we as academic librarians committed to doing our part to bringing a freer, more searchable online world closer and to making it better. One way to do it would be to sacrifice quantity in order to increase quality, at least in the work we’re sharing with peers.

Here’s the first point I’m trying to make: good, thoughtful prose is valuable no matter where or how it’s published. Grigor Perelman posted his groundbreaking work on the Poincaré Conjecture on the free, web-based arXiv.org in November 2002, March 2003, and July 2003, a repository that at the time was considerably easier to post to than ACRLog is now. Even though it has since introduced an endorsement system, arXiv.org remains close to barrier free—and full of indisputably valuable work. Committee members making tenure decisions, just like scientists making arXiv.org endorsements or mathematicians awarding the Fields Medal, are cheating everyone when they take shortcuts in deciding whether someone’s work has value. Peer review plays an important role in numerous situations, but there are times it is neither necessary, as with Perelman, nor sufficient, as with Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries.” At the same time, you may be cheating yourself and your readers if you reserve your best work for peer-reviewed, subscription-only journals. Eventually, people will be rewarded for publishing good work online, and not just with popularity badges.

Here’s the second point I’m trying to make: good, thoughtful prose generally takes more than a few minutes a day to write and more than a couple of hundred words to express. I don’t think it’s a bad thing when people dismiss longer pieces with tl;dr (too long, didn’t read). Certainly, when we’re writing for undergraduates or Pierre Bayard, we need to take that wholly defensible sensibility into account. But if you’re writing for me, and for many other academic librarians, please understand that we’re likely to dismiss light, quick, frequent posts with ts;db: “Too short, didn’t bother.”

Good OA Cheer for the New Year

Congratulations to all the open access activists and to everyone who contacted their congressional representatives in support of the NIH’s plan to archive published research funded by NIH grants. We won!

As one commenter at a lively thread over at Slashdot said, ever so wisely, “All your research are belong to allofus.”

Out of Control, Into the Future

There are some interesting responses showing up to LC’s draft report on the future of bibliographic control. Karen Schneider, Roy Tennant, and (in great depth) Diane Hillmann have weighed in. So has Tim Spaulding of LibraryThing, who urges the Library of Congress – and libraries generally – to make bibliographic records open for reuse. He points to a petition that argues for the virtues of open records.

Bibliographic records are a key part of our shared cultural heritage. They too should therefore be made available to the public for access and re-use without restriction. Not only will this allow libraries to share records more efficiently and improve quality more rapidly through better, easier feedback, but will also make possible more advanced online sites for book-lovers, easier analysis by social scientists, interesting visualizations and summary statistics by journalists and others, as well as many other possibilities we cannot predict in advance.

Government agencies and public institutions are increasingly making data open. We strongly encourage the Library of Congress to join this movement by recommending that more bibliographic data is made available for access, re-use and re-distribution without restriction.

I’d love to hear what academic librarians say about all this. I’d especially love to hear from academic libraries that are using LibraryThing for Libraries. What have been the benefits? How have people responded?

A lot of us think the NIH is right to open up federally-funded research. Is open the way to go for LC, too?