Battles in academia can be red in tooth and claw, though scholarly literature tends to conceal the claws in kid gloves, reserving snark for the fine print of the footnotes or merely leaving it hovering between the lines. The gloves come off in more public places. It’s not always pretty.
A recent example is an article in the Guardian by George Monbiot who has some savage things to say about academic publishers and the “monopoly” they hold on the high prestige journals they have “rounded up.” True, in some cases scholarly societies have outsourced their publications to commercial publishers. The coziness of that relationship was made plain to me last year when I joined a scholarly society and was directed to Wiley’s site to pay my dues. But in many cases these publishers developed and cultivated the prestige that scholars hope will rub off on them by being accepted into one of those highly-regarded journals. They actually made those journals, they didn’t round them up. (Yes, I know the content is provided by authors who are not paid, but there is other work involved in publishing journals, particularly those that everyone wants to be in.)
Monbiot was not being even-handed, but neither was Kent Anderson responding at the Scholarly Kitchen, in a blog post titled “Uninformed, Unhinged, and Unfair – The Monbiot Rant.” With a title like that, I guess we don’t need to ask how he really feels.
Ranting versus reasoning
When polemics like these two get published, the comments roll in, the temperatures rise, insults are flung, and soon it’s hard to tell if anyone is actually trying to persuade those who disagree or are just trying to show off their best berserker skills.
Anderson takes Monbiot to task for claiming that democracy depends on access to highly specialized information that very few people are interested in or capable of understanding. Fair enough. Information critical for democracy is not typically found in arcane scientific journals. But science depends on access to its own literature, and science is done in lots of places without well-funded research libraries able to absorb the costs of doing it the way we are doing it today. Anderson argues that access is a canard, since scientists working in these specialized areas probably already know each other and already have all the access they need through those connections. That may well be true in many instances – but then why should we spend so much to have it published if the dozen people who need an article read it months ago?
Nor does it help to say “there is no problem. People do have access.” One of the kitchen’s cooks produced evidence in the form of a study that found the vast majority of North American researchers say they have access to all the articles they need. The study was done for a consortium of publishers, with Elsevier heavily involved in the research. It may be true, but I would need that research confirmed elsewhere before I would find it a slam-dunk case, particularly as it is certainly not true for the researchers I know and work with. This is the kind of choice I try to steer undergraduates away from. They need to use evidence that will persuade, and to persuade you need sources that won’t be dismissed as biased.
Two steps backward
I’m also wondering just how to bridge our gaps in understanding when advocates for the publishing industry say things that seem so wildly counterintuitive. Anderson writes, “While price tags like $10,000 are optically challenging, usage and reshelving data have repeatedly shown that on a per-use basis, these journals are good value for the money. Consider that for a moment. There are so many scientists getting so much access even at that price that it’s a good value.”
Maybe those numbers work at some institutions where there are lots of scientists working in the same area and needing the same journals (though I still find it a stretch). It’s not remotely possible at my library. I work at a liberal arts college where it’s typical that only one faculty member is working in a specialty for which a particular journal is key. That one faculty member is nevertheless a working scientist who needs access to the literature. We can buy him articles one at a time-but even he’s perturbed that we have to spend as much as $50 for him to see an article that may or may not be relevant. Today we paid an invoice for four articles we purchased for one of these faculty members. The price could have easily bought four books that we could keep and share. Good value? Not the way I define it.
My point in the end is that this kind of railing against one another may succeed in calling attention to an issue – and it seems there are still scholars who are startled to learn how much the access they take for granted costs their institutions just as there are others who think publishing can be done without costing anything. (The Internet is free, right?) But after reading those two screeds I didn’t learn anything about how to proceed and I understand publishers’ perspectives even less than before. After reading these two angry and argumentative posts, I felt the same way I do when I listen to debates in Congress with my head in my hands.
One step forward
But just as I was sinking into despair, some news popped into my inbox that cheered me up. JSTOR has decided it can afford to provide free access to some of the content it has digitized, content old enough to be in the public domain. This follows on the heels of the mysterious criminal indictment of Aaron Swartz who had downloaded millions of JSTOR articles through an unauthorized backdoor and the subsequent gesture of solidarity when Greg Maxwell uploaded the public domain Transactions of the Royal Society to Pirate Bay, writing “scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy… As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The ‘publish or perish’ pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia.” Because so many scholars have come to rely on JSTOR, they get angry with JSTOR rather than the publishers that play a big role in setting the terms of access.
One cheer for JSTOR for doing something about that inertia. It’s a terrific development, though JSTOR makes it clear that we shouldn’t get carried away:
There are costs associated with selection, digitization, access provision, preservation, and a wide variety of services that are necessary for content to reach those who need it. We have determined that we can sustain free access and meet our preservation obligations for this particular set of content for individuals as part of our overall activities undertaken in pursuit of our mission.
In other words, don’t get your hopes up. Providing information for free is a one-time gift, not a strategy, not a trend.
Still, on a day when our future seems shrouded in the fog of war, it’s good to see a little progress-even if it’s two cheers short of a celebration.