July 21, 2017

The Two Cultures | Peer to Peer Review

In his 1959 Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, C.P. Snow famously described what he termed the “two cultures” operating in contemporary Britain: that of scientists and that of “literary intellectuals.” Literary intellectuals were part of traditional culture, which was woefully ignorant of modern science. Snow wrote, “If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist. It is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.”

In the academy, the two cultures are often taken to apply to scientists and humanists. Times have certainly changed a great deal, and the scientific outlook now prevails over the traditional culture among those who manage the western world. However, the two cultures still exist within academia to some extent. If, following Snow, one asked a group of literature professors “how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” their response might still be “cold” and “negative,” even if one was “asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

Nevertheless, academic scientists and humanists, despite their differing intellectual cultures, definitely share a gift culture that distinguishes them from others outside academia. The academic gift culture is longstanding, and is based on the idea that knowledge should be shared and widely distributed. For centuries, scientists and scholars have been sharing their research through academies, books, journals, and correspondence. The wide dissemination of knowledge has always been viewed as a positive thing by scientists, whereas the enclosure of knowledge has been the goal of those with other motives, often repressive governments, these days commercial entities.

In his Encyclopédie article on “Encyclopédie,” Denis Diderot’s rationale for an encyclopedia could be taken as a metaphor for all research and knowledge. “The purpose of an encyclopedia,” he wrote, “is to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come; and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race.” Sharing knowledge improves the human race.

Another sentiment from the Enlightenment era provides a further way to understand how sharing knowledge harms no one. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” Robert Darnton has often quoted this line in his defense of the Digital Public Library of America. For the scientist as much as for the humanist, sharing knowledge harms no one, while hoarding knowledge harms us all.

In the gift culture of academia, that knowledge should be shared is the default assumption. It explains why academics usually have no qualms about sending journal articles to colleagues at colleges or universities that cannot afford the journals, even though this might technically violate copyright. It also explains the recent initiatives by universities like Stanford and MIT to put large numbers of their lectures online. Disseminating knowledge is the rationale for higher education.

Contrast this gift culture with the commercial culture that dominates so much of scientific publishing. The recent controversy over the Research Works Act brought out the contrast nicely. Elsevier, who supported the act before they were against it, made themselves a target by their prominent antipathy to the results of publicly funded research being publicly available. However, the commercial ethos surrounding scientific publishing extends to almost all the major commercial publishers. They believe they can and should own the knowledge published in their scholarly journals, and that access to that knowledge should come at an increasingly steep price. They want to squeeze as much profit out of the dissemination of scientific knowledge as they can. They are—and it could be no other way—motivated strictly by that desire for profit, no matter what their PR people might say to the contrary.

The grand irony is that the commercial culture of so much scientific publishing rests on the shoulders of the academic gift culture. Both scientists and humanists give the results of their work to publishers, and then provide editorial and peer review services for free as well. Commercial publishers might say that without this free labor, journal prices would be even higher, but it is as likely that profits would just be lower.

The two cultures—the gift culture of academics and the commercial culture of much scientific publishing—are obviously incompatible in intent and results. Proponents of the gift culture believe that knowledge should be widely disseminated and that public education is beneficial for society. Proponents of the commercial culture, especially the commercial culture at the expense of everything else, believe that as much profit as possible should be made out of the control and enclosure of knowledge, even if that knowledge is publicly funded and freely provided.

The reaction by thousands of scholars against the Research Works Act highlighted the rupture between the two cultures. After decades of increasingly commercial control over scholarly knowledge, a sea change towards open access might not be possible. But emphasizing the gift culture of academics and its ultimate incompatibility with the commercial culture of some scientific publishers may one day lead in that direction.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. Wayne,

    Excellent piece. Thank you.