May 14, 2018

Digital Vampires, Zombie Books | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

Does Google want to suck Rupert Murdoch’s blood? Do undead books stalk the halls of academe?

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

As so often happens, two completely unrelated things that I’ve bumped into have started playing an odd two-part harmony. In this case, the collision is between the orientation of university presses and libraries toward their institutions and Rupert Murdoch’s pending divorce from Google, the company that one of Murdoch’s colleagues called a "digital vampire."

Okay, bear with me. I told you it was odd. 

Planned Obsolescence and the undead book
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona, has made a draft of a forthcoming book available through the CommentPress platform. In her book, Planned Obsolescence, she points out that the academy merrily goes on as if publishing books is what scholars are expected to do (at least in the humanities and some of the social sciences), ignoring the reality that the academy can no longer afford to publish books the traditional way.

This "undead" scholarly book—a metric of scholarly merit that is a husk of its former self—requires us, she writes, "to rethink, in a broad sense, the relationship between old media and new, and ask what that relationship bodes for the academy. If the traditional model of academic publishing is not dead, but undead—again, not viable, but still required—how should we approach our work, and the publishing systems that bring it into being?"

Fitzpatrick’s book is not about the technology required, but rather about reimagining the social and cultural practices that drive scholars to publish in the first place. She wants to relocate the place where publishing logically belongs in higher education. So far, I’ve only dipped into the book here and there, but the thing that collided with Rupert Murdoch’s digital vampires was this point made in chapter five:

Libraries have a clear sense of their mandate in relationship to their institutions’ core functions, while presses have existed for some time in a more abstracted relationship to those functions, instead creating through the success of their lists a sense of “prestige” for the institution, without necessarily bearing any relationship to the work being done at the institution.

The geographies of scholarly information
Libraries are local. We lease information or purchase it for our communities and (because we recognize the system is broken) we’re now trying to rally our neighbors to set their research free. Sharing is something we value, even though an increasing percentage of our budgets is going to information we don’t even own. Like our collections and licenses, our open access repositories tend to be anchored to a place and its local community. University presses, on the other hand, do not exist to publish the work of their institutions’ faculty. Yet since they are increasingly treated as a business that must act like one, they tend to be marginalized by their universities as a prestigious relic of questionable value, not as a central function.

When it comes to open access, libraries know how to build the digital platform. We can do the indexing, we can coax the faculty we know to give us copies of their stuff—hey, kids, let’s put on a play! In some cases, after a lot of work, we can even get entire faculties to pass mandates that set the default position at open. But repositories still rely on the idea that vetting will be funded separately, before the work is deposited. And while much of the labor of that vetting is done pro bono, just part of a scholar’s job, those efforts are mostly organized through traditional publication that takes place outside the faculty member’s institution, and it involves quite a lot of specialized work.

In the case of books, manuscripts have to be acquired, edited, proofed, designed, and marketed. The majority of the cost is in labor, not in printing and moving printed products from place to place. Fitzpatrick argues that publication as a public good is undervalued. "Publishing the work of its faculty must be reconceived as central to the university’s mission."

Though some libraries are taking university presses under their administrative wing, we haven’t seen a large-scale reallocation of resources from purchasing information to publishing it, in part because as we grope our way forward, we’re using different maps. University presses and faculty use topographic maps of disciplines. Libraries and university administrators use political maps of institutions. Perhaps libraries and the administrators who decide how to fund them need to be involved in a massive remapping of how we can support the scholarly conversation from start to finish. If we invest in publishing, we won’t have to invest so much in purchasing the product.

Fast forward to the past
So what does this have to do with Rupert Murdoch?

Just as I was browsing Planned Obsolescence, I read a news story about how the Australian media baron who owns news and entertainment outlets all around the globe wants to pull the content of his newspapers out of the place where most people now get their news: Google. On the open Internet, readers choose what news to read based on its topic, its headline, its immediacy—not its locality or its brand. Better to force people to go to Murdoch than for Murdoch to go to the people. And they should pay for it, too.

"They shouldn’t have had it free," Murdoch said in an interview. "It costs us a lot of money to put together good newspapers, good content." He calls search engines and aggregators "plagiarists" and says indignantly "they steal our stories, they just take them." He’s not too happy about one legal loophole called fair use, "which we believe could be challenged in the courts and barred altogether." If someone quotes from a Murdoch news source, "we’ll be suing them for copyright." 

I woudn’t argue that newsgathering doesn’t cost money any more than I would say that publishers don’t add value to books. But the old way of funding news, like the old way of publishing scholarly books, is broken—and we can’t patch it back together again by retreating to the past. In many ways the news as we knew it is undead, too, but it’s not the fault of the public or of the Internet.

In the public interest
Peter Suber argues that some texts should be viewed as a public good. By viewing the containers of ideas as property, we lose sight of the fact that some authors are more interested in sharing their work, in making it public, than they are in selling it. He argues that those authors can insist on their work being publicly available if they are able to set conditions "upstream"—if those who fund the research demand that it be free. Then publishers will be forced to let scholars post their work online.

Unfortunately, many of the texts that are truly necessary for the public good, such as quality news, are not funded by government grants and are endangered by the collapse of the news industries. Murdoch’s plan to rescue the news by pulling out of Google is doomed to failure in part because the public has so little faith in the product; savage cuts in newsrooms in order to preserve profits have disillusioned the public and driven journalists to explore new models that are not based on large news organizations competing for paying readers. Reporters, it turns out, are much quicker to figure out alternatives than their corporate masters are. Maybe that’s because their principles don’t include "provide profits to shareholders." They’ve got more important things on their minds.

In the world of scholarship, the idea of controlling costs by imposing upstream controls doesn’t work for humanists and many social scientists; no large government agency pays for basic research and can therefore demand public access to the results. If a humanist wants to publish a book, and wants it judged by her peers, she can only hope someone is willing to treat it as property. These days, few publishers can afford to do that. Fitzpatrick argues the only way forward is for higher education to stop leaving a big bubble in the middle of the process labeled "publishers do stuff here" and instead take a deep breath and take on the entire process.

Fitzpatrick argues, "universities must recognize that their mission extends to include not just the production of new knowledge through the research done by its faculty, but the communication of that new knowledge via university-based publishing systems, systems that must be supported as part of the institution’s infrastructure."

If books are only written for credentialing, they were never anything but undead; somebody should put a stake in the heart of that wasteful practice. But if we believe those parts of the scholarly enterprise that are not funded by the federal government or industry have any value, we should think seriously about taking the future into our own hands.

Libraries have the right idea. We serve our local communities and we share as much as we legally can with others. But we’re spending most of our resources on artificially constrained containers.

Maybe it’s time to get together with faculty and our university presses to draw a new map.   

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.

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