Thursday, January 24, 2013

digital publishing

In response to the Aaron Swartz case, Timothy Burke argues that scholars should just get off their butts and create open-source journals. Then scholarship would be free, as it should be, and we wouldn't be at the mercy of print or online publishers charging extortionate prices for us to access our own and each others' work. Burke is exasperated at his colleagues who defend the ancien regime.

OK, then: he's a scholar; why doesn't he do something, then? Instead of just complaining about it?

I have some concern and some obligation to speak here, because, unusually, I have some agency in this matter, or Burke writes as if I do. I'm the co-editor of an accredited scholarly journal. I'm not an academic myself, but my co-editors are. We're published by an established academic press, and our print volumes cost a pretty penny. We're available on an online database called Project MUSE, for which institutions have to buy subscriptions.

So why don't we just abandon this system and go open-source? It'd make the scholarship we publish more freely available.

Well, we've thought about it. But there's two overwhelming reasons why we don't do any such thing.

We don't have the expertise. We don't have the time.

Also, we don't have the money.

Since joining the editorial team, I've been impressed at the amount of time-consuming work involved in the intellectual and scholarly evaluation of the scholarship we receive. I am writing this post when what I ought to be doing is evaluating the four new or revised papers that have just come in this week (and revised ones are tougher to judge than new ones, because you have to compare what it says now to your evaluation of what it said before, while avoiding the trap of judging it by its improvement and not by its absolute quality). Could we also format the journal, host it online, and communicate its presence to the academic community? No. There is no time. And we wouldn't be particularly good at it, whereas there is hope that we are good at what we are trained and expert at.

What about our university press? That sounds impressive, but it's actually a tiny outfit, basically two overworked people in a small office, under obligations to be an income-producing source for the underfunded public university they work for. They can and do perform some tasks we cannot. But they couldn't host the journal online, assuming they were permitted by the university to do it, and they'd be one small entity out in the wilderness if they did.

So here's an idea. A bunch of universities should get together and establish a consortium. Yes, that's the ticket. Pool their resources, hire some people with both academic background and expertise in the technical and marketing sides, split the costs, and have a large online database that everyone would know was the place to go for access.

But ... but that's what Project MUSE is. And JSTOR, the entity that Aaron Swartz performed his guerrilla warfare against. This isn't Pergamon Press or Elsevier, folks, for-profit divisions of rapacious corporations out to squeeze the last penny from your pockets. Project MUSE and JSTOR are both non-profit entities, funded largely by foundation grants. Project MUSE is the creation of a university press that was large enough, and had the forward-looking support, to create such an endeavor. JSTOR is the brainchild of an economics professor who decided that improving electronic access to journals would be sufficient of a worthwhile mitzvah to leave academia for.

So why do they charge so much money to access their resources? I don't know. Are their costs really that high that they must be recouped in this manner? But if so, then guerrilla open-source actions like Aaron Swartz's are ultimately self-defeating. In Kathryn Cramer's immortal formulation, "Information wants to be free, but writers need to be paid." So do the people who put writers' work online, and the companies from which they contract hosting services. Aaron Swartz shouted "Be free! Be free!" but, if this is correct, it can't survive and flourish and keep itself renewed without an income. All he'd do is destroy what he's trying to save. (Did you ever see a movie called Bless the Beasts & Children?)

Or is it that economic greed is so deeply built into the human soul that even non-profit entities are driven to charge as much as they can get away with, sometimes more? In that case, in the revolution is the seed of its own destruction. Let's say Aaron Swartz had been successful at liberating the contents of JSTOR and set up his own open-source database. Soon enough he'd find that he needed money to operate it (see previous paragraph). And then - if this paragraph's thesis is correct - either he, or his successors, would soon enough find that they started charging, and charging, more, and more, and we'd be back where we started, and another Aaron Swartz would come along and tear down the Bastille again, and then another Emperor Napoleon would arise, and then ...

I'm not defending the regime. I simply think we're stuck with it.

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