Andres O'Hara-Plotnik


Open Ivory

When I was in college, a candid grad student once told me that one of the worst insults you could give to an academic book or journal article was that it was journalistic, it meant poorly researched and unconcerned with the complexities of the subject. Proper academic papers, in contrast, are rigorously researched, challenged, more nuanced and less simplified. They seek to find the messy truth in the world, not simply to appeal to a mass audience. However, ideas about the purpose of academic writing and publishing are changing.

Professors receive extensive resources from their university to conduct research and write papers, and after a lengthy editing and vetting process, some of these papers are published in prestigious journals. The publisher does not have to pay the writer or editor for publication, yet retains digital right to the article, selling or leasing it to academic search engine companies. These databases sell subscriptions to university libraries for a substantial fee.

 According to The Atlantic:

The UC San Diego Libraries report that 65% of their total budget goes towards getting access to JSTOR and other databases. To get access to the Arts and Sciences collection at JSTOR — only one of the many databases and collections of information — university libraries must pay a one time charge of $45,000 and then $8,500 every year after that….Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year, 150 million attempts to read JSTOR content are denied every year

Many concerned with open access have spoken out against this model. Scientists are creating open access archives and journals like arXive and Public Library of Science, as well as online communities modeled off of larger social networking sites; site that are thriving as a response to the exclusive nature in publishing research papers.

The New York Times reports that Scott Aaronson, a quantum computing theorist at MIT, has refused to conduct peer review or submit papers for commercial journals. On his website, Aaronson writes:

Today, many journal articles are online, but are accessible only from schools, companies, and research centers that have bought exorbitantly-priced “institutional subscriptions” to services like Elsevier’s ScienceDirect. I’ve always been amazed by the arrogance of the view that this represents an acceptable solution to the problem of circulating research. Even if the subscriptions cost a reasonable amount (they don’t), and even if the researchers who were “entitled” to them could easily access them away from their workplaces (they can’t), who are we to say that a precocious high-school student, or a struggling researcher in Belarus or Ghana, has no legitimate use for our work? Or if our work is intended only for a small circle of colleagues, then why even bother writing it up?

That last sentence makes me wonder. Who would defend the current model of publishing? That same New York Times article quotes an editor of Nature, saying that the traditional published paper will remain strong because it is still “a unit to award grants or assess jobs and tenure.” Ah.

I know nothing about the structure of academic science departments.  I was a government major in college, I studied political economy, theories about freedom, power, and institutions. Here is one popular way to frame an institution, no matter how small or large: sometimes, an institution blooms into fruition based on a series of ideas, great ideas, and people who spearhead the movement take on roles to uphold and promote those ideas. But as the institution grows and positions calcify and change hands, new leaders can end up molding it to protect their roles and responsibilities, their jobs. This can conflict with other groups that say that they have a better way of promoting those same ideas. This applies to legislative bodies, government agencies, unions, and even university departments.

One reason keeping more scientists from promoting open access research papers, I’m only guessing, is that their work, published in these more informal forums, would count for less. It would win them fewer points, either on a path towards tenure and a distinguished career. Just as well, the proliferation of these forums and databases may dilute the importance of formerly distinguished journals. Perhaps it would change the direction and purpose of more academic papers published.

This career mentality in writing in publishing is not limited to the world of science; academic writing in English departments is being scrutinized as well. When Mark Baulerin, professor of English at Emory University, examined published books and articles by English faculty, the problem he found was not that there was lack of access for this material, it was lack of interest.

Baulerin writes:

However much they certify their authors as professionals and win them jobs and tenure, essays and books of high scholarly merit in literary studies suffer the same inattention all the time. Why? Because after four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?

Just as many now argue that science papers should be distributed with a larger audience in mind, Baulerin’s study implies that English academic papers would have more value if they were written with a larger audience in mind. Yet that comes dangerously close to journalism, doesn’t it? Yet his suggestions are focused on teaching, not writing.

In 1988, when I left graduate school, writing a book stood tall as the most effective way of promoting English. Citation counts explode that pretense and point professors toward better advocacy of their fields, like organizing undergraduate reading groups.

Could it be that he is skeptical that the conditions under which academic papers are written are incompatible with a larger audience? If the purpose of academic papers and books, in both the Science and English departments continues to be to seek a lifetime appointment at a university, that is, to put yourself in a position where your work will always find an audience in a certain community, for life, then what motivation would you have to write to a larger audience that may not accept you?

Writing and publishing for a larger, non-university audience may not win the author any more prestige, but that’s not the point. Bora Zivkovic, a chronobiology blogger, is quoted in the New York Times saying that scientists should not be seen as competing with one another. “Lindsay Lohan is our competitor,” he continued. “We have to get her off the screen and get science there instead.”


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This entry was posted on February 11, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .


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