Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Boycott Elsevier? Yes, But the Real Solution Lies Elsewhere

One does not become an academic to get rich. Even the most successful, those who end up owning a patent or writing a best-selling book, earn paltry amounts when set against any real standard of wealth. The reasons one does become an academic are myriad, from passion for teaching and/or research to desire for a safe and predictable haven in a chaotic world.

No one, though, goes into academia with the desire to make others rich. We may want to help others succeed, but we do not expect them to use what we have done to reach high levels of profit, profit that comes, in part, through charging us to use "our" work in further scholarship.

What we are seeing in the growing Elsevier boycott is a cultural clash. On one side are the academics who are both philosophically and culturally attached to the idea of the commons. Our work depends on the work that has gone on before us. For us to work effectively and efficiently, we need access to as much of that as we can possibly have--quickly and cheaply. With access to the commons, we can contribute to the commons, allowing all of us to rise on the generated tide.

On the other side are those who believe that profit is the single most important motivating factor, and that it is production through desire for profit that propels the world forward. Elsevier, in a "Message to the Research Community," says that:
While some of the facts about Elsevier are being misrepresented, the depth of feeling among some in the research community is real and something we take very seriously. We’re listening to all the concerns expressed and redoubling our substantial efforts to make our contributions to that community better, more transparent, and more valuable to all our partners and friends in the research community.
All of which may be true--but it does not address the problem: No matter what it does, Elsevier will always come to scholarly publishing from a perspective different from that of the scholars, one that constrains and limits necessary resources.

The real solution to the problem that the boycott is trying to address, then, will never lie in Elsevier. The company (and all the others like it) saw an opportunity for profit and took it.

As academics, our real aim beyond the boycott itself must be reform of our own institutions and culture, reform that will close the window of opportunity that the Elseviers have responded to so profitably. There are a number of ways we can do this, as institutions, departments, and individuals.

Colleges and universities expect scholarly work from their faculties, but provide only minimal possibilities for publication of that work, letting it be 'outsourced' to the likes of Elsevier instead of using their own considerable power to take advantage of the scholarship they have, after all, paid for.

Departments still rely on un-examined and outmoded concepts of peer review for re-appointment, tenure, and promotion. "Name" journals (often owned by for-profit enterprises) are accepted as legitimate venues for publication uncritically--the work itself rarely even being considered, as long as its place of publication is top-tier. If we can start moving towards a model that examines the scholarship itself, allowing something published in an open-access journal (or even on a blog) equal standing if the work proves equally valuable, there will be less and less reason for publication in the commercial academic journals.

As individuals, especially once we have achieved tenure and promotion, we can add to the legitimacy of alternative venues by offering them our scholarship first, and by serving on their boards and review panels. This will help give younger scholars a little more confidence when they look to publish, confidence in seeing their work appear elsewhere than in the journals of companies like Elsevier.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Taking Control: More Reasons for the Elsevier Boycott

I have established a Facebook page, "Boycott Elsevier," for aggregating information relevant to the boycott.


The anonymous blogger at The Real Fake Elsevier: Non-Fake Thoughts on the Elsevier Boycott makes the point at the heart of the boycott:

Helping us manage anonymous peer review by our colleagues, and “credentialing” papers with respect to their importance are — for better or worse — parts of this process, but the core thing that we need from publishers is the distribution of our work. Back in the days before the internet, the need to oursource distribution was painfully obvious, since physical paper journals needed to be carted around the planet in order to distribute our work to colleagues. Given the physicality of distribution, centralized subscription-based pricing even made good sense, since receiving institutions needed libraries and librarians to store and catalog the physical copies, and the storage and purchasing made sense as two sides of the same coin. However, in the internet age, the idea that you would restrict access to anyone seems utterly asinine. Let me say it in bold, just to be clear:
In the internet age, Elsevier is doing an unbelievably shitty job of accomplishing its ONE AND ONLY PURPOSE: to distribute our work as broadly as possible
Not only Elsevier, but all of the owners of scholarly journals. Their needs for profit will always be at odds with the needs of the scholarly community for broad dissemination of information--as cheaply as possible. Through the current publishing model, profit has taken command. The boycott is an attempt to re-establish at least a balance. Ideally, it is an attempt to re-assert the authority of scholars over their work and the place of that work in the broader intellectual environment.

If you are a scholar and are willing to boycott, sign up at The Cost of Knowledge.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Elsevier Boycott Makes "On the Media"

This week's edition of the NPR show "On the Media" included a piece on the Elsevier boycott, which I have also written about and which I support.

The idea that a commercial enterprise can so easily take advantage of hide-bound scholarly processes to gain huge profits at little expense is galling, to say the least. It is also stifling, of course, to the very academic pursuits that the journals owned by the likes of Elsevier are supposed to be promoting.

There is no other situation I know of where work paid for by one entity is used by another, which then charges the first for access to it.

Elsevier and the other commercial publishers of academic journals rarely pay the academic editors, reviewers, and authors who make those journals possible. They leave that to the colleges and universities. Because of needs of re-appointment, tenure, promotion, and even grant-funding, scholars clamor to give their work to these journals. They have to, for their careers. The journals then charge outrageous fees for access to the scholarship to the institutional libraries where the scholars work.

This really has to stop. Immediate, and extremely low-cost access to scholarship needs to be one of the underpinnings of our academic universe. Otherwise, we stifle future scholarship.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Swan Song of N. Leroy Gingrich (version 2.0)


May the ghost of T. S. Eliot forgive me. I first wrote this a little more than a year ago. This is a slightly revised version... a little better, I hope.

Let us go then, you and I,
Before Tea Party politics passes us each by
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through Washington's K Street,
The lobbyists' retreats
And chicken dinners in one-night swank hotels
Still taking time for whatever sells;
Lobbyists that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, ``Why is it? '
Let's take the money and make our visit.

In the room, Michele and Sarah come and go
Talking at everyone, ya know.

The brown-skinned foe in the White House brings me pains
The brown-skinned foe who sits and smiles and gives me pains
Licks his tongue and smiles elitely of an evening.
Lingers in his office and stands tall, he claims.
Lets fall from his back the attacks of his enemies.
Slips by the terrorists, makes the nation cheap,
And having lost that grand November night,
Spurred the Senate and the House, and made me weep.

And indeed there will be time
To beat the brown-skinned cur with our Tea-Party street,
Making sure he feels our imagined pains;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to beat the faces that I meet;
There will be time to lie and to create,
And time for all debates and days of hands
That lift and drop a donation on your plate;
Time for me and time for me.
And time yet for a hundred new decisions,
And for cynical visions and revisions,
Before taking back the White House—for me.

In the room, Bachmann Palin comes and goes
Talking at everyone, ya know.

And indeed there will be time
To pander, ``Do I care?'' and, ``Do I care?''
Time to turn back and ascend the stair,
With no bald spot in the middle of my hair--
[They'll not say: ``How his hair is growing thin!'']
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a Tiffany flag pin--
[They won't say: ``But how his arms and legs are thin!'']
Do I care?
I deserve the universe!
In a minute there is time
For decisions and campaigns which nothing will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the fights in small backrooms,
I have measured out my life with others' tombs;
I know Cain and Perry, dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So shouldn't I presume?

And I have known the ayes already, known them all--
The ayes that back me with a formulated phrase,
And when foes are formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When they are pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of their days and ways?
And shouldn't I presume?

And I have known three wives already, known them all--
And aides that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Aides that lie along a table, wrapped only in a shawl.
And shouldn't I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Shall I boast, I have paraded through narrow streets
Watched by crowds that rise from the hype
Of wealthy men in shirt-sleeves, lying through their windows? . . .

I'm glad I'm not Romney or Santorum
Scuttling across the floors to delegate doors.

And the populace, the voters, sleep so peacefully!
Soothed by right-wingers,
Asleep. . . lied to . . . by paid-off singers,
Stretched on the floor, here below you and me.
Should I, after Sarah and Tim and Mitt,
Have the strength to grab it and make the hit?
But though I've never wept nor fasted, wept nor prayed,
Though I'll see Mike's head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am the prophet--and here's my great matter;
I once saw the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And, coming back, I'm not afraid.

And it would have been worth it, after all,
After caucuses, the primaries, the C,
Among the delegates, among some talk of me and me,
It would have been worth while,
To have added to the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the competition to a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: `` I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all''--
If Callista, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ``That's the way to win it all.
That is it, go for all.''

And it would have been worth it, after all,
It would have been worth while,
After the conventions and campaigns and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teaching, after the skirts that trail along the floor--
And this, and so much more--
It is possible to say just what I mean!
But, as if Ron Paul's nonsense could fool more than a teen:
It would it have been worth while
If Callista, settling a pillow, or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
``That's the way to win it all,
That is just what I meant, get all.''

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am a successful lord, one that will do
All to make his progress, will tell a lie or two,
Be above the prince; no doubt, no one's fool,
Presidential, K Street cash in use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, not a bit obtuse;
At no time, indeed, seen as ridiculous--
Never, any time, the Fool.

I grow bold . . . I grow bold . . .
The money in my trousers rolls.

Shall I pat an aide's behind? She seems such peach.
I shall wear a president's blazer, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the lobbyists singing, each to each.

I do now think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them waving checkbooks on the waves
Combing their white hair over bald spots in the back
When their whim blows donations into my sack.

We have lingered in the chambers of the banks
By donors wreathed with checkbooks red and brown
Till human voters wake us, and we drown.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

On the Shoulders

It's appropriate to contemporary discussions of the ownership of Intellectual Property (IP) that Isaac Newton's famous "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants" was not original (it goes back, in England, at least to John of Salisbury in the 12th century). What's perplexing is that we tend to see it as pertaining to intellectual endeavors, but not creative ones--as though there is originality in the arts, unstained and uninfluenced by older arts, culture, and even intellectual work.

Well, may not so perplexing. Scholarly and scientific work is always clearly grounded in the past--a "review of the literature" is pretty much standard in presentation of any major study or experiment. The pathway to the current work is as important a part of discussion of it as the work itself. In the arts, where it is not so important to show connection, to present the build on the past, we are able to create a myth of originality, one that is not so possible in other activities where understanding of connection to past work is critical to understanding of current work.

Yes, understanding of the past can facilitate understanding of new art, but it is not absolutely necessary. The tools brought by the past, at least, are not necessarily in our faces as we make our examinations. We assume language, making it a given, for example, when we look into works of literature. That is, we don't demand that the writer show the development of the words used--or even of the tropes. We don't demand that Jimi Hendrix create the guitar--or show that he understands his creation. In fact, we don't even need to think about the development of the guitar at all when we listen to his music. We call Hendrix an "original genius," forgetting that he, too, was indebted to others--that he, too, stood on the shoulders of giants.

Because all of our IP comes because we were able to see further from the shoulders of the giants who came before us, patent and copyright laws, as first envisioned, contained built-in limitations, limitations on the individual creators but also ones that remove limitations on the rest of us, allowing us to stand on those shoulders in our own turn. IP, in terms of law as well as in terms of physical presence, is unlike other property--even calling it "property" is something of a red herring, diverting attention from the real debate by creating a false equivalency between IP and physical property. It is not something we can legitimately horde, for it was never "ours" alone in the first place.

Not only that, but it is not unique. Two people can invent something at the same time--but two people cannot own the same piece of land. Having no physical presence, IP requires legal and cultural protections distinct from that of any other property.

Since the first IP laws in the 17th and 18th centuries, holders of patents and copyrights have fought hard to extend their rights to this "property." They have succeeded to the point where, today, there is almost no discussion of the fact that we have gone to far, that the "rights" we have granted to the "owners" of IP have seriously eroded the rights of others attempting their own creations in the wake of those of the past. We are reaching the point where we are compromising current creativity and scholarship, and are stifling future possibilities.

It's time we stop simply resisting the expansion of IP protection and start demanding that the rights of the intellectual commons be protected just as strongly. Yet all we seem to be managing to do is fight rear-guard actions against the likes of SOPA and PIPA. We've let those who own IP define the debate and we end up discussion the issue only in their terms. It's time we stop that, reasserting the ownership that should be all of ours.

Allowing ourselves to climb onto shoulders that seem, today, to want to shrug us off.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

"The Cost of Knowledge"

An extremely interesting statement on the backgrounds leading to the boycott of Elsevier, a major publisher of academic journals based in The Netherlands, has appeared. It is signed by 34 mathematicians; I found it through the blog of Timothy Gowers, a mathematician of more than a little standing.


According to its website:

As the world’s leading provider of science and health information, Elsevier serves more than 30 million scientists, students and health and information professionals worldwide.
The site goes on to claim some 7,000 employees for the company in addition to a "global community of 7,000 journal editors, 70,000 editorial board members, 300,000 reviewers and 600,000 authors."

The mathematicians' statement, speaking strictly of their own field (though it is the same elsewhere), explains what that means:



The editorial board of a journal is a group of professional mathematicians. Their editorial work is undertaken as part of their scholarly duties, and so is paid for by their employer, typically a university. Thus, from the publisher's viewpoint the editors are volunteers. When a paper is submitted to the journal, by an author who is again typically a university-employed mathematician, the editors select the referee or referees for the paper, evaluate the referees' reports, decide whether or not to accept the submission, and organize the submitted papers into volumes. These are passed on to the publisher, who then undertakes the job of actually publishing them. The publisher supplies some administrative assistance in handling the papers, as well as some copy-editing assistance, which is often quite minor but sometimes more substantial. The referees are again volunteers from the point of view of the publisher: as with editing, refereeing is regarded as part of the service component of a mathematician's academic work. Authors are not paid by the publishers for their published papers, although they are usually asked to sign over the copyright to the publisher.
In other words, Elsevier (like all of the other publishers of academic journals) is making oodles of money through work paid for by the colleges and universities employing all of those editors, board members, reviewers, and authors. The work is done so that the scholars can achieve re-appointment, tenure, and promotion within university systems. The publishers have taken advantage of this for their own profit, returning almost nothing for what they take to the institutions making their profits possible and sharing little of what they gain with the actual producers of their "products."

To date, almost 5000 scholars have signed statements through The Cost of Knowledge (I am one) pledging to refrain from editing, refereeing, and/or authoring works for Elsevier.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Theft of Intellectual Property: Defining the Debate

In his column "Steal This Column" in today's New York Times, Bill Keller quotes Sandra Day O'Connor on copyright and the Constitution (from a decision I also quote, in my chapter on Intellectual Property in Beyond the Blogosphere). The quote, though, deals with only one side of the question, protection of Intellectual Property through law (copyright)... while the Constitution explicitly defines two types of protection by insisting that copyright be of limited duration. It protects the creator of IP and it protects the intellectual commons that all creators of IP must use in their own production.

In our debates over the extent of copyright on the internet, we continue to define it only in terms of the extent of protection "creators" and their appointees should have. We assume that IP is "property" in the sense of any other, and that it deserves as much protection. But it is not, and does not... certainly not as defined by the Constitution.

Yet we continue to ignore that part of copyright's definition as we continue to reach for limits of protection of IP (or, actually, of profitability). The rights of the intellectual commons are never vigorously promoted (even those who argue against extension of IP protection do so in other terms), but they should be seen as rights as important as those of creators. Over the centuries, the balance has shifted from a reasonable protection of both (a maximum term for copyright of 28 years) to what amounts, today, to an unconstitutional perpetuity (Disney is not about to let Mickey Mouse free into the commons--before that happens, copyright will be extended once more). 28 years is plenty of time, generally, for one to profit from one's efforts. And, after all, creativity draws on the commons necessarily, so its production should, at some point, return to the commons to be drawn on in the future.

For a rational copyright policy on the internet, we really should roll back copyright protections, strengthening the commons once more while, at the same time, enhancing protection for those items falling under the copyright umbrella. Unless we do this, "piracy" will only grow, for the commons insists on its rights, and what we are now calling "piracy" is often simply that right.

Until recently, copyright was something one had to actively pursue. If one so desired, a work could be released immediately into the intellectual commons. Most newspaper articles, even through the Jacksonian era, were treated this way (note to Keller... ). Creative Commons tries to allow this to continue within the context of contemporary laws, but I'm not sure that should even be necessary. If I don't want my work protected and uncopied, why should I have to say so? Why shouldn't I simply let the work go? Sure, I'd like it to be acknowledged that I wrote it in the first place but, beyond that, I'm really trying to get my ideas and thoughts into the public sphere... not to make money on them, but to participate in the broader cultural debates.

As long as we allow the debate over IP to be over the limits of all 'content creator' rights, forgetting the rights of the commons and the fact that not everyone wants those rights (we're talking mainly corporations, here, and the people who are able to piggyback on corporations), we won't come to any workable conclusion. The debate, as it is, is rigged for one side, for the owners of copyright.

We need to bring the rights of the commons back into the debate.

After all, the Constitution demands it.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Myth of Peer Review--And Helping Make Academic Gatekeeping Work in Digital Environments

Peer review has long been something of an unexamined black box. Something is peer reviewed? We accept that it has been checked and re-checked, examined and tested. Just look at the way it is used in the popular media--"peer review" is accepted as reflecting a process of rigorous vetting. In situations of promotion, re-appointment and tenure within academia itself, it is often seen as a necessary benchmark indicating importance. We imagine, without ever really examining it, that peer review is a carefully crafted and considered system. We imagine that it is a process of submission, consideration, reflection, and review--and it can be, in fact. The system of Kairos explicitly fosters just this, through a three-step process open to author, editors, and reviewers. [During the question-and-answer part of our recent MLA panel, Kairos editor Cheryl Ball did make it clear that "open," in this context, does not mean "public," but open to all of the participants--in contrast to "blind" peer review where the names of author and reviewers are hidden from each other.] Most peer review, however, is neither carefully structured nor tailored to improvement of submitted work. The peer review system was never a careful creation; it only appeared in response to need--a need that has now changed completely. It's value--as a whole, at least--is the result of myth, not fact.

The range of what peer review can be is extensive. From Kairos with its deliberate process meant to help an author build something substantive to proforma rubber-stamping of what an editor wants, peer review can be used, also, for a variety of purposes. For the most part, it's a rather simple system: an editor of an academic journal receives a submission. After an initial vetting (often of the researcher's credentials, the formal aspects of the paper, and the surface logic of the presentation), the editor (not likely to be a specialist in the particular area of the paper, though probably someone within the same or related field) chooses from a panel of reviewers two or three people whose interests and expertise relate more closely to the paper under consideration. The reviewers, generally (like the editor often is) unpaid, have been selected by the editor or editorial board for their willingness to review in a timely fashion and on the basis of their own publications.

Much of the time, the review is conducted "blind." That is, the reviewers have no access to the name of the writer, and the writer (when receiving reviewer comments) has no idea who the reviewers were. This process was established to ensure no favoritism and no negative consequence. Unfortunately, as with almost any closed system, it has led to just the opposite, and to an unwillingness to take risks on the part of those submitting to peer-reviewed journals--when you don't know who is going to be judging your work, and you need positive judgment for your own career, you are unlikely to stray too far from the standard line of thought in your field.

Though it has been a system that has not faced the challenges that gatekeeping in journalism has (not until recently, that is--see my posts here and here), peer review probably worked as well as any system within a milieu of scarcity--during a time when it just was not possible to publish everything any scholar (or anyone at all) wrote, when the expense of publication required selection. Yes, it can be unfair, but it can also work quite well, when the editors, reviewers, and authors are able to cooperate with each other to improve the scholarly product. Personally, I don't think it should ever have been "blind," but I do understand even the motivation behind that.

When I said, during my MLA talk that blind peer review is dead, but just doesn't know it yet, that line was picked up for an Inside Higher Education article.  Since then, I've become something of a focal point of the debate over peer review, something I never expected nor really want. I've even been accused to being a technological determinist, though that was not my intent at all (I do not argue that technology is determining the death of blind peer review, but that it allows it to be taken off life support--the distinction is significant: the former makes the technology the driving force, the latter keeps the human in that position).

What worries most scholars isn't my claim. Most of us recognize the truth of it. What worries people is what will replace blind peer review. Are we in academia to face the tsunami of unfiltered information that seems to be today's internet without any way of determining what we should look at and what we can safely ignore? In asking this, we are following in the footsteps of journalism and of culture as a whole. What we are about to experience isn't new, but is something we are going to have to deal with--which is why I made my statement. The reality we have to face has already been dealt with (to some extent, at least) by journalism, where alternate means of gatekeeping are now in place in response to the explosion of 'citizen journalism' over the last decade. Blogging, for example, is no longer seen as a threat but as a tool that can be enfolded into any journalistic endeavor.

The old system of peer review, like the older versions of gatekeeping in journalism, are not effective within a digital environment where publication itself has ceased to be a nearly insurmountable barrier. We need to accept that ('peer review is dead'), but we haven't yet, not really ('but it just doesn't know it yet'). We shouldn't be arguing about that, nor is it worth our time to see the statement as one of 'technological determinism' or of anything else. It is simply a statement of observable fact, and a challenge for us in academia to decide what we want to bring to life in replacement. I'm not advocating anything by pointing this out, merely illuminating what should be obvious.

There's quite a bit going on today, activity that will lead to a replacement of blind peer review. Some of it has rather surprising outcomes, but it is all a question of experimentation, of learning. In some places, journals like Kairos are trying to take the older model and rebuild it for a digital age, making it more responsive to changing needs and more effective in promoting scholarship. Others, such as academia.edu and researchgate.net, are trying to use social-media formulae as means for sorting and presenting academic work. Science Works Magazine (soon to be Science Works Journal) is trying to use blog format and a new business formula to provide both gatekeeping and sustainability. There is much more going on, of course. All it takes to find it is interest and a little bit of time on the web.

In addition, in many academic departments, peer review is retreating as the standard for re-appointment, promotion, and tenure. In its place, scholars are asked to provide a broader grounding for proving the importance of their work. How many subsequent works cite the article, chapter, or book? What other reactions have there been to it? What is the distribution of the journal (just calling something "peer review" never should have been sufficient--and is less and less so, every year)? How many libraries hold the book? Who else contributed to the series, the journal, the volume--and what is their status? Rather than relying on a poorly understood outside process, departments are asking individual candidates to provide specific defenses of each piece of work presented. 

The old system, no longer sufficient, is being replaced. There's nothing we can do about that. If any of us wants to have an impact on the new system, we can't be spending our time defending what is already doomed. We can't even spend our time addressing the more obvious problems of peer review. That's like trying to put patches over the most rotten part of a roof when it is time for the whole to be replaced.

What we have here is the old situation where, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. The sooner we accept that the old system of peer review is not only unsustainable but is, in fact, dead, the sooner we can all help the various experiments in replacement along to the point where academic gatekeeping is productive and supportive, furthering scholarship and promoting it, never narrowing it.