Post-Book Academia: Leaving

Guy Geltner, a medievalist, has written an important piece on why he is leaving, a site that encourages academics to upload their work (skirting copyright laws by calling them “drafts” in some cases), and deploying various algorithms to connect people, encourage discussion, and so forth.

I joined and put two papers online. One – “The Material Culture of Medieval Venetian Identity,” contains  a big meta-thesis about how pre-modern Venetians shaped their culture, plus the use of “vectors” as a controlling metaphor to discuss it. I think it’s a pretty nifty article and a significant idea. I’d like people to read it, so I uploaded it. It’s been viewed 577 times, which is pretty good. I don’t think the article gets nearly as much attention if it just sat in Mediterranean Identities, even though it’s the first chapter and even though the collection is terrific! In fact, it’s precisely the type of collection I expect to see destroyed by Informa, now that they’ve bought Ashgate.

Of course, isn’t doing this for free. They want to make money, and as they get bigger and bigger, both their costs and their expectations for revenue intensify. From Geltner’s piece:

The venture capitalists behind, like those backing ResearchGate, did not invest in a charity. (Mendeley is now owned by the publicly traded Elsevier and SSRN is produced by a privately held corporation; incidentally, its advisory board appears to be all male). As such, they are steering it towards an Initial Public Offering or IPO, as I was told in no uncertain terms by Price. Their working and very plausible assumption is that an enterprise needs to be profitable or show much promise of profit, for its IPO to be an attractive option, and they are presumably pressuring Price and his team to prepare the ground for it before a new round of fundraising. I speculate that under these circumstances, new publishing-related services offered by the site will likely begin to cost money, especially in the form of Article Processing Charges or APCs.

Geltner then discusses APCs for a few important paragraphs, at least if the issue is new to you, including the key lines:

For-profit conglomerates like Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley, Sage, and others are seeking to protect their income streams under growing pressure to make publicly funded research, of which they often hold the copyright, freely accessible at least to those who funded it. To these publishers, Open Access (OA) is not an ideology but a business model meant to keep profits as high as possible.

I’ve long been troubled by the way that “open-access” shifts costs on to individual academics. It might work to charge APCs to groups of researchers who can write APCs into their grant costs, but they are equally likely to close off open-access journals to small-school scholars or even big-school American scholars where such team-based and grant-based projects are rare. It’s important (as Geltner notes) that the new Open Library of the Humanities is NOT relying on APCs, although Public Library of Science (PLoS) does. Maybe science, with its grant mechanisms, can soak the costs? I’m certainly no expert on science-publishing. Meanwhile, my business school colleagues talk about “pay-to-publish” and have APC costs built into their annual budgets (for non-open access publications, usually, hence getting revenue from two directions).

Geltner finishes with an attack on contemporary academic information culture [EDIT: Note – I am not endorsing the “laziness” angle here. I think that’s totally NOT what’s going on with academic SEARCH. But that’s a subject for another essay].

Scholarly activism would be a welcome change to the laziness that has characterized our modus operandi on this front. It may be unpleasant news, but’s success is based on our woeful tendency to search for information (including scholarly articles) on Google, and almost nowhere else; a tragic irony given that our role in society is to find an independent voice, not blindly sail down the stream. With every intervention or publicly funded article we give to those who will eventually trade it (or leverage it to turn a profit), we are contributing to the subordination of science to the whims of financial or political elites. The recent sale of Ashgate Publishing to Informa, the parent company of Taylor & Francis, is only the most recent case in point. (I do accept that university presses can be an exception to this rule, at least in the sense that they are meant to support their institutions, and by extension underwrite independent research). It is time to stop being naïve, and do something for the freedom of scholarship. Open access to scholarship should be a human right, not a business model.

Do something.

But what?

I don’t have any answers. Post-book academia is hard.

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