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Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values (Part Two)

[The following is a response to Dan Cohen’s post entitled, “Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values.” I originally submitted it as a comment, but it’s almost as long as the original article itself. I’m posting it over here so I can edit it more easily, but it’s meant to follow on the earlier piece. You should certainly go read Dan’s piece first.]

“Writing is writing and good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in the valuing venue and medium over the content itself.”

Dan, I agree with everything you’re saying here. But I do think you might be missing the underlying reality of this apparently elitist disposition, which I think is this:

Few of the people who are actually responsible for evaluating your work actually read your books and articles.

That’s probably an astounding revelation for many people who are coming up for tenure or who otherwise haven’t had the opportunity to sit on a merit review panel, but it’s absolutely true. Your colleagues are not reading your work. Period.

There’s no time! “Steve, why don’t you look at Dan’s file for Wednesday. Oh, and why don’t you take Sheila, Tom, and Sue’s as well.” Great! That’s three monographs, a prospectus, eight articles, plus a couple hundred student evals… No problem! I’ll get right on it.

Like most junior academics, I spent years agonizing over what my colleagues might think of my work. Imagine the mixture of shock and awe that overtook me when I realized that I had nothing to worry about. No one was going to read it.

How can this be? How can we make momentous decisions about promotion and tenure and conduct performance reviews that affect peoples’ actual salaries without a comprehensive and thorough review of their work?

The answer is simple: publishers do it for us.

I am convinced that that’s really what this is all about. I don’t have time to read everything. But more importantly, I don’t really want to evaluate your work on its “intellectual merits,” because, well, you might do that to me. And really, this could get very emotional very quickly. And anyway, what qualifies you to judge me (or me to judge you)? We’re colleagues, after all.

The solution to everyone’s problem has been to outsource this decision to a third party that gives it a seal of approval while at the same time anonymizing the people who actually did read the book or the article. That allows us to move the whole problem somewhere else. What’s more, it allows us to make fine distinctions between people that we otherwise wouldn’t want to make ourselves. Chicago is better than Ashgate. Oxford is better than Michigan. Critical Inquiry is better than Modern Drama. Monographs are better than edited collections. It’s just so easy this way.

You ask how a profession that swings so solidly left can hold such absurdly elitist attitudes. I would submit that this apparent bit of cognitive dissonance is rooted in our mostly postmodern attitudes about value. “Who’s to say what good?” Humanities professors are mostly uncomfortable making judgments about what’s good; publishers don’t appear to have these deep philosophical problems (or rather, these philosophical issues are overridden by market concerns). There’s also our desire to avoid confrontation (“Dude, that’s so harsh”). Narcissism, sure. It’s also full of contradictions (Why does Oxford get to make truth claims about worth but we don’t?) You could say that it’s not actually the publishers; it’s our “peers” on the anonymous review panels that the publishers hire. But we pay a devastating price for that bit of bait and switch. First, it means that we have to sell our copyrights to compensate the publishers for their role as coordinators of all of this. Since they’re trying to stay afloat financially, they have to sell that content back to us — which usually results in highly restrictive forms of dissemination. Open access — which is an ethically superior form of dissemination on its face, and (I think) a moral obligation for public institutions — is effectively shut down by our own behavior. Second, it means that any form of scholarship not immediately susceptible to this treatment (e.g. the majority of digital work) can’t participate equally in this system. Truth is, no one really has a problem any more with digital work. It just has to be, you know, about article length. And single authored. And peer reviewed. And disseminated under the banner of a third party. And that’s because this isn’t about the medium at all. This is about the structures that allow us to make difficult decisions as painlessly as possible. I think most academics regard this as the best we can do.

I think it’s not the best we can do. The idea of recording “impact” (page hits, links, etc.) is often ridiculed as a “popularity contest,” but it’s not at all clear to me how such a system would be inferior to the one we have. In fact, it would almost certainly be a more honest system (you’ll notice that “good publisher” is very often tied to the social class represented by the sponsoring institution). But in the end, the clear moral good of having open access (and the probable dissolution of the up system) may mean that we have to read and evaluate each other’s stuff. And that may mean that the mechanics of our entire review system has to change. It may actually mean that “peer review,” as such, disappears in its present form.

For years, I wondered why people are so resistant to electronic publication and digital projects generally. The answer just didn’t make sense: “We don’t know how to evaluate that kind of work?” “Really?” I thought. “Here’s an idea: How about you look at it and decide whether it’s good or not.” But *that’s * precisely the responsibility that no wants to have (without cover of darkness). This is the root of every bit of sanctimonious nonsense you’ve ever heard about “peer review.” Translation: We don’t have a certifying authority to whom we can offload this. That’s why I believe that creating these certifying authorities for digital work may end up capitulating to an already broken system.

Honestly, I think our goal as a community should be to present our colleagues with as many inscrutable objects as possible. We should be making lots of videos, podcasts, maps, “books” with a hundred authors, blog posts, software, and web sites without any clear authorial control. And yes, we should put open content licenses on all of it and give it away to everyone we meet. And then we should dare our colleagues to tell us that our work isn’t of sufficient intellectual quality.

Don’t worry. They won’t say that to your face. They didn’t read it in the first place.

[update: Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Planned Obsolescence is next in line with Part 3 of this Hacking the Academy blogfest.]

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