Public Library of Humanities: Envisioning a New Open Access Platform

"Academic Spring" protest image. Elsevier tree, bared

“Academic Spring” protest image. Elsevier tree, bared

Part 1: Background
or jump to Part 2: The Conversation

It’s been a revolutionary year in the academic world. In the UK, key fronts were the “Academic Spring” revolt against commercial subscription publishers, the Finch Report establishing UK government policy in support of Open Access publishing (free for all to access and use), and the Research Excellence Framework establishing social-impact based evaluation and funding for research.

Beyond just the UK, the “altmetrics” movement is championing broader measures of scholarly impact, dovetailing with both Open Access and REF, and the dramatic, Silicon Valley-led expansion of MOOC online learning models became a defining issue, almost obsession, in education. Internet oracle Clay Shirky sounded the death knell for higher-ed status quo, invoking the ghosts of industries lost:“Our MP3 is the MOOC, and our Napster is Udacity.” (translation: Look on your works, ye mighty, and despair.).

A current focal point in this fraught situation, is the question of how Open Access (OA) might work in the humanities and social sciences (“HSS”). That is, as opposed to, in the STEM fields (Scientific, Technical, Engineering, & Math) with which OA is now more pervasive, and for which funding models are better established.

Public Library of Science

Public Library of Science

Recent conversations on Twitter have explored the concept of a “Public Library of Humanities (PLOH)”, or Public Library of Humanities and Social Science (PLOHSS). Meaning, some new Open Access platform and/or organization for HSS analogous to the Public Library of Science, a non-profit launched in 2001 that has been a transformative innovator and now the highest-volume publisher of science research. While “PLOH” is basically a metaphor, for what could be various and multiple projects, it seems the concept resonates with many people in scholarly communication right now. There is a sense that some type of HSS “Great Leap Forward” may be possible now, given the gathering Open Access and REF mandates, the diffusion of better publishing tools and cloud computing, and the rise of altmetrics and social impact measurement.

Continue reading

Better Communication Through Jargon

a history of Neoliberalism

The Director of Scholarly Communication for the Modern Language Association, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, recently posted two pieces to her blog “Planned Obsolescence” about the term neoliberal. 

In the first post, Fitzgerald expressed her exasperation with how this economic/political term’s meaning has been “dissipated”:

I have come to despise the term “neoliberal,” to the extent that I’d really like to see it stricken from academic vocabularies everywhere. It’s less that I have a problem with the actual critique that the term is meant to levy than with the utterly sloppy and nearly always casually derisive way in which the term is of late being thrown about.

Raymond Williams, Keywords (1976)

The term seems to be tiresomely overused, I would agree. On the other hand, I think such keywords (as Raymond William’s classic work called them) or frames are central and powerful aspects of critical/political communication, which we might look at how to better engage, explore, and leverage, rather than banish.

Along those lines, I propose a project: what if we built a participatory and community-publishedCritical Jargon File,” to provide shared reference points and support more sophisticated, effective, and precise discussion? For the scope, or community, of Humanities/Social Sciences (HSS) scholarly communication, let’s say. Continue reading

The Complications of Signing Up for Simple

I got an invite to Simple, a Portland-based startup offering that is trying to reinvent banking with new tools and services around traditional bank accounts (in this case, from Bancorp Bank).

So, a service promising SIMPLE, to me, a life-simplifier but champion non-finder of simplicity in most things! Game On!

No really, I don’t want to give them a hard time. I truly support what they seem to be doing, love that they moved from Brooklyn to Portland, and think they have great design sense. I even think it’s kind of nerdy-funny that they make their example card-holder (as above) “Joseph Schumpeter,” the Austrian economist who popularized the term “creative destruction” to describe entrepreneurial capitalism.

I just offer my suggestions, in the beneficient spirit with which I offer it to many a company that wanders down my dark alley. We are always learning, together, right?!

Banking. Can it make us happy?

Opening screen:
What We Offer: mentions account, iPhone app — it isn’t clear if there is a web-based service also. Not mentioned, but then we are in a web-based signup form, so evidently at least part of the service is provided on the web. No web-based interface is a significant issue to me — almost enough to decide not to apply. A system with multiple interfaces, not tied to a single app installation, is simply more usable and higher-value to me, and it’s something I enjoy from my current bank, Chase. Which I hate in many ways, but nonetheless haven’t found a overriding case for leaving in 20 years.

Signup asks for number, then what device? This assumes a number is attached to a device. In my case, and in that of many people I know, it isn’t. I use a Google Voice number, that directs to and I use from various devices including an iPhone, laptop, and Android tablet; and my way of using an iPhone doesn’t even require that I have a number at all. That’s simpler for me, for reasons too complicated to go into here.

iPhone selection triggers note “Our app requires the latest version of iOS, so make sure you’re up to date”. Now, I’se just simple folk, and don’t know the whole get-out with this real high-tech and modern stuff, but pa always said, it probably isn’t true that at every single moment, apps work only with the latest iOS version released at that moment. There are many iOS updates, announced to varying degrees, and almost always a given app either needs some time to be updated for the new version, and/or it will be back-compatible to the prior one(s) for some time.

When I see a message “the latest version is required”, the message I get is that a service is not bothering to test or provide accurate information about its product compatibility state, and is instead throwing a complex responsibility back onto every user. I have horrible, horrible associations of required Flash players on the Web, that plague which stalked us for so many years; or of insidious Java update demands, or aggravating iPhone App Store update demands. Product updates were long, long ago hijacked by companies for self-serving commercial and marketing purposes; this is exactly the type of fraudulent nonsense that I’m dying for “simple” services to rescue me from.

Furthermore, I would ask whether and why you’d want to demand the latest iOS. There are many good reasons that people choose to or are not able to upgrade:
- broken/lost features such as maps in iOS6
- customized setups that can be broken by upgrading
- risk of losing data & configuration
- the significant time and difficulty required to upgrade
- perhaps most importantly, accelerated forced obsolescence of older devices, which at some point won’t run newest iOS. Personally I’m sporting an iPhone 3GS, which in Silicon Valley has gone from being seen as derelict, to curio, to insolence or freeganism.

A mentality of always having to have the latest equipment, and whatever updates are pushed out by device/software makers, seems exactly contrary to the brand ethos of Simple. The appeal of “Simple” is that I want to simplify my life: of exactly this sort of mandated engagement with complicated, commercially-driven intrusions on my time, attention, and budget.

Bank Transfer
is this done without a fee? No fee is mentioned, so I hope so, but it’s typical to charge a few; many users might pause here wondering that, so I would suggest clarifying.

Legal agreements
I was quite disappointed to see the click-wrap legal agreements required to apply.

The Account Agreement, for example, is 17,800 word of straight legal language. It is a farce to suggest that this is reasonable customer communication, or that any significant portion of customers could or should read this thoroughly or informedly. Such documents are written to protect a company’s interests, and they are anti-communicative to users because they bury significance amid unreadable legalese.

I suggest you work with a service to produce and design a human-readable document version, particularly pulling out any items that are points of comparison between Simple and other bank services, e.g. fees, daily withdrawal limits.

I do realize that Bancorp is likely to require its standard agreement to be binding; but the human-readable version might be clearly presented as just explanatory addendum.

If that’s too much trouble, well, that’s the sort of trouble I’m looking for Simple to undertake on my behalf, to make my life simpler. Since you lack many of the benefits of banking at say Chase, such as ubiquity of branches and complete product line, clearly you need to do better on core value propositions such as user-orientedness and complexity-reduction. Using a 17,800-word boilerplate account agreement from a traditional bank doesn’t do that.

Privacy and Marketing
The Bancorp Bank Privacy Practice agreement linked to in the Simple sign up actually seems quite bad, in that it doesn’t even offer ANY opt-out from information sharing. So by signing up for Simple, I permanently opt-in to, for example, joint marketing from Bancorp and any party it chooses to “joint market” with, or who acquires it? That seems worse than what I normally get from financial institutions.

Cookies required? who me?
I went through the whole signup, then it failed on submission. I’m guessing this was due to cookie-blocking settings in my Firefox browser. If your form requires cookies, best to check for them at the start and alert user if not on, or at least put a message saying they’ll be required. Particularly if you are going to ask for sensitive information such as bank routing info and transfer authorization, and then possibly leave user in an uncertain state as to whether application and a large financial transfer was or will be submitted.

Nonetheless, I have gone ahead and submitted my application, in significant part because I rather like the nicely-designed all-white Visa debit card (if I cover up the ugly blot of the big Visa logo at lower right, as artfully done in the product image above). Over the years, design of bank card has been a significant factor in which bank services I use and which cards I carry; because I’m, you know, particular.The full delivery kit pictured above, however, with the “IT’S A GOOD DAY” embossed wood backboard and drawstring cloth bag, does make me feel a bit like I’ve wandered onto the set of a Portlandia parody sketch, but that’s ok, I support local craft, and Portland will be Portland.

Next Steps
Installment 2 of my Simple review to follow later, as the application process / onboard process continues, and possibly they accept me.

Media inquiries: @tmccormick on Twitter. 



Calling on the National Center for Social Research to Publish by Open Access

discussion with Sally McManus of the National Center for Social Research, UK, following her blog post below, published on 22 November, 2012:

What’s best for mental health – no job or any job at all?

In terms of mental health, employment is generally better for people than joblessness. But is that still the case when the choice is between unemployment and a demanding job with low levels of control, security and reward?  This is what we examined in a paper published today in Psychological Medicine. In analyses led by our collaborator Peter Butterworth from the Australian National University, we found evidence to suggest that jobs of poor psychosocial quality are no better for mental health than being unemployed.Using data from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS), we found that rates of common mental disorder like anxiety and depression, were the same among the unemployed and people in the poorest quality jobs. Both groups were more likely to have a CMD than people in high quality work (that is, work with more variety, control, security and better support). We saw this pattern even after controlling for socio-economic and other factors.Getting the jobless back into work is, of course, a priority for recession-hit Britain. But so is the Government’s plan to improve national wellbeing. Our results highlight the relevance of what goes on in the workplace for the wellbeing agenda, and show that policies aimed at increasing the employment rate must not be at the expense of job quality.
Posted by Sally McManus – Research Director at 16:03


  1. The admirable public mission of the National Center for Social Research might be well-served by making your publicly-funded research publicly available, not $45/article. Few to none of the poorly- or unemployed people you write about, or the policymakers it is your charitable mission to reach, will be able to access the research — although they are likely helping to pay for it through their taxes and funding. How does this square with your mission, when there are many Open Access publication channels available through which you could alternately choose to make the findings available to all?

    More specifically, how does this comport with the well-known Finch Report  recommendations from Dame Janet Finch, Chair of your Board of Trustees, which have been accepted by the UK government: that publicly-funded research findings should be made available to all by Open Access publishing? May I assume that given the recommendations of the Finch Report, and the obvious implications of your charitable mission, you are seeking to move from non-open publications such as Cambridge’s “Psychological Medicine” to open publication? I look forward to seeing this development, and to being able to read your research findings.


  2. Sally McManus 23 November 2012 14:11

    Many thanks for your comments Tim, I completely share your frustration with journal charges. The reports that NatCen are funded to produce are nearly always made freely available now online, a great improvement over the limited distribution of hard copy reports in the past! This particular piece of analysis was not funded, publicly or otherwise. I’m a big fan of open access journals, but the article processing charges are often in excess of £1,000. It would be great to make the peer review process and high impact open access publishing more affordable, including to researchers working in the non-profit sector. I think there are signs that things are moving that way.


  3. Thank you for responding, Sally. I’m glad to hear NatCen reports are nearly always made freely available now online. (is that Open Access, by the way, and does it include reusable data?) and may be more so in future. I’d like to comment a bit more on this case because it surfaces some interesting issues, right in Dame Finch’s backyard, as the American expression says.

    > This particular piece of analysis was not funded,
    > publicly or otherwise

    the authors are employed by the public Australian National University and University of London, and the National Center for Social Research (charity, run largely on public funding). I don’t imagine they did this research work purely on “their own time,” in no way drawing upon the resources of their organizations. I think most people would have difficulty seeing how a primarily public-funded organization, such as a public university, can really say a given research work is “not funded.” The primary form of research funding is researcher compensation and facilities, whatever they are used for.

    In any case, regardless of if or how the work was funded, there are of course many ways to disseminate research work that don’t require it being paywalled in a traditional journal. You could simply self-publish the paper, or a pre-print version. Even if you chose to publish in an open-access journal with an article processing charge of, say, £1,000, this would be only a tiny percentage of the total project cost (considering salaries, research & library facilities, etc.), and seems quite reasonable considering that making it public is essential to the organization’s social and policymaking mission.

    We can talk about article charges, but I think it’s important to step back and consider why we even do what we do. For example, if “high impact” and effect on policymaking is the mission, how might we define, measure, and organize around that? One can hardly blame researchers and academics for operating according to prevailing metrics and incentives; but one can envision alternates to these that may better align with the public missions the researchers, like you, presumably support.

    Any measure of impact by readership, usage, sharing, popular mention, etc. is likely to overwhelmingly favor Open Access over subscription journals, and I would guess policymaking influence correlates more with such usage factors than with traditional measures such as Impact Factor. For impact and policy influence, we might ask whether it’s even necessary or worth the investment to publish in a journal at all; perhaps the effort could be better spent on other forms of outreach such as social media, mainstream media placement, or direct liaison with policymakers. Conceivably, agnostic metrics (e.g. “altmetrics”) that measure impact might show better results from such approaches, and thus validate the research work as “high impact” and high value. This isn’t, of course, what generally happens in the current system — but another system is possible.

    Tim McCormick
    @tmccormick Palo Alto, CA, USA

Ganga Style: Los Angeles and Culture as War

You might say that Korean pop-star PSY’s “Gangnam Style” has become the world’s leading cross-cultural sharing and remix platform:  a #1 hit in over 30 countries, the most watched and liked video in YouTube history, and hailed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, with that notoriously uncertain Korean irony level, as a “force for world peace.” Along with the dramatic ascent of Korean tech superpower Samsung to the position of world’s leading mobile-phone maker, Gangnam indelibly marks the emergence of Korean global soft-power greatness. Worldwide, cultural and protest groups of every stripe hasten to symbolically perform on the stage set by PSY, by creating their own versions and parodies.

Don Cheto, “Ganga Style” (2012)

Just to keep the cultural roulette going, I’m going to throw in with Mexican L.A.-based entertainer Don Cheto’s “Ganga Style” version, a witty and expertly-executed, veritable encyclopedia of cultural commentary as refracted through the glorious chaos of Los Angeles.

Don Cheto superbly replicates the Fat Chaplin-esque physical comedy of PSY: the shambolic, pudgy Everyman with improbably and infectiously deft, precision dance moves. In a taut four minutes of comic mayhem, “Ganga Style” packs in, among other things:

  • Chicano low-rider culture,
  • L.A. graffiti/mural art (note the murals growing on the warehouse interior walls as video progresses)
  • L.A. gangs
  • the prison system and incarceration culture, with the bright orange prisoner garb inevitably referencing Guantanamo Bay.
  • a Rodney King beating reenactment,
  • various iconic L.A. sites (City Hall, L.A. Times Building and L.A. River/Central Ave. bridge, LAPD Headquarters Building);
  • and a surprisingly well-developed love-triangle sub-plot between Don, a red-plaid-shirted Juliet and her blue Dodgers-shirted Romeo, possibly referencing LA Bloods vs. Crips gang wars and truce.
  • undoubtedly a bunch of other references which I don’t catch in the Don’s slang-laced street Spanish and video’s carefully layered visual gags. This is definitely a subject for the expert annotator community at Rap Genius to handle.

LAPD Headquarters Building

Don Cheto’s creative team shows admirable appreciation for L.A.’s urban landscape, in setting the various scenes of the video, and in particularly it’s heartening to see the monumental new LAPD headquarters so well-integrated into the cultural conversation, if not quite in the manner the builders may have intended. This $500M project strove mightily to incorporate community-building gestures, such as a public auditorium, restaurant, and park, and truly, efforts were good all around.

Mike Davis, “City of Quartz” (1990)

However, this is the fractured “City of Quartz”, as brilliantly described in cultural critic Mike Davis’s 1990 cultural history of the same name – which the Boston Review summarized as showing L.A. to be a “Postmodern Piranesi…and prisoner factory.” So the LAPD headquarters inevitably takes up arms in the L.A. sea of symbolic troubles, being dropped into an urban context facing the rearing dystopian reptile that is the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters Building across the street (designed by Thom Mayne / Morphosis) and down the block from the dueling great ziggurats of LA power, City Hall and Times Building. The swooping rooftop doubles as helicopter landing pad, somehow reminding one of the U.S. embassy in Saigon being evacuated or perhaps the slum-ringed high modernism of Brasilia.

Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Los Angeles, by Thom Mayne / Morphosis

The LA Times‘ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne had no difficulty enlisting LAPD Headquarters in the recent and permanent unpleasantness, observing (with, again, uncertain irony level) that the building facade’s effort at playfully irregular window arrangement “was meant to thwart snipers hiding inside the offices of this very newspaper.”  In LA, as journalist Chris Hedges’ 2002 book title put it, War Is a Force That Gives Us MeaningOr to loosely paraphrase Clausewitz, culture is a continuation of war by other means.

But really, the war-zone condition is paradoxically a key source of Los Angeles’ iconic, critical power, as Mike Davis observed. Perched precariously on a Pacific Plate edge fault-zone, luxuriating in catastrophic potential from drought, wildfire, and urban insurgency: without question a key part of Los Angeles’ brand is crisis. Don Cheto choreographs the paradoxes with infinite panache, performing the role of hapless, downtrodden Mexican in the brutal El Norte, while in fact living large as a millionaire entertainment mogul, overseeing what is clearly a large-budget and sophisticated production machine to produce and promote his latest video.

For me, Don Cheto’s dystopian “Ganga Style” shows LA at its best: expertly crystallizing cultural influences into a stylish travesty, continually reclaiming itself as a vibrant stage and focal point for global cultural war, this time joining with the new contender from Seoul. Everyone can be part of this creative war.

Before the Gate: the open way forward in the humanities

published November 13 on HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory).

I review a Humanities academic’s case against Open Access publishing, and find that the arguments are unconvincing, status-quo-bound, and ultimately limiting.  

Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

An American PhD candidate in Sociology at Trinity College, Cambridge, Casey Brienza, recently published an article in Publishing Research Quarterly, entitled “Opening the Wrong Gate? The Academic Spring and Scholarly Publishing in the Humanities and Social Sciences” (Sept 2012, Vol 28, Issue 3, pp 159-171).

To summarize Brienza’s article, she gives a description of the so-called “academic spring” in 2012, a movement in favor of Open Access scholarly publishing, as beginning with mathematicians’ boycott of publisher Elsevier and subsequently spreading to scholars in the humanities and social sciences (HSS), / RISD

She then argues that HSS fields are not equivalent in business practices or preferred publication venues to the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in which Elsevier primarily publishes.

She identifies the above-defined movement as having two moral or ideological objectives/rationales:

  1. liberation from immoral capitalist exploitation of academic labor and
  2. increased access to and engagement with scholarly knowledge

and then argues that alternatives to the status quo such as Open Access, do not necessarily support those principles, for the following reasons:

  1. HSS scholars will only harm their careers by steering away from high-status non-OA publications. (Yale librarian Susan Gibbons’ argument thus has been widely cited elsewhere).
  2. Digital publication doesn’t actually make materials available to everybody.
  3. Open Access may “profoundly transform the nature of academic research itself” and may cause existing forms of scholarly production to cease, e.g. the monograph.

Asked about the choice to publish a piece about Open Access (free to access) publishing in a paid-subscription journal that charges $39.95 for individual access to the article, Brienza commented on her  Livejournal page.

the argument I’m making rests in large part upon a correct understanding of how publishing works, and most academics don’t really understand the publishing industry. So, placing it in a journal dedicated to publishing research is a way to directly signal to them that I’m not just bullshitting about the basics. Of the two publishing research journals I know of, this one has a wider subscription base. And besides, the article is mostly addressed to those people who would have institutional means to get access, anyway.

Because I have a strong personal and professional interest in humanities & social science (HSS) and its publishing, I disregarded this disinvitation and decided I would brave disciplinary and practical boundaries to read the article, even though I’m not in the intended audience.

Kafka’s “Before the Law”, Orson Welles’ version: “by the guards permission, the man sits down by the side of the door, and there he waits”

In the spirit of public disclosure, initially I contacted Brienza to see if any version or preprint or other presentation of the arguments was available, and she did not respond to repeated inquiries. Nor did it work to observe that her advisor, John B. Thompson, had built his scholarly work upon extensive discussions with people in the publishing industry, which seems like a sensible idea when writing about the publishing industry, and I coming from said industry might even try to be helpful on the matter, were I to be granted admission to the conversation.

As I paced forlornly outside the walls, I also noted that I’m a British (as well as U.S.) citizen, and my family has paid goodly  sums into the tax system that is the primary funder of the U.K. public university she attends, and the scholarships which paid for her, an overseas student, to be there. (which I am happy for the country to do, by the way, but which I view as a public expenditure for public benefit, like any other). But, no response.

I felt like the man from the countryside in Kafka’s “Before the Law”:

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.”
These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper…he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter.”

Well, actually I thought about for a bit and  then decided that uncollegiality and guardedness regarding an article about open-access publishing was altogether too much amusing, ironic fun to leave in peace, so I walked right through the first gate, at least, and got a copy of the article to read.

So here are my thoughts, my day’s bit of thinking in public, which you are quite free to take or leave. (attention, hiring and tenure committees! Completely outside-of-the-fold public impact and input here). Since the original article or arguments are not publicly available, by Brienza’s choice, they will be inaccessible to most readers here, and so to some extent I unfortunately have to speak for her in describing what she says, whereas I’d prefer for anyone to be able to read her original presentation.

First of all, the article’s argumentation and scholarly level, despite being in what she describes as a leading peer-reviewed journal on publishing, I would characterize as, uncompelling.

Baylor University library poster for Open Access Week 2009.

She starts with a history of the Open Access movement in scholarly publishing, which she presents as beginning with Tim Gower’s Elsevier boycott starting in 2012, that is not far from caricature. Anyone familiar with the movement — a critical peer-reviewer, perhaps? — might immediately observe that OA explicitly goes back at least to the Budapest Open Access Initiative declaration in 2001, with clear antecedents in many fields going back decades.

OA is hardly the recently launched, self-righteous moral/ideological “bandwagon”  Brienza describes, but has been quite thoroughly and broadly examined and endorsed over the last 15 years by a huge range of stakeholders ranging from public funding agencies (Wellcome Trust, NIH, Max Planck Institute, etc.), major universities, scholars across all disciplines, students, medical patients and professionals, and a large part of the publishing world, including many major commercial publishers such as Sage and her own publisher, Springer; and even by openly capitalist scholarly-communication startups like PeerJ. See Wikipedia for a detailed discussion and history of the movement.

In one of many straw-man arguments, Brienza suggests that “too many scholars seem to assume that if an article or a book is ‘open access,’ it must necessarily then be available to all people equally and therefore in perfect alignment with the greater public good.” Who argues this? Even if they had, it’s fairly obvious that an Open Access publishing model generally make material more available to diverse publics — working stiffs and country bumpkins like me, for example. You might attempt a case that, say, closed subscription models incent production of goods which can in some ways be redistributed to other publics, e.g. by developing-world access programs; but it’s a difficult case, and she doesn’t attempt or even cite anything such.

cover of “Hatred of Capitalism” compilation from Semiotext(s) / MIT Press, 2007.

Even before one gets to the personal-interest revelation at the end, about how her mother was a decades-long employee of the corporate, subscription-publishing colossus Reed Elsevier being defended in the article — even before, one is taken aback by the apparent pro-corporate partisanship. For example, we learn that “corporate publishers of journals and books have vastly increased the carrying capacity of the academic publishing enterprise, and continue to do so, supporting career advancement for a greater number of scholars than ever before in history as well as the accelerated production of new knowledge they fuel.”

That’s a broad and interesting claim, but hardly the type one can usefully make without argument, evidence, or citation. Making it in a corporate-published, Springer journal is not really credibility-enhancing, either. One might reasonably ask how this beneficient corporate publishing system really supports or fuels academics’ careers, since it has long been based on large-scale uncompensated labor by academic authors and peer-reviewers, and appropriation of their copyrights in the work. Or, you might reasonably wonder why these publishers have overseen skyrocketing journal prices over the last 20 years, with no obvious cost rationale, while recording profit margins of up to 35%, unheard of in most industries; even as organizations such as ArXiv have demonstrated the ability to run scholarly-article systems at a tiny fraction of the commercial publisher’s prices.

While she reifies the incumbent journal-industrial complex, she “struggle[s] to imagine how an enterprise of this organizational magnitude could continue, never mind be reconstituted whole cloth, on a volunteer-only basis.” Of course, this is a straw-man proposal that nobody really suggests, and it seems without cognizance of the wide range of proposed and operating new scholarly communication systems, e.g. HASTAC in the humanities, SSRN (Social Science Research Network), or ArXiv, which dramatically diverge from commercial closed-access models but have been quite successful.

You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier, 2010

But wait, there is bigger game afoot than just, publishing. The problem is really the whole web, the universe, and everything: “The web’s…apparent egalitarianism is in fact a reinstantiation of the bad, old structures of domination.” Again, an intriguing argument, had we a bit more world enough and time; if largely at odds most people’s experience and analysis. We might look at various critical examiners of Internet culture/industry/policy such as Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, Jaron Lanier, or Evgeny Morozov; but as given here by Brienza, it isn’t a scholarly argument, or rigorous or supported by anything; it’s not much more than off-the-cuff editorializing, which I could get more easily on many an open-access street-corner or twitter feed. Likewise, “academics may be running headlong into unintended, even tragic, consequences.” Such as? and why? I guess we should just be very worried.

Finally, Brienza addresses what she considers the problematic idea that we might “profoundly transform the nature of academic research itself.” This, she says, is not likely to be, because, well, it’s not likely to be:

“The sociology of cultural production teaches that that form in which cultural content takes is shaped and constrained by the social structures within which it was produced. Why should scholarly articles and books be any different?”

Now what is the argument here? I see little more than an assertion of conservation — that there are observable social structures and processes, so they will stay that way. But how could anyone look at the last few centuries of scholarly endeavor and not see radical changes over time? For example, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick observes, peer review and tenure in our senses hardly existed until the early to mid-20th century.

John B. Thompson’s “Books in the Digital Age”, 2005

Speaking of a status-quo view, I was reminded of my reaction to the work of Brienza’s advisor, John D. ThompsonBooks in the Digital Age (2005). This book surveys  U.S. & U.K. academic monograph publishing based on a sociological “field of production” framework mainly adopted (he says) from Pierre Bourdieu. He proposes that a given “field”, such as what he’s delimited, is best understood as a system of self-reinforcing logic and dynamics. He argues that the e-book revolution is totally exaggerated, and the real revolution is elsewhere, e.g. with consolidation of publishing firms into conglomerates, and the publishing cultural field is largely reproducing itself across this terrain.

Now, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the sociology of culture, but I have been bumping around various corners of academia, publishing, and the Internet for 20 years or so, with my eyes not totally shut. Coming from this empirical vagabondage plus the occasional dab of related reading, my sense was that Thompson’s argument seemed rather rigid and not highly descriptive of the dynamic publishing world I’ve encountered. While Thompson largely dismisses e-books as overblown, just seven years after the book was published, the e-books sector has exploded to a level of uptake and revenues beyond the highest initial projections, and book publishing is being radically transformed by players such as Amazon and Apple that were essentially outside Thompson’s “field.”

Barbarians Led by Bill Gates, 1998

Admittedly, I may be one of the frothing barbarians at the Western gate — see for example Ken Auletta’s “Get Rich U.” on the Silicon Valley / Stanford nexus — but from out here on the fringe, to hear an academic at 800-year-old Cambridge argue that a media industry is some kind of fixed field sounds a bit.. fixed. As in, not especially engaged with the spirit of reinvention and innovation that can turn industries or societies upside down, which does actually happen now and then. (See: Printing Press; Railroad; Automobile; Internet; Personal Computer; E-Book, etc.).

The point is, both Thompson’s Books in the Digital Age and Casey Brienza’s “Opening the Wrong Gate?” strike me as burdened with a sense of inevitability or prior sympathy for an existing order — and seemingly chilled by the ‘winds of freedom blowing.’

Brienza’s essay leads to this not-quite-rousing call to action, “if HSS researchers are concerned about serving the public interest…they must do the work themselves after they have become well-published.” It’s a bit hard to say what this means, but in explanation she links to a 2011 post on LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog where she said,

“Nobody outside of the profession reads scholarly books and journal articles…Your book will not effect change on its own, but if you wave it around high enough and long enough you might be given a soapbox relevant to your research topic.”

We talk, but it’s complicated: network analysis of citations between disciplines in JSTOR repository, by Bergstrom et al, 2011

Really? we should support a giant apparatus of research, article and book writing and publishing, even if in itself has no public meaningfulness or impact, just so academics can arrange the seats at their table and establish careers; from which they might try to later perhaps have some impact if there’s some time and energy left over?

If that’s your case for why to get public or tuition-payer or any other type of support, and that’s your level of regard for your own work, field, and publics, I fear you have some rather rough times ahead. There are a lot of other ways people can spend and legislate money, and produce and demonstrate value; and I know many passionate, committed teachers,  scholars, and innovators who aren’t cynically centered on their own career advancement, who do believe in their work and wish to share it for public benefit — and to aid their own learning and work, I might add. Because it’s good to talk to diverse other people who know things — that’s called research, and conviviality.

Those more mission-spirited academics are whom, frankly, I would rather entrust with my learning or my children’s, or my reading time or tax dollars, and in my view it’s a poor long-term strategy for humanities academics or anybody to wave around self-described irrelevancies or  esoterica, and expect this to earn support and a living.

Overall Brienza’s article reads to me like the contortions of an a priori point of view trying to evade the scrutiny of open argument, and haunted by its own shame of disciplinary marginality. It’s truly unfortunate if the state of HSS academia is so embattled and hardscrabble as to lead to this, but I think that in such a climate, we should be looking for how to open new gateways to relevance, not throwing principles aside and self-privatizing.

I actually believe deeply in the humanities’ broad relevance, and look for how to evolve practices that will encourage, highlight, and champion it. Some outstanding examples of that, for me, include the following (the first two of which were also mentioned in Casey Brienza’s article):

  • HASTAC‘s peer network and platform for publishing and events
  • MediaCommons‘ explorations of open peer review and participatory publishing models
  • PressForward at George Mason University, developing new ways to catalyze, curate, and re-publish online scholarly discussion
  • the Altmetrics movement, helping to open a space for HSS academics to articulate unique values and practices that should be recognized as “output” for purposes of hiring & promotion, grant funding, etc.

Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.

As many have realized, we don’t have to, and aren’t necessarily well-advised to, just keep knocking on the door of old, exclusionary institutions. Or as Virginia Woolf wrote at the start of A Room of One’s Own, recollecting being denied entrance to Wren Library at Casey Brienza’s own Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1920s:
“Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again..”

Unlike the man in Kafka’s “Before the Law,” Woolf didn’t let the gatekeeper determine the way, but rather looked for new directions. So, I believe, the humanities today have a future in new directions and open paths.