Monday, December 30, 2013

The APA privatizes, too

Unlike many of my colleagues and friends in Classics Departments around the US and abroad, I will not be travelling to Chicago this week for the annual meeting of the American Philological Association.  The APA continues to accept donations to a recently completed capital campaign with the goal of supporting a digital "Center for Classics Research and Teaching."  (See the description here.)  The APA claims that its center will "make high quality information about the Classical World available in accessible formats to the largest possible audience by using technology in new and exciting ways," but has never clearly addressed the fact that, as proposed, the center will include material for APA members only.

Like Elsevier and some other distributors, in other words, the APA wants to control who can read scholarly work as part of its "business model."  Like Elsevier, the APA leadership is doubtless sincere in its belief that its "business model" is paramount.  But like Elsevier, the APA winds up in a Wonderland, where, with Humpty Dumpty, we can make words mean whatever we choose.  The idea that closed-access material could be available to "the largest possible audience" is ludicrous.  In 2012, over a billion IPv4 addresses were in use, and, while difficult to estimate, the number of individual internet users is certainly much higher.  It must exceed the APA's membership by at least six orders of magnitude. (That is, the number of internet users is surely at least 100,000 times greater than the number of APA members.)

More simply, like Elsevier, the APA's plan privatizes scholarly work that should be published.  In criticizing Elsevier's business practices, I argued that

Scholarly publication in a digital world means that a work is openly accessible for others to inspect, critique, and build upon, and we should insist that in reviews for tenure and promotion, only scholarly publications meeting this definition qualify as published work.

We should hold professional organizations to the same standard.

Unfortunately, just as these essential scholarly values are often ignored in reviews of individuals for tenure and promotion, they are often likewise neglected in evaluation of funding requests from educational institutions, federal programs and private philanthropic organizations.  There is no quick or easy way to change these entrenched practices that directly oppose the basic working method of scholarship.  But I have the choice not to become a member of (and support with my membership fees) an organization that is building a system of information apartheid.

If you are at the APA this week, try to get a clear answer to a yes/no question:  will the APA's digital publications be openly accessible for others to inspect, critique, and build upon?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Elsevier does not publish: it privatizes

If you were shocked that Elsevier has apparently issued a takedown notice to the University of Calgary, you should consider auditioning for Claude Rains' role in Casablanca.   Elsevier has never hidden the fact that its business model depends on restricting access to scholarly work.  Alicia Wise of Elsevier responds to the post linked above with this question:

the business model is based largely on paid access post-publication, and if freely accessible on a large scale what library will continue to subscribe?

The question may be sincerely intended, but its logic is straight from Alice in Wonderland:  if Elsevier cannot profit by making scholarship publicly available — that is, by publishing it — then it must privatize the information, and sell access only to clients who cede to Elsevier control over who may read the scholarly work.

The intellectual roots of western scholarship reach back to ancient Greece, and the radical idea that scholarly understanding is not determined by political or social power.  (This is exemplified in the famous story of Euclid telling his patron and monarch, Ptolemy, that "there is no royal road to geometry.")  In our modern academic institutions, publication exposes scholarly work to public scrutiny, and serves in part to ensure that scholarly claims are not based on power over information.

Elsevier and others subvert this fundamental scholarly activity when they privatize scholarship, a simple fact that we obfuscate  when, with an Orwellian twist of language, we call it "publication." It is true that scholars who freely hand over their work to privatizers make the system possible, but who can blame an untenured faculty member who will be rewarded for contributing to the dysfunction?

We should instead unambiguously reiterate that scholarly publication in a digital world means that a work is openly accessible for others to inspect, critique, and build upon, and we should insist that in reviews for tenure and promotion, only scholarly publications meeting this definition qualify as published work.

How quickly would Elsevier's pool of submissions dry up if enough universities adopted and enforced such a requirement for real scholarly publication?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What humanists do

I recently stumbled across an interview with the very articulate Astronomer Royal Martin Reese that included this observation:

But the aim of science is to unify disparate ideas, so we don't need to remember them all. I mean we don't need to record the fall of every apple, because Newton told us they all fall the same way.

(The full transcript of the interview is here, under the arresting title "Cosmic Origami and What We Don't Know.")

I think that this remark really captures a quintessential difference between the natural sciences and the humanities.  Humanists, too, unify disparate ideas, but we must record each unique phenomenon that we study.  If we develop a unified view of oral poetry, for example, we will never conclude that "I'm familiar with the Iliad, so I don't have to remember the Odyssey," or "I've studied Greek poetry so I don't need to know about the Serbo-Croatian oral poetry that Parry and Lord recorded."  We don't study apples.  Recording and remembering are basic to scholarship in the humanities.

This has important implications for how we work in a digital world.  We record and remember through citation, so before anything else we must develop a sound infrastructure for citation.