The Emperor’s New Interface

A beginning-of-the-semester raft of posts is on the way. Let me start off with a little appetizer of outrage before I get on to the long-winded equivocating, though. It seems like most librarians are willing to kiss and make up with Ithaka & JSTOR over its recent changes to its interface. Given JSTOR’s present indispensibility, that’s wise on their part.

I, on the other hand, have no such inclination. Oh, I’m not uniquely angry at Ithaka’s leadership, mind you. Nor do I think this was a conspiracy to get users to accidentally pay for content that their libraries already own. But if you want a single moment that reveals how flatly insane the entirety of academic publishing actually is, this is that moment. All the fig leaves fell to the ground for a couple of weeks.

To sum it up, as I have before at this blog: academic institutions (and grant-giving agencies outside of academia) subsidize scholarly research through sabbaticals, through supporting laboratories and libraries, through travel funds and so on. When scholars report and disseminate their research in short-form articles or papers, they traditionally have done so by giving away the written report to outside publishers. (Or worse yet, the researchers have had to pay someone to disseminate or publish their findings, a cost which is also borne by the universities or by granting agencies.) Then scholars gave away something else to the publishers: the work of peer review, done on an entirely voluntary basis, which was the primary value-added that made the publications desirable in the first place. These publishers then sold back the published results to universities, often at very high profit-seeking mark-ups.

What do scholars get out of disseminating or publishing their research? Primarily they gain reputation, which may indirectly produce financial rewards. Only very rarely does an academic receive direct financial gain from the act of publication itself. How do you gain reputation? Through the widest possible circulation of the research publication.

So: in the system as it existed from about 1970 to the present, universities had to pay twice (or more, if you count supporting peer review as a form of academic labor) for research, and because publishers held the rights to the work that was donated to them, work did not circulate as widely as it could. Quite the contrary: conventional publication sharply limited its circulation.

That was one thing when the publishers were bearing the costs of the physical production of print. Digital publishing is not cost-free (UI design, storage, interoperability and preservation all cost something), but neither does it have any of the burdensome overhead of print.

So why do we tolerate the rank insanity of this system now that we can completely obliterate it? Peer review is completely mobile to digital publication: it was already done remotely anyway. Editorial boards are completely mobile to digital publication. There’s still a place for book publication that is handled by presses, books which potentially have slightly wider audiences than one hundred fifty research libraries. There’s still a role for a few wider-circulation print journals that also reach wider audiences. But the vast majority of academic publication can avoid the middlemen entirely, which would simultaneously save money and serve the purpose of scholarly publication far better.

Now, JSTOR’s interface design didn’t actually change anything about who owns what material. All it did was briefly showcase the nudity of the emperor, reveal more nakedly how much of our academic patrimony we gave away for decades and decades, made us rattle our beggar’s cups a bit more. At least in the fairy tale, when the town sees the emperor is naked, they don’t close their eyes until they can get back to imagining him as regally clothed again. No, they run the salesmen out of town and laugh the emperor back into his palace.

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