Do they know it's broken?

Oct 11 2010 Published by under Open Access

It's no news to most librarians that the academic community generally has a pretty shaky handle on the politics and economics of information—even the information they themselves produce. Given that, it's not terribly surprising that the serials crisis has gone on for thirty-some-odd years without a great deal of comment or action from the academic community. After all, the housing bubble told us something about bubbles: they go on and on and on, despite doomful forecasts, until they suddenly don't.

So what's happening with the journal bubble? Is anyone cottoning on?

Well… yes, I am starting to think so. The resulting thought processes aren't what I would have them be, but more awareness being better than less, I'll take what I can get.

What I see going on as I peruse academic weblogs, as I listen to academics on Twitter and Friendfeed, as I watch mainstream higher-ed periodicals, as I pay attention to conversations I hear at conferences and elsewhere, is the start of a sort of bargaining with the publishing establishment. Academic folk aren't getting what they want or need, and certainly not what they think they deserve. That doesn't mean they're storming the bastions. At the moment, it seems to mean they're looking for the postern gate into the castle, hoping it's unguarded.

Academic samizdat is booming, and indications are that academics don't think this is in any way a problem (though many publishers would disagree). Here, there, and all over the place, I hear researchers at institutions with less-well-funded libraries sighing, "if only I worked at a Research I," and not only sighing, but trying to find ways to get themselves into the e-journal candy stores there. (Barbara's right, of course, that researchers did it to themselves and therefore have mostly themselves to blame. But again, they don't know this, because like some sort of strange information-fish, they don't understand the water they swim in.)

Most of those ways aren't going to fly (trust a librarian on this; we know what's in the contracts we sign with publishers and aggregators), even as academic samizdat has its limits. Still, I can't manage to be surprised at folks trying to work around the system rather than reform it. It's a big system, and a threatening one.

Which brings me to the cautious rejoicing that must be going on at Georgia State University around now; electronic reserves appear safe, unless what's left of the lawsuit takes a strange and unheralded hairpin turn. Barbara Fister has a rundown of the situation, as does Duke's Kevin Smith. I have to be happy about any victories for fair use in this copyright-maximalist age, and I am happy, but I can't help feeling regret as well.

I'm a bit of a revolutionary at heart, you see. I get tired of putting my heart and my career on the line only for slow, plodding progress. I want a Boston Tea Party! I want to storm the Bastille! And people and systems being what they are, I know that won't happen unless something prominent breaks outrageously. Sage and Oxford and Cambridge had better be happy the Georgia State lawsuit is going how it is, if you ask me, because ruling electronic reserves copyright infringement would in my estimation be just the kind of outrageous breakage that would make academics themselves rip the system to pieces with their bare hands.

Ah, well. No revolution today. Back to the slow, plodding salt mines. Back to building a little more awareness of breakage every single slow, plodding day.

3 responses so far

  • Great piece. I think you're right that there'll need to be a dramatic breakage and associated outcry for real change, but the slow, plodding work you're talking about will then prove valuable. I remember back when I was President of the Graduate Student Council and we were trying to get health insurance for grad students, we arduously shoved ourselves through all kinds of studies and meetings and I don't know what all for years trying to make a reasonable case. And then they raised the price of university-provided insurance, and protests and near-strikes broke out among the radicalized grad students. And we got our health insurance. I got the sense that the more radical students saw us as naive, docile company men, but to my mind it was extremely useful that they (we) got to say, "Look, we've tried following your rules and working within your system, and nothing has happened, nothing has changed."

    Which is just to say that someday, you'll be proved right. Vive la révolution!

  • Ian Gibson says:

    As a fellow revolutionary at heart, I am still waiting for the day the faculty realize that they don't really need the publishers at all. They are the ones doing the peer review and the editing. They are the ones contributing the content. Perhaps the revolution will occur when we start demanding that their grants start contributing to the cost of their journals...

    Given the existence of Arxiv the journal situation in physics especially boggles my mind. If arxiv had a moderation/peer review system would we even need published journals in physics (other than prestige and other pissing match type reasons)?

    ugh... I hope that the situation will be resolved before we run out of money but I am doubtful.