Predators without Prey?

This is an amusing story about how a fake journal article called “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List,” consisting of nothing but that sentence over and over, might be published in an open access “scholarly journal.” It was originally written by someone else many years ago to protest spam conference invitations, and was forwarded to the journal to protest what a professor believed was a spam invitation to publish in a journal. Upon submission, the professor was told it would be published for $150.

What might be funniest about the story is Jeffrey Beall’s email response to Inside Higher Education. (He apparently “broke” the story on his blog, but after my last encounter with some of Beall’s prose, I didn’t have the will necessary to read anything else by him.) Here’s what he wrote to IHE:

“It’s clear that no peer review was done at all and that this particular journal (along with many like it) exists only to get money from scholarly authors. The open-access publishing model has some serious weaknesses, and predatory journals are poisoning all of scholarly communication.”

The first sentence is undeniable. This is obviously a scam journal that just wants to make money from gullible researchers, if it can find any. Any idiot should be able spot that, and the professor obviously did or he wouldn’t have sent the fake article. It’s the second sentence that’s so funny. “Predatory journals are poisoning all of scholarly communication.”

In this case, we have a professor who expected the journal to be a scam, which basically it is. He sent them an article written many years before to protest spam conference invitations. These two taken together imply that spamming researchers predates the rise of the so-called predatory journals, and that researchers can tell when something is a scam. “Poisoning all of scholarly communication” is a ridiculous overstatement on the face of it, but describing an interaction in which everyone, including the professor, knows what’s really going on isn’t poisoning anything. It’s evidence that scholarly communication is working pretty well and that scholars know these journals are questionable from the beginning.

What’s missing from the analysis of “predatory” journals is any evidence of widespread trickery, where researchers who don’t know any better are paying to publish in what they believe to be legitimate peer-reviewed scholarly journals. It’s hard to prove something is predatory if there’s not any prey. The professor in question is the exact opposite of prey, and if anything he’s preyed upon the journal by making it the butt of his joke, but I guess it’s easier to misinterpret evidence that challenges your beliefs instead of following the evidence to form your beliefs. Human, all to human.

The Best that Can be Done

There are a lot of things to love about JSTOR for ejournals. It’s easy to search and has such a wealth of content that I find it easy to understand why for a lot of professors a while back it was synonymous with library ejournals. “My professor told me to search JSTOR,” students would tell me. And for research in many fields, it’s still not a bad place to start. There’s the small irritation of having to click to agree on their terms every time I want an article PDF, but at least when I do it works. And there’s the time I was trying to do an exhaustive literature search and JSTOR thought I was a bot of some kind and shut down the session, but I was able to bypass that in a couple of minutes. Overall, though, a great experience.

Then we get to JSTOR ebooks, and things change. In my Library Journal column on the mess of ebooks, I complained about JSTOR ebooks among others, because after a certain amount of friction trying to download an ebook chapter I simply gave up. It just wasn’t worth it. After that column, a rep called me and we talked about JSTOR ebooks and their many advantages, and they do have some advantages. However, when it comes to downloading, they make the 18 steps it takes to download an Ebrary ebook for the first time look almost appealing.

I decided to give it another try, though. The first time I tried was just an experiment. I didn’t want the book, I just wanted to test the service. Yesterday, I found a book I actually wanted to read, but the print copy was checked out and every copy in the Borrow Direct system was also checked out. The JSTOR ebook came up, because the book was published by the Princeton University Press and we buy the ebooks from PUP. I don’t want to read chapters in the Flash reader online, but If you don’t like the Flash reader, you can download the PDF, supposedly. According to the JSTOR rep I spoke with, that’s available on only 60% of the titles, but it was available on this one. It’s a long book, so I figured I’d download a chapter at a time and read through it when I got a chance.

I went to the page for the ebook. The first thing I noticed was the warning. “This book has viewing and download limits.” That’s for sure. “There is no printing or copying allowed,” because it seems like a good idea to take a potentially useful technology and make it impossible to do simple, basic tasks that everyone would expect it to do. Deliberate hobbled technology makes it unlikely I’ll invest in it, but the ebook was already paid for.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.14.03

I could download a PDF of a book chapter, that is, if I logged in to my MyJSTOR account.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.17.00

I didn’t have a MyJSTOR account, because I don’t want one. What I wanted to do is download some of the book the library paid for that says downloads are available. That doesn’t seem like much of a demand. Since completing that simple task was made impossible for me, I spent a few minutes creating an account I don’t want and shouldn’t need, filling in all the blanks with meaningless or wrong information. Then I logged in to the account I don’t want and shouldn’t need. Supposedly, now I can download the book.

Oh, but not yet. Replicating the outstanding JSTOR article platform would be far too harmful for the publishers, I assume, so I get some more friction. I need something called the FileOpen program, because JSTOR ebooks can’t just give me a PDF once the book is purchased and I’ve created this pointless account.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.06.56I was already pretty irritated, but what the hell. By then I was suffering from the “sunk costs fallacy,” where I’d invested enough time that I would feel bad giving up, even as my benefit-to-time ratio rapidly shrank. So I tried to load the plugin that’s only purpose seems to be to allow me to open a PDF that I should be able to open anyway if it hadn’t been screwed up by DRM or whatever they did to it. I couldn’t open it without the plugin, that’s for sure.

And finally, success! No, wait. Not success. Here’s what I got next:

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.04.58

If you can’t make that out, it reads, “Note to Safari users: Due to Apples’s updates and fixes it has become no longer possible to view PDF files in your Safari web browser. We apologize for this, and we hope to be able to restore this functionality in the future.”

That was really weird. First of all, I wasn’t using Safari, but Google Chrome. Second of all, here’s a screen shot of me viewing a PDF file in Safari a few minutes after I got that message.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 18.28.57

Thus, the statement that it’s no longer possible to view PDFs in Safari was a lie. What it seems to mean is that they’ve added so much DRM to the PDF that it’s not viewable by standard web browsers like ordinary PDFs are. Let’s get clear who’s keeping me from viewing PDFs. It wasn’t because of changes that Apple made, or even Google. It’s because of changes to the PDF that JSTOR made. This turned into one of those “don’t pee on my head and tell me it’s raining” moments, only less messy.

I couldn’t view it in Chrome, either, so I went back to the note to Safari users and pretended it applied to me. “For now it seems that the best that can be done is to use Firefox together with stand-alone Adobe Reader or Acrobat.”

Really? That’s it? The best that can be done? Make me create an account, login to that account, install a plugin I shouldn’t need to read a PDF, fail to give me a PDF that I can read, and then tell me to go follow some special instructions and change browsers to view a file format I should be able to view with any standard browser. That’s the best that can be done?

No, that’s not the best that can be done. That’s a non-solution to a problem JSTOR created, no doubt at the behest of the publishers. The best that could have been done is having me click “Download this chapter” and then downloading the chapter. That’s the best that could have been done.Telling me my problem downloading a chapter was something other than their restricted file format isn’t tempting me to buy any JSTOR ebooks for the library. It did tempt me to write this blog post, though.

Anti-OA and the Rhetoric of Reaction

You know when someone at Scholarly Kitchen thinks your anti-open access rant is excessive you’ve crossed some sort of threshold. You also know that when a biologist and a co-founder of the Public Library of Science bothers to give your article a thorough fisking, you have people’s attention. Even Roy Tennant seems a little riled, and he’s usually pretty calm. Jeffrey Beall has managed to publish an anti-open access article in an open access journal that’s so  poorly argued that I wonder if he’ll later use the publication as an example of how bad OA publishing can be. The Beall Hoax.

I was going to write a detailed response pointing out, among other things, that Beall makes a number of outrageous claims about OA advocates without referring to or citing any of them. There’s absolutely no evidence presented that any OA advocates hold any of the “anti-corporatist” (sic) views that Beall attributes to them, which leaves the article as an eight-page rant against a straw man. Beall claims that “a close analysis of the discourse of the OA advocates reveals that the real goal of the open access movement is to kill off the for-profit publishers and make scholarly publishing a cooperative and socialistic enterprise.” Needless to say, the close analysis never comes. If it had come, this article would be a serious contribution to the OA discussion instead of an uninformative rant, especially if it had analyzed representative passages from numerous OA advocates instead of cherry-picking juicy but unrepresentative quotes from a handful of alleged zealots. It wouldn’t have proved anything against OA itself, but it might have made for a good read.

Because the argument is unsupported and so extreme, all I have to do to prove it wrong is to say I’m an open access advocate who doesn’t support the elimination of private corporations or commercial publishers or any of the other nonsense views he attributes to people like me. I’m not a socialist or a collectivist or any of the other mid-20th century adjectives Beall wants to label me with. And, unlike some people I might mention, I’m not a zealot. There, thesis disproved.

After reading Eisen’s fisking, I don’t see a need for a detailed critique of the arguments, such as they are. Instead, I want to look at the rhetoric. Some of you might be familiar with Albert O. Hirschman’s book The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, in which he analyzes right-wing rhetoric from the French Revolution on down and finds three persistent types of argument.

I have come up with another triad: that is, with three principal reactive-reactionary theses, which I call the perversity thesis or thesis of the perverse effect, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.” Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the code of the proposed chafe or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment. (7)

Beall manages to deploy all these arguments in the course of his article. This shouldn’t be surprising.  For people who have read a lot of conservative literature, as I have, the clues to a reactionary worldview are evident throughout the article. For example, Beall claims that “The open access movement and scholarly open-access publishing itself are about increasing managerialism.” Eisen had to look that up, but if he were familiar with mid-twentieth century conservative political writer James Burnham, he would have known about Burnham’s 1941 book The Managerial Revolution. Burnham, a longtime contributor to the National Review, was once upon a time quite prominent in conservative circles. Along with the unfounded accusations about people being collectivists wanting to destroy private enterprise, Burnham’s work was hot among the right in the 1950s.

This bit should sound familiar to anyone familiar with the Manichaen apocalyptic novelist often taken for a political philosopher by teenage boys, Ayn Rand: “The open-access movement is really about anti-corporatism. OA advocates want to make collective everything and eliminate private business, except for small businesses owned by the disadvantaged.” How did we get from wanting open access for scholarly publishing to wanting to eliminate all private businesses? Or this: “The open-access movement isn’t really about open access. Instead, it is about collectivizing production and denying the freedom of the press from those who prefer the subscription model of scholarly publishing.” A movement devoted to open access literature is denying freedom of the press? That’s perversity in action.

This makes some sense if you share a Randian worldview. In this comforting worldview, the world is a simple place to understand. It’s filled not with flawed human beings acting upon a variety of motivations trying to make their way through a complex world. No, the world is made of heroes and villains. The heroes are the people who think as I do and are always right. The villains are any people who disagree with any part of my ideology. They do so not because the world is complicated and disagreement natural, but because they are evil and possibly stupid, and no matter what noble motives they might claim to have, they’re lying and trying to destroy some beloved institution. Also, there’s the faith that commercial enterprise is always good and free markets (if they ever really exist) always lead to the best outcome. Challenging this faith in any way leads to an extreme reaction. It’s a world of extremes. Criticizing any area in which private enterprise and free markets maybe don’t give us the outcomes we want is equated with being a “collectivist” who wants to bring the capitalist system down. That explains why in the article, criticism of Elsevier or of commercial science publishing means that one wants to destroy all corporations. It doesn’t make a lot of sense until you look at it through the Randian lens.

In this world, people don’t support open access because they think the creation and dissemination of new knowledge is a public good. They do it because they want to destroy all corporations and deny freedom to people. This must be their motive because they disagree with Beall about open access scholarship, and he thinks these things are bad, so they must be motivated by these evil ideas. Q.E.D. Since there have to be heroes and villains, Beall must be the hero and everyone who disagrees with him in the slightest a villain who is acting from evil motives to destroy everything he holds dear. Once you share this worldview, evidence doesn’t matter anymore.

The Hirschman theses show up as well. Let’s take a look at some passages trying to find the perversity, futility, and jeopardy theses.

It’s likely that hundreds or even thousands of honest researchers have fallen prey to the predatory publishers, those open-access publishers that exploit the gold open-access model just for their own profit, pretending to be legitimate publishing operations but actually accepting any and all submissions just for the money.

This is a good example of the perversity thesis in action. Predatory gold-OA publishers exist and they exploit people and harm scholarly publishing, and it’s all the fault of OA advocates. This isn’t what the OA advocates promised us! This is bad! We can all agree that it’s bad, but it takes a special kind of logic to say that because some bad people do bad things with OA that all OA is thus bad. In informal reasoning, it’s called the “guilt by association” fallacy.

One of the headings in the article claims that “Gold Open Access is Failing.” As Eisen notes, “This is the worst form of cherry-picking. Open access publishing is ‘failing’ because one open access publisher that published an insignificant number of papers went out of business?” Not really much evidence for it. But it might be an example of the futility thesis. Nothing good will come from OA scholarly publishing. It’s a futile effort that will merely result merely in more “predatory” publishers. Beware OA publishing!

The jeopardy thesis is pervasive. Scholarship is in jeopardy because of predatory publishers. Public access to good science is in jeopardy because of…predatory publishers. The tenure process for young scholars is in jeopardy because “Some tenured open-access advocates are pressuring young scholars away from submitting their work to traditional journals, sacrificing them to the open-access movement.” We don’t know who these tenured open-access advocates or pressured young scholars are because none of them are named, so we’ll just have to take Beall’s word for it. Oh, and the careers of scientists in developing countries are also in jeopardy: “OA advocates are also pressuring scientists in developing countries to publish in OA journals, and this could hurt their careers.” Again, we don’t know who these scientists are, but we’re assured their careers could be in jeopardy.

The free-market perfection of commercial science publishing is in jeopardy from gold-OA as well: “The act of instituting financial transactions between scholarly authors and scholarly publishers is corrupting scholarly communication. This was one of the great benefits of the traditional scholarly publishing system – it had no monetary component in the relationship between publishers and their authors.” That’s one of the benefits, and since there are absolutely no burdens in the traditional system, OA advocates are trying to jeopardize a perfect system. That’s bad! Beall grasps tightly to every scrap of evidence that might support his anti-OA crusade and ignores everything else that doesn’t support it. He argues like a trial lawyer when he should be arguing like a scholar. If he fairly considered the evidence for and against both traditional publishing and OA publishing, or even acknowledged the obvious fact that commercial scholarly publishing has some problems, it might be possible to engage in a discussion, but that’s impossible here.

I’ve analyzed some rhetoric because of the lack of arguments and evidence supporting the claims about OA advocates, but there seems to be a certain logic to Beall’s overall mission. Here’s the argument in syllogistic terms as I infer it:

Some OA publishing is predatory publishing.
All predatory publishing is bad.
Therefore, all OA publishing is bad.

The problem is, that’s an invalid argument. My study of formal logic was long enough ago that I can’t remember the exact name for the problem, but the error consists in moving from “some OA” to “all OA.” Thus, informally, his reasoning fails because he provides no analysis of any OA advocates while making sweeping and sometimes absurd claims about them. Formally, his reasoning fails because when put in the form of a syllogism it’s invalid. Thus, the overall argument, as put here, is neither sound nor valid. If we look at this as an argument against OA, as it seems to be intended, it fails, but as a rare example of right-wing political rhetoric from a librarian it’s kind of fascinating.

Finally, Beall approaches OA advocates the same way he claims they approach OA. Referring to the response to an article about predatory OA journals, Beall claims, “The attack on Bohannon was carried out with a near religious fervour. OA advocates will do anything to protect the image of open-access.” If anything has a religious fervor, it’s this self-righteous crusade against OA advocates that paints them all as villains. This, by the way, was my response to that article and the discourse surrounding it. Somehow I managed to say that predatory publishers are bad and OA good without religious fervor or zealotry. I pointed out that the fact that predatory OA publishers exist is no evidence whatsoever that OA publishing is inherently bad, so any fuss was for nought. Only people who can’t reason soundly would try to make that claim, which might be what some OA advocates feared. Perhaps there were OA advocates who attacked Bohannon with religious fervor, although no evidence is given for that. But if there were, that doesn’t make all OA advocates into zealots or OA publishing bad. It’s like saying that because some anti-OA crusaders produce unsubstantiated attacks on OA advocates or mistakenly argue that all OA publishing is bad because some OA publishing is bad somehow proves that OA is inherently good. Neither argument makes much sense.

On the “Sting”

The latest buzz in the OA community seems to be the story of the so-called sting of  OA journals, large numbers of which accepted a bogus paper with little to no peer review. The Chronicle article captures the story well. The journal Science, which published the “sting,” claims it exposes the “dark side of open access publishing.” I guess the dark side of subscription publishing has been well known for so long it’s good other dark sides are exposed. Critics have complained about the quality of the study/sting itself and the fact that it targeted only open access journals, even though (shockingly!) subscription science journals can be just as susceptible to flawed peer review, including Science itself.

I’m still trying to figure out what all the hubbub’s about. Okay, so only open access journals were targeted (including several owned by Elsevier and other subscription science publishers). Okay, a whole bunch of the publishers on Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers turn out to be predatory publishers. All you have to do is start exploring some of those publishers to figure out they’re hardly reputable.

Putting aside the potential bias of the subscription journal Science trying to spin this as a sting that shows how subscription journals are more trustworthy than open access journals, isn’t it beneficial to know just what dubious OA journals are in fact little more than scams? Beall himself might have an anti-OA bias and believes that the subscription Big Deals have been a big success for libraries (although I still don’t believe the numbers back him up on that), but that doesn’t mean he’s not doing the world a service by identifying suspicious publishers. Identifying suspicious OA publishers is good for the OA movement.

The only way this could be harmful to the OA movement in general is if someone claimed that this “sting” somehow proved that the OA process is inherently flawed. That would be a stupid and unsupportable claim based on the evidence at hand. In fact, despite the fact that every other Indian citizen seems to be creating a dubious OA journals, numerous OA journals didn’t fall victim to the bogus article. Is anyone making that claim?

What we can learn from this episode is that there are a lot of shady publishers trying to make money. We live in a world where Elsevier published fake medical journals for profit. Does it really come as a surprise that lots of enterprising people want to find a way to make a profit from a flawed system of scholarly communications? But just as the mission of science isn’t to support Elsevier’s bottom line, neither is it to support questionable OA publishers around the world. They should be outed and avoided. Maybe the bigger lesson is that wherever profit is involved in scholarly communication, someone’s going to try to make a profit, whether it’s Elsevier or some desperate guy in India with access to the Internet.

Tempted, Very Tempted

I haven’t gotten one of these for a while. I’m tempted, but a little busy now. However, if you’re interested, I’m sure they’d give you a reasonable rate. Based on the writing in the email, the editing is probably top notch, too.


From: Editor []

Subject: Research Manuscript Submission

Dear Author,

SJP is a broad-base open access journal publisher. We cover all areas of scientific researches, humanities, social sciences and behavioral sciences. And we welcome the submission of manuscript(s) with a significance and scientific excellence, and we will publish:

1. Original articles in basic and applied research
2. Case studies
3. Critical reviews, surveys, opinions, commentaries and essays

SJP is indexed by well recognize international database such as Google Scholars, Gale Cengage Learning, Serial Solutions, Ulrich Periodical and Others. Our objective is to inform author(s) of the decision on their manuscript(s). Submit your article directly to our office email at

I. How to Submit Manuscript
II. Information on Our Website
III. Instructions for Authors
IV. Publication Fee/Charges

Editorial Office

You are receiving this email because of your relationship with SJP. If you do not wish to receive any more emails, you can send “STOP”.** journal ** publication ** paper

Signs Taken for Wonders

Reading through some of the commentary on the Mellen/Askey case, I ran across a comment from the ACRL Board of Directors’ statement of support for Askey:

I find this whole debate to be nuts. Every book is a unique product. Some are good and some are poor. The actual publisher is no indication of quality. Every book needs to be judged on its individual merits. I know of some excellent books published by EMP which have had excellent reviews in leading scholarly journals.

The person who left it obviously wanted the point more broadly known, because he left the same comment at Slaw and Annoyed Librarian. In response to a critical comment on the latter post, the person claims to be an academic who has published with Edwin Mellen, which would make his sensitivity to Askey’s criticisms and librarian support for Askey understandable.

Regardless of who this person is, we can look past the biography and examine the claim on its own merits, just as he would have us do with books. That “every book needs to be judged on its individual merits” seems so obvious as not to need defending. Just as we say one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we shouldn’t judge a book by its publisher, and in an ideal world we might not. Ideally, we wouldn’t take the signs of quality for the wonder of true quality.

However, to say that “the actual publisher is no indication of quality” requires some argument, because anyone who knows how academia and scholarly publishing work would be unlikely to agree with this immediately. The actual publisher might not be proof of quality, but it is certainly an indication of the quality we are likely to expect from the book, and everyone in academia, from graduate students to faculty to librarians, knows it. If you tell an academic you published a book, the first question is often, “which press?” It matters, and everyone knows it matters. At a university like mine, filled with top scholars in every field, the expectation is that they will publish with the top presses. We see evidence of this in the Leiter Reports post that inadvertently led to the now viral campaign to free Dale Askey. That reports the result of a survey among academic philosophers as to how they would rank scholarly presses. Oxford is the first by a wide margin. In the full survey, Edwin Mellen Press is last by a similarly wide margin. “34. Edwin Mellen Press loses to Oxford University Press by 407–1, loses to Peter Lang by 73–39.” In academic philosophy, there is no doubt that a book from Oxford or Cambridge would automatically get more respect than a book from Lang or Mellen.

There are numerous reasons for this expectation, perhaps not all of them fair. Over time one can see that the recognized top scholars in that field tend to publish at the top-ranked presses. Also over time, the quality of the books generally coming out of the presses builds the expectation that if a book comes from OUP, it’s probably good of its kind. That could be an unfair assumption, and I can think of one recent philosophy book from OUP that has come in for some serious criticism from numerous reviewers. That book, though, is published by someone who is outstanding in his field and has published numerous high-quality works in the past, so even if it isn’t good (and I haven’t read it so have no opinion), people would expect it to be of high quality.

Which brings us to another sign of possible quality, the reputation of the scholar in addition to the reputation of the press. The top scholars and researchers in any field generally gravitate to the top-ranked presses and journals for their field, but they might very well publish with a less respected or even unknown publisher and their name would still be an indicator of what to expect. What’s more, there are good reasons sometimes for scholars to do this. An argument I’ve read regarding publishers like Mellen, and that I have no reason to disbelieve, is that they might be more willing to accept work that is pushing the boundaries of the discipline in ways that make mainstream scholars uncomfortable, and thus make the likelihood of publication with the top publishers in their field less likely.

The reputation of a press or journal or scholar developed over time are signs of quality, and it might be unfair to consider them as wonders of genuine worth. That reputations are indeed developed over time is a good reason to take the signs for wonders, though, even if it turns out the signs sometime mislead. We see the process at work very concretely with scientific journals as well, where instead of informal polls or blog posts, we have things like impact factors that are supposed to judge the relative impact of the journals, and which are judgments that librarians and researchers take seriously when deciding what to purchase, where to publish, or what counts for tenure. How often things are cited is another sign of their relative quality, and one that it makes sense to take seriously, even if “high impact” journals might occasionally publish awful articles and even if journals no one reads or cites publish the occasional gem. And the researchers who publish lots of articles in high-impact journals are more likely to get tenure than the ones that publish in low-impact ones.

That’s the argument for why it makes sense to take signs for wonders, even if the signs are sometimes wrong. It’s not perfect, and it’s not always fair, but generally it works.

However, it doesn’t really matter if it works, because it’s what all academics do anyway. Academia fetishizes signs and takes them for wonders. We’ve seen how it works with presses and journals, but it works with everything. Consider the rankings of universities and colleges, or the academic programs within those colleges. The US News and World Report rankings are notoriously used as signs of relative quality among schools, with thousands of students applying to schools merely because of their high rank. The lower-ranked schools sometimes complain about the rankings and their flaws, and they’re right. But that’s the way it works.

The same philosopher who conducted the survey for philosophy publishers also surveys philosophers on philosophical graduate programs for the Philosophical Gourmet. If you got a PhD from the programs at the top of that list, you’d be more likely to get a tenure track job at a good college or university than from programs at the bottom, or that didn’t make the list at all. Why? For one thing, when search committees are looking through huge stacks of applications, where candidates got their graduate degrees is going to be a way of weeding them. Is that fair to the brilliant candidate from the University of Nebraska who is competing against candidates from NYU, Rutgers, Princeton, and Harvard? For that matter, is it fair that New York investment bankers would rather have graduates from Princeton than the College of New Jersey? No. But that’s the way it works, and everyone knows it.

Or consider the very existence of the PhD. The PhD is a research degree that over the decades has become a prerequisite for academic positions for which little to no research is expected, from teaching at small colleges to academic administration positions. PhDs usually aren’t required for librarian positions, but they’re often still considered a sign of some kind of quality, and candidates with them will have a leg up even if they are otherwise thoroughly mediocre. For the non-research positions, the reputation of the graduate program often doesn’t even matter. The PhD from anywhere is a sign.

So there are good reasons why we might take signs for wonders and the practical reality that we do in fact do this all the time in academia. For libraries in particular, there might not be anything else we can do. Tenure and search committees might be able to read all the publications of a candidate up for review, even though they might also just rely on the reputations of the publishers and journals as a sign of quality. But librarians can’t read all books they buy, especially in larger libraries. I might firm order several hundred philosophy and religion books a year, with hundreds or even thousands more coming in on approval. Other than by direct request, there’s no way other than signs of possible quality for me to set up approval profiles or firm order books en masse. To say that presses can’t be judged on their reputations or that each book should be judged on its own merits, is, from the standpoint of library collection development, naive, just as it is from the standpoint of who gets hired, promoted, and tenured.

The unpleasant truth is that the phenomenon I’ve been describing isn’t just how academia works, it’s how everything works. People want themselves and their publications to be judged on their inherent qualities, but the overwhelming amount of judgment people receive is based on external factors. Where you live, where you work, what you do, where or if you went to school, how you dress, how you talk, what kind of car you drive, and where or if you publish: the majority of people judge you by these signs regardless of what they reveal about your “true” self and its quality. Sometimes that’s the only thing they can do.

[Update: a Postscript to this post.

Politics, Economics, and Screwing the Humanities

My last post rhetorically analyzed a claim by Rick Anderson that it was a “mistake” on the part of librarians to “put politics ahead of mission and service” where politics means “our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.” In response to a query from John DuPuis (who has also responded to the post I analyzed) about specific examples, Anderson offered this: “Another might be canceling a high-demand Big Deal package—not because it’s no longer affordable, but because the library wants to help undermine the Big Deal model in the marketplace or believes that the publisher in question is making unreasonable profits.”

In a previous post on vendor mistakes, Anderson elaborated on the mistake of responding to affordability statements with value arguments (and “value” is definitely a misused word in those situations) by remarking: “There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when we had the option of canceling marginal journal subscriptions and cutting our book budgets in order to make space for high-value, high-cost purchases, but for most of us, those days are over. All we have left are core subscriptions, and our book budgets have been gutted.”

Putting those comments together, we can describe a situation that has affected the budgets of a lot of academic libraries. Scholarly journal prices have been going up rates considerably above budget increases, or inflation, or just about any other standard measure, since at least the 1980s. Mass cancellations of journals led to the creation of the Big Deals, which was supposed to be a solution to the problem, although the “historic spend” which they like to take as a benchmark was of course the creation of the previous extraordinary price increases. Regardless, over time these inflexible packages have taken up more and more of the library budgets until many libraries have had to “gut” their book budgets, some to an extent where they have almost no money to spend on monographic purchases at all. We need to remember that book budgets aren’t just gutted. Librarians choose to reduce spending on monographs to purchase journal packages that increase in price and decrease the flexibility of library budgeting, and that choice has consequences for library patrons that librarians rarely want to tell those patrons.

If anyone “benefits” from this arrangement, it’s scientific researchers, because the highest-priced packages and journals are all for science, technology, and medical journals, not relatively inexpensive journals in the humanities. So over time, we’ve seen library support for scholars shift from what was perhaps more or less even or fair funding across the board to funding which struggles to cope with science journal costs and damns any programs that are monograph-heavy, which most humanities programs are. Some of these libraries try to support PhD programs in English, history, philosophy, or music with tiny monograph budgets while still entering into the Big Deals on science journals with the major vendors.

Now, the big question for discussion was, “To what degree is it appropriate to sacrifice the short-term good of our patrons in the pursuit of long-term economic reform in scholarly publishing (or vice versa)?” But let’s spin that another way. To what extent has it been appropriate to sacrifice the short and long term good of patrons in the humanities for the short term good of not having to resist price increases or rethink journal packages that slowly squeeze monograph budgets to death? Are historians or literary scholars or musicologists less deserving because they’re not in the sciences? If so, why bother to offer PhDs in programs that aren’t adequately, or even fairly, supported by the library? If anything, humanists need library support more than scientists. For scientists, libraries hold the report of work done in a laboratory, but for humanists the library is the laboratory.

The humanities are under attack on most campuses it seems, and will never win the fight for recognition if the standard is economic productivity, which many people seem to think is the only standard by which to measure a society, a university, or a human life. But if we’re looking at library budgets fairly, with an eye to all the stakeholders who rely on the library for scholarly research, we shouldn’t pretend that going along with Big Deals because they’re affordable if we severely reduce monograph budgets isn’t screwing over a lot of the scholars that libraries should be serving. Putting the economics of science publishing ahead of scholarly publishing as a whole has done a disservice to the humanities and any monograph-heavy field. So, as a humanities librarian, if I do what I can to resist that assault by encouraging open-access scholarly publishing whenever and wherever I can, I’m not just making a professional (not personal or political) decision based on how I think scholarly publishing should operate, I’m also making a professional decision to support the work of scholars in the humanities who have been shortchanged at so many libraries over the past 20 years. Those patrons have needs, too.

Politics, Personal Views, and Librarian Rhetoric

A blog post by Rick Anderson on six mistakes the library staff are making [when negotiating with vendors] has shown up in a few places in my personal information universe. The first five activities, if or when they occur, definitely seem like mistakes, but the sixth activity is questionable, at least in the way it’s framed, and framing the issue in as neutral a way as possible would help the discussion.

One of the mistakes, we are told, is “Putting political library concerns above patron needs,” which he admits is a controversial claim and promises to expand further in a later post. The claim is that “too often, we in libraries put politics ahead of mission and service.” However, this isn’t a claim about politics in the general sense conflicting with the librarian’s mission. “By ‘politics,'” he says, “I mean our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.”

Instead of arguing with the claim that librarians put political library concerns above patron needs, I’m more interested in showing the rhetorical moves here. First, let’s consider the word politics, which is a very loaded word, and which has negative connotations even within the world of real politics. How many times have you heard some politician criticize another for “playing politics” or for “politicizing” an issue that’s already inherently political? So to characterize the activities of some librarians as essentially “playing politics” with vendor relations is an example of poisoning the well and persuasive definition, both typically considered informal argumentative fallacies. Merely characterizing the activity as “political” biases us against it before we even consider the details. Elsevier funding members of Congress to vote for the Research Works Act is playing politics, for real.

The attempt to define “politics” makes a contradictory, but still questionable, rhetorical move. Politics is by definition public, shared, and social. Etymologically, it’s thinking and arguing about the polis or city-state. Defining “politics” as “personal views about how the world ought to be” is already altering the meaning. The activity of politics might involve the clash of people motivated by personal views, but it’s not about personal views as such. Instead, it’s about dispute over the views that a community must share.

Even if I’m wrong in this interpretation, defining the activity as the result of “personal views” further disparages the activity and defines it in a way that is already biased against it. The connotation is usually that a “personal view” is merely a personal view, and thus has no place in the professional world we inhabit. However, support for open access scholarship, which I assume is an example of “politics” at work here, isn’t a “personal view,” but a professional opinion backed up with various arguments. Thus, one’s professional commitment to open access scholarship as “how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured” is never a “personal view,” and not necessarily even a political view in any ordinary sense. It’s a professional opinion about a relevant economic, educational, and social matter.

One might even question the use of the word ought here: “how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.” To criticize people for acting on beliefs about “how the world ought to be” implies that “the way things are” is somehow good or worthwhile or at least tolerable. However, all ethical action is motivated by a belief about how the world ought to be. I try to be courteous to people in public, or show up to meetings on time, because I think that’s the way the world ought to be, even though we know that’s not always how the world is. “How the world ought to be” isn’t necessarily the fanciful dream of the fanatic, but a typical motivating factor for action. Again, when Elsevier funds politicians to vote for the Research Works Act, they are acting on a view of how the world ought to be.

He says that “the question is: To what degree is it appropriate to sacrifice the short-term good of our patrons in the pursuit of long-term economic reform in scholarly publishing (or vice versa)?” This is an important question and one worth discussing. However, using the labels “politics” and “personal views,” and implying that acting on a belief of how the world “ought” to be is problematic rather than typical, privileges the corporate view as the only “professional” view and the status quo as a desirable norm before the discussion even begins.

The Memex and the Academic Mind

In a July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Vannevar Bush, then Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for the United States government, published As We May Think, in which he laid out the plans for a machine he dubbed the Memex. The Memex was what we would now think of as a computer-like apparatus, a large desk with both a viewing screen and a screen for writing with a stylus. The insides would hold thousands of reels of microfilm, and researchers using the Memex could read the microfilm on the viewing screen and both annotate and make connections between microfilm pages (similar to hyperlinking). The Memex has been hailed as thought precursor to the personal computer, and in Libraries and the Enlightenment (a perfect holiday gift for the librarian in your life!) I discuss it as an example of a universal library scheme, that is, a way to make all the world’s information accessible to humans. However (and I also mention this in the book), one interesting thing about Bush’s conception of the Memex for librarians is the insight it gives into the academic mind and its relationship to information.

In “As We May Think,” Bush worries about the “growing mountain of research” and the danger that researchers were “being bogged down today as specialization extends.”The investigator,” he writes, “is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.” Bush noted that “our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose” and that “that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” The Memex was intended to help solve that problem.

In a later 1959 essay, “Memex II,”[1] he goes on about the ease of actually acquiring material for research: “Professional societies will no longer print papers. Instead they will send him lists of titles with brief abstracts. And he can then order individual papers of sets to come on tape, complete, of course, with photographs and diagrams” (172).  Still later, in “Memex Revisited” (1965), he exhibited the practical thinking of the scientist in terms of materials, but not other costs.  He noted that the “material for a microfilm private library might cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a few cents.… The entire material of a private library in reduced film form would go on ten eight-and-one-half-by-eleven-inch sheets. Once that was available, with the reproduction methods now available, duplicates in large quantities could probably be turned out for a few cents apiece beyond the cost of materials” (208). As with the current debate about ebook pricing, Bush implies that the cost of information lay primarily in its medium, ignoring the costs of the information production itself. Microfilm is cheaper than print, so information will be cheaper, as people resist paying as much for ebooks today as they do for print books. If the cost of information were correlated with the cost of the medium of distribution, then digital books and articles would be nearly free, which of course they are not. [2]

Many professional societies indeed no longer print papers, but the bulk of publishing, at least in the sciences, is done by commercial publishers who certainly wouldn’t just send researchers scholarly articles for a few cents each. However, the expectation that Bush has is typically academic, even today. Information just appears, either as soon as we want it or a few days later. Barriers to information are either nonexistent or irrelevant. The question is whether this is a naive expectation or not.

Some librarians would certainly consider it naive. We know better than anyone the cost of knowledge. Information doesn’t just appear. We make it appear, if we can. So the expectation that barriers to information are nonexistent is a bit naive. But what about whether barriers to information are irrelevant? I think this is less naive, and in fact I think this expectation drives the entire academic research enterprise, including that of academic libraries. Librarians have spent decades building research collections and resource-sharing networks to make it seem like information just appears for researchers. Recent polls suggest that this is the primary function of the library for researchers: we buy stuff. And with information technology far more advanced than what Bush could conceive of with his Memex, the technological barriers to information have almost completely been eliminated. For Bush, getting the information organized and hyperlinked was the real problem, but that problem has been solved.

The only thing beginning to change, and possibly for the better, is that some researchers are becoming more aware of the economic and legal barriers to information. The Elsevier boycott has spread the word some. Elsevier trying to block U.S. efforts to make publicly funded research available to the public were a public relations disaster. Lawsuits against universities to stop professors sharing articles with their students as they see fit have gained some negative publicity. And the rise of gold-open access journals is starting to clue some researchers in to the cost of publication. Even modest out-of-pocket expenses for OA journals can cause controversy, as evidenced by the long discussion here when the OA journal Philosopher’s Imprint decided to implement a $20 charge to submit articles (since revised to a request for a donation). Ignoring the question of whether charging a submission fee is morally permissible, you can get a sense from the discussion that a lot of people who benefit from OA journals (i.e., everyone not affiliated with a university) were the ones most opposed to even a small submission charge. Nevertheless, there’s still the expectation that information should just be provided, even for the non-academically affiliated. It’s an expectation many of us have because it underlies the entire ethos of scholarship. All scholars should have access to relevant scholarship, even if they don’t work for a rich university.

I’m not one to make predictions (well, except that Twitter and Facebook have already called the 2012 Presidential elections), but if I had to make one I would predict that eventually even the economic and legal barriers to scholarly information will be reduced enough to make access broader and more sustainable. For information seekers outside academia, I’m less sanguine, although I would love to see an extremely robust Digital Public Library of America succeed, more OA scholarly journals, and current copyright laws restricted to at least pre-1992 levels. But even some of this might be achievable for scholarly information. In other words, I believe the academic information expectation will somehow overcome the commercial information exploitation. Something has to give, and I don’t see it being the centuries-old expectations of publishing researchers who expect access to all other published research. Or perhaps I’m wrong, and we’ll enter even more of a black market culture where scholars at better funded institutions send copies of articles to less well off scholars.

That’s not the same thing as saying information, even scholarly information, will be free, which is impossible. Only that the costs of that information will not be significantly more than is necessary to sustain it and the profits won’t be squeezed from researchers providing the information and editing for free while restricting access for researchers whose libraries can’t afford exorbitant costs. Commercial publishers expect to make a profit; researchers expect universal access to scholarship. Somewhere there’s a middle ground. At least I hope there is.


[1] I couldn’t find either “Memex 2” or “Memex Revisited” online or even in microfilm to feed into my Memex. However, both are collected in the following volume: Bush, Vannevar, and James M. Nyce. From Memex to Hypertext : Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine. Boston: Academic Press, 1991. The page numbers refer to this volume.

[2] Portions of the last two paragraphs are taken from: Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment. Los Angeles, CA: Library Juice Press, 2012.

Libraries and the Commodification of Culture

The shift from markets to networks and from ownership to access, the marginalization of physical property and the ascendance of intellectual property, and the increasing commodification of human relationships are slowly leading us out of an era in which the exchange of property is the critical function of the economy into a new world in which the purchase of lived experiences becomes the consummate commodity.

–Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access


Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit. 

–David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism


A society in which every transaction must be mediated by the market, in which everything is privately owned and strictly controlled, will come to resemble a medieval society—a world of balkanized fiefdoms in which every minor grandee demands tribute for the right to cross his land or ford his streams. The flow of commerce and ideas—and the sustainability of innovation and democratic culture—will be serious impeded. Furthermore, such a market-dominated society is not likely to cultivate the sense of trust and shared commitments that any functioning society must have….

    The truth is, we are living in the midst of a massive business-led enclosure movement that hides itself in plain sight.

–David Bollier, Silent Theft

I read John DuPuis’ post Penguin ebooks & The Research Works Act: Publishers gain, communities lose with great interest. I’d already been thinking about his tweet from last week (that I caught on Facebook): “Publishers want to monetize all reading and sharing transactions. Are publishers basically saying that they are opposed to the core values that libraries represent?” The final question is one I’ve been thinking about lately, and I believe the answer is, yes, they are saying that. Publishers are indeed opposed to the core values of libraries. However, it’s more than that. Corporations are opposed to the core values public goods, public space, and and other values that resist commercialization and commodification. Libraries are merely part of an international trend in contemporary capitalism and are just starting to feel the impact of trends that have been building for the past forty years or so.

I don’t have a full blown thesis at the moment, and am using this post to sketch out the broad outline of what might be my next research project (my research agenda seems to be to take whatever I happen to be reading about at the moment and stick “Libraries and…” in front of it). There has been a movement afoot to commodify every aspect of human life, to make every human exchange a market transaction, and to reduce every domain outside the market as much as possible. Call the movement what you will–neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, the monetarization of reading transactions, or the commodification of culture–but the dominant belief is a faith that private property and markets are always good and everything outside those markets is bad, or at the very least that everything outside those markets is inefficient, and inefficiency is in itself always evil. The most important thing is the protection of capital and ensuring its free movement, regardless of any other values that might interfere with that goal: human rights, popular sovereignty, a social safety net, or free access to information by citizens of a (nominally?) democratic republic.

This ideology can play itself out on an international scale, such as the power debtor nations might cede to the World Bank or the IMF, or on a national scale, such as when financial institutions “too big to fail” are bailed out by the government but not, say, homeowners duped into buying mortgages they could really never afford. It ranges from Margaret Thatcher saying there’s no such thing as society to Elsevier paying members of Congress to support the Research Works Act. Privatizing public schools, eliminating public funding for higher education, or defunding libraries are some ways that governments acquiesce to the neoliberal dogma that the private sector always knows best. Private-sector corporations act rationally and merely do their best to ensure that governments institute laws favorable to corporations, even if at the expense of the public good.

I’m not saying anything particularly new. Included below are a few books I’m currently reading that touch on these issues. The “commodification of human culture,” as Jeremy Rifkin calls it, isn’t a new trend; nor is it yet complete. There are still spaces of resistance within commercialized culture, spaces motivated by noncommercial values. I say “noncommercial” deliberately, rather than anticommercial. As David Bollier notes in Silent Theft, “the issue is not market versus commons. The issue is how to set equitable and appropriate boundaries between the two realms—semi-permeable membranes—so that the market and the commons can each retain integrity while invigorating that other. That equilibrium is now out of balance as businesses try to exploit all available resources, including those that everyone owns and uses in common.” Libraries are examples of spaces dominated by noncommercial values, a semi-permeable membrane between the market for books and the democratic need for a knowledge commons. A noncommercial ethic can coexist alongside markets, and all can thrive. But public goods and noncommercial spaces can’t coexist with a market fundamentalism that believes all public goods and noncommercial spaces are evil, at least not if that market fundamentalism controls the laws. The more or less successful drive to extend intellectual property rights into perpetuity and to wither the public domain into nonexistence is a good indication that the ethic motivating libraries isn’t winning many political battles.

In his post, John is right that “private interests are attacking the public good.” They always have been, but at the moment their power is increasing because of legal and technological changes seemingly beyond our control, as well as the successful ideological campaign to persuade people that freedom means the freedom to engage in commercial transactions but not the freedom to read. Can the public good or noncommodified culture be saved? I have no idea. The problem is so much larger than libraries or open access scholarship or ebooks or any of the specific issues we address piecemeal. The best I can hope for is that we think globally and act locally, which requires understanding the larger context behind the specific challenges to the public good while doing what we can to fight against those challenges. This is the briefest of sketches because I’m still trying to understand that larger context.

Further reading:

Bollier, David. 2002. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge.
———. 2005. Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture. Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley.
Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Hess, Charlotte. 2007. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice / Ostrom, Elinor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Kallhoff, Angela. 2011. Why Democracy Needs Public Goods. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
Miller, Laura J. 2006. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rifkin, Jeremy. 2000. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Saad-Filho, Alfredo. 2005. Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader / Johnston, Deborah. London ; Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press.