Category Archives: academia

Scholarly societies, subscription fees, and open access

Strategic planning with historians. :-)

Strategic planning with historians. :-)

This last weekend I flew to Chicago for a two-day strategic planning meeting for the History of Science Society (see my photos). The task, for me and about 40 others historians of science, was to figure out who the society should be trying to serve and what its goals should be. One of the key issues the society is dealing with is our membership model: joining the History of Science Society (HSS) currently consists of becoming a subscriber to the society’s main publications, ”Isis” (a quarterly journal) and ”Osiris” (an annual thematic journal), which are published by University of Chicago Press. The lion’s share of the society’s budget comes from subscription fees for these journals, but individual subscriptions (from about 2200 members, and falling) make up only about a third of that revenue; institutional subscriptions, mainly from libraries who subscribe to large bundles of content from academic publishers, make up the rest. This institutional subscription revenue has actually been increasing recently for HSS. But library budgets are being increasingly squeezed, and can only absorb so much of the cost of traditional journal publishing before many start cancelling the bundles they cannot afford.

Michael Magoulias of University of Chicago Press was part of this meeting, and he submitted a report on university press publishing as part of the ‘environmental scan’ document that was sent out before the meeting. In it, he frames the option of going open access for journals outside the sciences  like those of HSS, and probably many other scholarly societies as well  as shifting the costs from libraries to individual others. Author-pays OA options (or large grants to cover traditional journal costs) are the only ones Magoulias mentioned, but that doesn’t reflect the reality of how OA publishing in the humanities is trending. In fact, there are huge numbers of journals  in humanities, as well as social sciences and mathematics  that are run entirely outside of the traditonal publishing industry. Several open source journal management platforms are available and developing rapidly. (Open Journal Systems seems to be the most widely adopted.) These are essentially DIY, digital-only options, but they can be run with *very* low infrastructure costs (perhaps a few hundred dollars per year for cloud hosting), with the usually sorts of unpaid labor of editing the journal and managing peer review. This approach may mean losing some of the fringe benefits of a high-quality traditional journal  professional typesetting and copyediting  but it doesn’t have to mean a fundamental difference in the quality of the scholarship.

But in the case of HSS  and probably other scholarly societies as well  shifting away from traditional publishing to a low-cost OA model on an free and open source platform would actually mean losing revenue as well. I’d never considered this before. The real issue, then, is not about shifting costs from libraries to individual authors. It is about libraries  through their bundled subscription fees to academic publishers  subsidizing the activities of scholarly societies (after the publishers have taken their cut). Is that how scholarly societies want to be funding themselves? I know that’s not how I want HSS to be funding itself.

Aaron Swartz in front of a screen

Aaron and Greg, and guerilla open access

Aaron Swartz, free knowledge hacker

Last week was the beginning of something that might end up pretty huge in the world of free culture, copyright and open access activism. Aaron Swartz, a free knowledge activist hacker with ties to the Wikipedia community, was indicted by the federal government for allegedly downloading millions of files from JSTOR (an academic journal database) with the intent to distribute them on P2P networks. The actual charges aren’t for copyright infringement or anything directly related, however. They are for wire fraud, computer fraud and related offenses based on the way he allegedly obtained the files, by connecting to the MIT computer network and setting up scripts that downloaded files and dodged attempts to cut off access.  (SJ Klein has a great overview of the charges and context.)  Aaron never released this trove of files, and has reportedly turned them over to JSTOR.

He may have been planning to, however. You can get some insight into his thinking from the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which essentially advocates widespread and systematic sharing of restricted scholarship.

(The original is offline, but an apparently complete version that may or may not be authentic showed up on pastebin recently.)

In response to Swartz’s arrest, Wikimedian and free software developer Greg Maxwell actually did release a trove of JSTOR files: the complete archive of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (the longest-running scientific journal, started in 1665) through 1922. These have all entered the public domain in the legal sense, but not the practical sense. You can only get them under restrictive terms and/or for high prices (either through JSTOR or from the Royal Society).

You should read Greg’s whole essay. Here’s the conclusion:

If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding, then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified — it will be one less dollar spent in the war against knowledge. One less dollar spent lobbying for laws that make downloading too many scientific papers a crime.

I had considered releasing this collection anonymously, but others pointed out that the obviously overzealous prosecutors of Aaron Swartz would probably accuse him of it and add it to their growing list of ridiculous charges. This didn’t sit well with my conscience, and I generally believe that anything worth doing is worth attaching your name to.

A lot of free culture and open access advocates draw a line between Aaron and Greg. Greg is praised for taking his stand, but few are endorsing Aaron’s alleged actions, only condemning the gross disparity between the charges and the alleged actions — while ignoring or opposing the argument of the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. (That line between them is copyright law.)

Me, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure copyright law has enough moral force to be a meaningful distinction. I’m certainly not convinced terms of use have enough moral force to matter here. The bottom line is, the world of academic publishing and distribution is changing… but painfully slowly. Academic publishing isn’t cheap, professional-grade digitization of old journals isn’t cheap, and there’s no single fix for keeping everything people like about academic publishing and archiving (like peer review and professional editing and easily searchable databases) while getting rid of what we don’t like (like paywalls), without totally upending the industry. Greg-ites — who liberate public domain material — and Aaron-ites — who want to liberate all scholarship, copyright be damned — both have the same practical consequences: to push paywalls and organizations that rely on them closer to irrelevance, and to place the burden of organizing and indexing and providing access onto open knowledge communities and organizations (and big data companies like Google).

I lean toward thinking that’s a good thing.

Wikipedia and the psychologists

 

Bob, Rosta, and Piotr working the Wikipedia booth

I spent the last several days in D.C. at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), along with Wikipedian Piotrus and Wikipedia researchers Rosta Farzan and Bob Kraut, talking to psychology researchers about Wikipedia. We probably talked with 200 people, and almost everyone we talked with was supportive of–if not downright enthusiastic about–trying to improve Wikipedia’s psychology coverage.

Several months ago, with the vocal support of APS President Mahzarin Banaji, the APS launched their “Wikipedia Initiative” to get psychologists into editing Wikipedia. So far, the main thrust has been their APS-WI portal, which aims to give newcomers a clear way into Wikipedia and point them toward articles in their area of interest that need work–and at the same time, systematically test different approaches to getting people involved.

Before the convention, the APS Wikipedia Initiative had recruited 263 psychologists.  68 of them had started editing, with over 400 different articles edited among them. (Now 13 more have signed up, and 10 more have started editing.)

I had the opportunity to give a short presentation to the APS board before their convention started, in which I shared a bit of what we know about the barriers to expert participation in Wikipedia more broadly and then gave an overview of the Wikipedia Ambassador Program for helping professors run Wikipedia editing assignments in their classes.  The reaction among board members was really encouraging… and that evening, Professor Banaji spent a few minutes at the beginning of the official opening of the convention exhorting APS members to get involved with Wikipedia. (She even mentioned me!)

Mahzarin Banaji at the crowded opening of the APS convention

Banaji’s enthusiasm for Wikipedia comes across clearly in a recent podcast about the APS Wikipedia Initiative. For the two main days of the convention, that enthusiasm seemed to carry over to the many psychologists who stopped by the lavish Wikipedia booth APS had set up.  We also did five Wikipedia demos–often with conversations about Wikipedia going on at the same time with whoever stayed behind at the booth.  I came back with a list of 42 instructors potentially interested in working with the ambassador program and doing Wikipedia assignments.  That, of course, has been my focus for the last year… until now, limited mainly to supporting classes on public policy. Our Education Portal is active now, with a broad range of support materials and advice for anyone assigning Wikipedia to their students.  (The sample syllabus, in particular, is something the psychology professors responded very positively to.)

It seems that Wikipedia in the classroom is where APS is converging now, too. The Wikipedia Initiative team will soon be working with an intern assigned to develop tools to help instructors evaluate their students’ contributions, which will hopefully produce something broadly useful for anyone running Wikipedia assignments.

I’m optimistic that we’ll see a wave of additional professional societies getting behind Wikipedia, especially if as many psychologists set their students on Wikipedia as I now expect. You can’t buy the kind of improvement in public representations of psychology that 50 classes of students editing Wikipedia would bring.

silly videos and obscure post-structuralist terms

Evgeny Morozov has a new review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and he spends a fair bit talking about Wikipedia, the touchstone for how the Internet is changing culture.  (Wikipedia researcher Ed Chi offered to review it for the Signpost, but Knopf publicity has so far ignored my every attempt to request a review copy.)  As I understand it, the book is in part an extension of Lanier’s Wikipedia-centered 2006 essay “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism“.  I haven’t read the book, but I trust Morozov’s assessment.  His central point is this:

Technology has penetrated our lives so deeply and so quickly that the only way to make sense of what is happening today requires not only drinking from the anecdotal fire hose that is Twitter, but also being able to contextualise these anecdotes in broader social, historical and cultural settings. But that’s not the kind of analysis that is spitting out of Silicon Valley blogs.

So who should be doing all of this thinking? Unfortunately, Lanier only tells us who should not be doing it: “Technology criticism should not be left to the Luddites”. Statements like this establish Lanier’s own bona fides – as a Silicon Valley maverick unafraid to confront the cyber-utopian establishment from the inside – but they fail to articulate any kind of vision for how to improve our way of discussing technology and its increasingly massive impact on society.

Morozov says that our understanding of the legal dimensions of the Internet have been elucidated by the likes of Zittrain, Lessig and Benkler.  But humanist and social scientists, he says, have let us down in their duty to explore the cultural dimensions of the rise of the networked society, by either ignoring it or relying “obscure post-structuralist terms” that occlude whatever insights they might or might not have.

The overall point, that the academy hasn’t done enough to make itself relevant to ongoing techno-cultural changes, is right on target.  But I think Morozov’s glib dismissal of work in media studies, sociology, anthropology, etc., is unfair to both the main ideas of post-structuralism and the writing skills of the better scholars who do work on technology and culture (Henry Jenkins and Jason Mittell come to mind, but I’m sure there are plenty of others).  Lanier’s epithet of “digital Maoism” is crude red-baiting; I’m not sure whether Morozov’s jargon jibe is red-baiting (post-structuralism being the province of the so-called academic left), he genuinely doesn’t think much of how humanists have analyzed the Internet, or he is just being contrary.

Post-structuralism is complicated (and I don’t pretend to be an expert) but what’s relevant in this context, I think, is (as the Wikipedia article obtusely puts it) the idea of “the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united; meaning itself inheres to the play of difference.”  Put another way, culture (that is, a work of culture) is valuable in whatever ways culture (that is, a culture, a group of people) values it; what matters is not the work itself (and its inherent or intended meaning) but the relationship between a work an its audience.  Related to this is a value judgment about what kinds of culture are better or more worthy of attention: “writerly” works that leave more opportunity for an audience to create its own meanings vs. “readerly” works that are less flexible and open to reinterpretation.  The relevance of these ideas for the Internet’s effects on culture should be obvious: audiences now have ways collaborating in the creation of new meanings and the reinterpretation of cultural works, and can often interact not only with authors work, but with the authors themselves (thereby influencing later works).

So when Lanier sneers at ‘silly videos’ and Morozov complains that Lessig doesn’t address “whether the shift to the remix culture as a primary form of cultural production would be good for society”, I can’t help but see it as the crux of a straw man argument.  You would have us give up our current system that creates such wonderful culture (left helpfully unspecified, since there’s no accounting for taste) in exchange for remixed YouTube tripe? But humanists are starting to place more value in the capital intensive products of the culture industry precisely because of the way that audiences can remix them and reuse them and create meanings from them.

On the Internet, anyone can be a historian

The Washington Post has a flattering profile of a young Wikipedian, Adam Lewis, who worked on the article for Washington, D.C. The punchline comes a few paragraphs in:

Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian.

I think this is suspect in a couple of ways (do “star historians” really dominate the popular view of history? what does “historian” mean in the Wikipedia context, where the policy is “no original research“?) but the spirit of the remark is right on, and relevant beyond just Wikipedia.

The history profession hasn’t yet been much affected by the “pro-am revolution“, but it’s increasingly possible for amateur historians to do original work with professional quality (even if that work is unlikely to much resemble academic history writing).  Some academic fields–astronomy is the most dramatic example–have already started benefiting  greatly from the contributions of amateurs.  But history seems slow on the uptake, with frustratingly little appetite for collaborative projects  and little interest in taking the work of amateur historians seriously (the exciting projects of George Mason’s  Center for History and New Media notwithstanding).

Will that change dramatically?  Will a pro-am revolution come to the history profession?  The case of history of science may be instructive here.  History of science has actually had a vibrant “pro-am” community (of scientists who write science history) since well before the Internet made relevant sources and publishing venues easily accessible to other interested groups of amateur historians.  Nevertheless, historians of science have not drawn closer to pro-am scientist-historians in recent decades–just the opposite, they’ve withdrawn from scientist-historians and often dismiss their work as hopelessly naive or self-interested.  If history of science is any guide, I fear that history as a whole may view the coming rise of “pro-am” history as more of a threat than an opportunity.

[cross-posted at Cliopatria]

Stanley Fish and saving the world one book at a time

Stanley Fish has a challenging column in Sunday’s New York Times: “Neoliberalism and Higher Education“. As the contents of Cliopatria (my new blogging home away from home, now that Revise & Dissent is being shuttered), and indeed much of the academic blogosphere, attest, the trend of market approaches to the running of universities is on a lot of minds.

Fish’s own philosophy of the academy is largely orthogonal to neoliberalism: he exhorts academics to “stick to your academic knitting”, to “do your job and don’t try to do someone else’s”, and to leave off “trying to fashion a democratic citizenry or save the world”. Critics of neoliberalism, naturally, see such a perspective as backing up the power of university administrators (i.e., furthering neoliberalism in the academy). But Fish has also argued that “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever”, that the humanities (including his own field of literary theory) are intrinsically worthwhile but will not contribute to the saving of the world or other political ends. That is not a persperctive that meshes well with the instrumental approach of neoliberalism.

As I explained in my first post to the now-defunct Revise & Dissent, my view is something along the lines of: if you’re not trying to save the world, what’s the point? Nevertheless, I mostly agree with Fish when he says we should not (in the name of academic freedom) erase the distinction between political action and scholarship (much less teaching). How, then, ought academics try to save the world? The most viable approach, I think, is through careful choice of what topics to apply the methods of ones discipline to.

Take the work of historian of science Steven Shapin. In The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (2008), Shapin explores the complex ideas of what it was (and is) to a be a scientist in the modern world. Despite media images where the academic scientist predominates, most scientists in the U.S. have been working in industry since the rise of the military-industrial complex in the 1940s and 1950s (and a large proportion were doing so even at the beginning of the 20th century). But the working life of the industry scientist is hardly the caricature of scientific management (squashing out the creativity and freedom that is a natural part of science) that has been circulating at least since the work of Robert K. Merton.

Although it’s not explicit in the book, Shapin’s work is a response to the trend of running universities like businesses. Successful businesses that revolve around original inquiry and research, Shapin shows, are a lot more like universities (pre-scientific management) than is generally appreciated. The implication is that, if universities are to be patterned after businesses, the appropriate examples within the world of business (as opposed to distorted ideas of business research that adminstrators might have) are actually not so foreign to the cherished culture of universities that opponents of neoliberalism in higher education seek to defend.

In his preface, in defense of his tendency in much of his historical work to address “the way we live now”, Shapin says this:

“I take for granted three things that many historians seem to find, to some degree, incompatible: (1) that historians should commit themselves to writing about the past, as it really was, and that the institutional intention of history writing must embrace such a commitment; (2) that we inevitably write about the past as an expression of present concerns, and that we have no choice in this matter; and (3) that we can write about the past to find out about how it came to be that we live as we now do, and, indeed, for giving better descriptions of the way we live now.”

In thing (3), I would replace can with should. Scholars have a moral responsibility to make their work responsive to the needs (as the scholars themselves see them) of the society that supports them.

the ways in which

Have you ever heard the phrase “interested in the ways in which”? If you have, it was probably uttered by a scholar in the humanities or social sciences, describing their research interests. There’s a good chance that the explanation that followed was rich in jargon, heavy on social theory, and an mostly opaque to anyone not in the same field as the speaker. It was probably also an American or a Brit. (If this doesn’t ring any bells for you, take a look at the search results for “interested in the the ways in which“.) As a fellow graduate student pointed out to me, “the ways in which” has a very strong connotation, marking a certain style of thinking and writing about history and society. Most people that come through giving talks to my program, whether for job talks, colloquia, or some other lectures, can pretty easily be divided into “ways in which” types and people who know how to hold an audience’s attention.

Reflecting on the problems of jargon that come with writing history that is only meant for other historians, I’m working on a paper: “The Pedagogical Semiotics of Interlinguistic Anglophone Discourse, 2008-1999”. On a closely related note, the grad students are think of doing either drinking games or jargon bingo to spice up future talks. “Blah blah blah, blah blah actor’s category, blah blah.” “Bingo!”

On another related note, every would-be historian needs to watch the latest The Simpsons, “That 90s Show”, if you haven’t already. See a few clips here. Choice quotes:

  • Suede-elbow-patched associate professor: “Look at that lighthouse! It’s the ultimate expression of phallocentric technocracy violating Mother Sky.” Marge: “I thought they were just tall so boats could see them.” Professor: “No, Marge, everything penis-shaped is bad.”
  • Marge: “Did you know that history is written by the winners?” Homer: “Really? I thought history was written by losers!”

Bonus link: PhD Comics on thesis titles

"We Cannot Allow a Wikipedia Gap!" in Spontaneous Generations

The new open-access history of science, technology and medicine journal from the University of Toronto, Spontaneous Generations, has its first issue online. I look forward to reading a lot of it; the “focused discussion” on scientific expertise looks very interesting, and both of the peer-reviewed articles look good as well.

Of course, most exciting for me is the publication of my opinion piece, the very first article in the first issue of Spontaneous Generations: “We Cannot Allow a Wikipedia Gap!” (pdf), a call for historians of science, technology and medicine to get involved with Wikipedia.

I’m going to try to work some of this content into Wikipedia (and hopefully others will help), as a way of supporting open content journals. The first one, “An Engineer’s View of an Ideal Society” (pdf), looks like a perfect source for improving Wikipedia’s “C. H. Douglas” and “Social Credit” articles. The second article, “Mothers, Babies, and the Colonial State” (pdf), focuses on health reform in Nigeria from 1925 to 1945 (while it was still a British colony). This is one where it will be tougher to integrate into the existing Wikipedia coverage; there is a short article on “health care in Nigeria“, but no discussion of its history. And that article is one of just two “health care in X” articles for all of Africa (the other is Uganda). There is no article on “health care in Africa”. The history of medicine and public health coverage is also quite slim, making it hard to bridge the gap between the kind of work scholars in those fields do and the kinds of broader coverage that Wikipedia sometimes does well. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any professional historians of medicine or grad students who are active Wikipedians.

The End of the History of Science?

I went to a handful of interesting talks at HSS this year.

The first was the tail-end of a session on astrology (Kepler’s, in particular), which underscored the importance of the social and political forces that were driving–and have been written out of–the Scientific Revolution. The need for better, more accurate astrological advice for kings and emperors was the reason people like Kepler and Tycho Brahe had the support to do their work, and to a large extent astrology was why they were doing astronomy. Disagreements over the scope and validity of astrology also were part of the under-explored dynamics of intra-Protestant theological politics that buffeted Kepler and Tycho from patron to patron. The situation with early modern alchemy, driven more by practical than mystical concerns, has similarly been neglected in the big-picture accounts. Neither astrology nor alchemy figure much into Peter Dear’s 2001 Revolutionizing the Sciences or Steven Shapin’s 1996 The Scientific Revolution, supposedly the two main post-“social turn” Sci Rev reevaluations.

The next good talk was Stephen Weldon’s on Francis Schaeffer and his influence of modern American Protestant attitudes toward science. Anyone trying to understand the Intelligent Design movement and the reasons it has been considerably more successful among non-Fundamentalists than the Creation Science of the 1970s and 80s was, needs to know about Schaeffer.

But the most interesting session was The End of Science. It was nominally organized around John Horgan’s 1996 book The End of Science. Unfortunately, Horgan phoned it in on this one, delivering a talk that basically consisted of his 2006 Discover magazine article (which I blogged about a year ago when I first discovered Horgan’s work). But between Horgan and Andre Wakefield’s talk on “The End of the History of Science?”, discussing the disciplinary fate of history of science as something set apart from garden-variety history, there was plenty to rile up the crowd (as much as historians can get riled up). Wakefield was celebrating the facts that (unlike in the bad old days of Sartonian handmaiden-to-science history) one no longer needs to understand the science one does the history of, and that history of science is being absorbed into the disciplinary structure of straight history.

One of the striking things about HSS is how little one historian has in common with the next. There were up to 12 sessions going on at once, so you could stay within your temporal, geographical and disciplinary areas of interest (and probably within your historiographical approach, as well). One of the things meetings like this make apparent is the degree to which collegiality and networking (along with university press editors) drive careers in history of science (and in history more generally), rather than peer evaluations of intellectual output. It’s all about the parties and receptions after the day’s talks are over.

Back from History of Science Society meeting

I’m home from an exhausting weekend at the History of Science Society meeting. For a number of reasons, I had a great time: I now know enough people that I can make introductions between people with similar interests; I had my camera (see my Flickr set); I wasn’t giving a paper; my reputation as a Wikipedian occasionally preceded me; and I even learned something at a couple of talks.

I had intended to do some live-blogging during the sessions, but the connectivity wasn’t good enough. I’ll have to settle for a few reflective posts (forthcoming) on good sessions, on the state of the field, on the historian social scene, etc.