Like a t-shirt that used to say something you can’t quite read anymore, a piece of terminology will sometimes grow so faded, or be worn so thin, that retiring it seems long overdue. The threadbare expression “socially constructed” is one of them. It’s amazing the thing hasn’t disintegrated already.
In its protypical form -- as formulated in the late 1920s, in the aphorism known as the Thomas theorem – the idea was bright and shapely enough: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In a culture that regards the ghosts of dead ancestors as full members of the family, it’s necessary to take appropriate actions not to offend them; they will have a place at the table. Arguments about the socially constructed nature of reality generalize the Thomas theorem more broadly: we have access to the world only through the beliefs, concepts, categories, and patterns of behavior established by the society in which we live.
The idea lends itself to caricature, of course, particularly when it comes to discussion of the socially constructed nature of something brute and immune to argumentation like, say, the force of gravity. “Social constructivists think it’s just an idea in your head,” say the wits. “Maybe they should prove it by stepping off a tall building!”
Fortunately the experiment is not often performed. The counterargument from gravity is hardly so airtight as its makers like to think, however. The Thomas theorem holds that imaginary causes can have real effects, But that hardly implies that reality is just a product of the imagination.
And as for gravity -- yes, of course it is “constructed.” The observation that things fall to the ground is several orders of abstraction less than a scientific concept. Newton’s development of the inverse square law of attraction, its confirmation by experiment, and the idea’s diffusion among the non-scientific public – these all involved institutions and processes that are ultimately social in nature.
Isn’t that obvious? So it seems to me. But it also means that everything counts as socially constructed, if seen from a certain angle, which may not count as a contribution to knowledge.
A new book from Temple University Press, Darin Weinberg’s Contemporary Social Constructionism: Key Themes, struggles valiantly to defend the idea from its sillier manifestations and its more inane caricatures. The author is a reader in sociology and fellow at King’s College, University of Cambridge. “While it is certainly true that a handful of the more extravagant and intellectually careless writers associated with constructionism have abandoned the idea of using empirical evidence to resolve debates,” he writes, not naming any names but manifestly glaring at people over in the humanities, “they are a small and shrinking minority.”
Good social constructionist work, he insists, “is best understood as a variety of empirically grounded social scientific research,” which by “turn[ing] from putatively universal standards to the systematic scrutiny of the local standards undergirding specific research agendas” enables the forcing of “the tools necessary for discerning and fostering epistemic progress.”
The due epistemic diligence of the social scientists renders them utterly distinct from the postmodernists and deconstructionists, who, by Weinberg's reckoning, have done great damage to social constructionism’s credit rating. “While they may encourage more historically and politically sensitive intuitions regarding the production of literature,” he allows, “they are considerably less helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.”
And that is being nice about it. A few pages later, Weinberg pronounces anathema upon the non-social scientific social-constructionists. They are “at best pseudo-empirical and, at worst, overtly opposed to the notion that empirical evidence might be used to improve our understanding of the world or resolve disputes about worldly events.”
Such hearty enthusiasm for throwing his humanistic colleagues under the bus is difficult to gainsay, even when one doubts that a theoretical approach to art or literature also needs to be “helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.” Such criticisms are not meant to be definitive of Weinberg’s project. A sentence like “Derrida sought to use ‘deconstruction’ to demonstrate how specific readings of texts require specific contextualizations of them” is evidence chiefly of the author’s willingness to hazard a guess.
The book’s central concern, rather, is to defend what Weinberg calls “the social constructionist ethos” as the truest and most forthright contemporary manifestation of sociology’s confidence in its own disciplinary status. As such, it stresses “the crucially important emphases” that Weinberg sees as implicit in the concept of the social – emphases “on shared human endeavor, on relation over isolation, on process over stasis, and on collective over individual, as well as the monumental epistemic value of showing just how deeply influenced we are by the various sociohistorical contexts in which we live and are sustained.”
But this positive program is rarely in evidence so much as Weinberg’s effort to close off “the social” as something that must not and cannot be determined by anything outside itself – the biological, psychological, economic, or ecological domains, for example. “The social” becomes a kind of demiurge: constituting the world, then somehow transcending its manifestations.
It left this reader with the sense of witnessing a disciplinary turf war, extended to almost cosmological dimensions. The idea of social construction is a big one, for sure. But even an XXL can only be stretched just so far before it turns baggy and formless -- and stays that way for good.
So you almost have that book contract in your grasp. You’ve had your most trusted colleagues drop a favorable hint about your work in the ear of the acquisitions editor at the best press in your field. You carefully (and, of course, unobtrusively) stalked said editor at the spring meeting of your disciplinary society, and managed to “accidentally” meet at the drinks reception.
You wrote a follow-up e-mail — not too soon, not too late — with a general query describing your idea and how it fits into the broader publication program at Desirable University Press. And when you received back that warm response — O, happy day! — you observed a decent interval before sending off your polished proposal, on which, of course, you’ve been working ceaselessly for the last six months.
And now you’re refreshing your inbox every five minutes or so, waiting for that hoped-for green light.
Did you ever think — after all your work — that what you were producing was a luxury?
Probably not. All you really want is for the best publisher, whatever that means to you, to publish it; and for your ideas to receive notice in the reviews that matter in your field. Well, you’d probably like your promotion and tenure committee to be impressed, too. Royalties would be nice, but more than anything, you want impact.
Yet maybe you think it should be a luxury, after all the effort and sweat and heartache you’ve invested in it. As far as you’re concerned, it’s pure gold, and should be priced accordingly. You can be sure it will. According to one book provider for university libraries, the average cover price of an academic book now stands at around $90.00 — a few multiples more than the average price of a book.
It’s not just the price that makes scholarly books a luxury. Think about this line from a recent study of luxury goods: “In luxury, quality is assumed, price does not have to be explained rationally; it is the price of the intangibles (history, legend, prestige of the brand)."
That sounds a lot like the system of scholarly publishing we have come to know and love (and/or loathe). It’s exactly the history, legend, prestige of the brand — the welter of such elements as the name of a given press, the backlist of titles in its catalog, the reputation of the institution with which it is (to a greater or lesser degree) affiliated, the grand old stories we tell about the way a certain editor championed a book against a sea of troubles — that gives the whole enterprise a whiff of mystique and nobility. Scholarly publishing, like any other luxury good, is a reputation-driven business producing goods for a select few at high prices, which in turn transmit a signal about the value of the good — and the prestige of the producer.
But as any social psychologist can tell you, reputations are a bad shortcut to reality. On the contrary, they can be a fruitful source of bias — filled with meaning we make instead of content we assess.
If you think about it, it’s surprising that scholarly publishing is — and seemingly should be — a business in which brand reputation is not just operative, but essential. Stories abound of promotion and tenure committees advising candidates of the four or five publishers with which a book they present must be placed — at least if they have hopes of further advancement. But of course to say this is to mistake the brand for the content. After all, scholarly merit is supposed to be a function of, well, merit, not mere reputation. Isn’t it? Aren’t we supposed to read the books, and not merely the spine?
• • •
The old chestnut that academic publishing is in a state of crisis may or may not be true; that all depends on your definition of “crisis.” What is certainly true is that the nature of scholarly publishing has changed, in some ways so much that it would scarcely be recognizable to the founding generation of university press directors.
After all, it is only meaningful to distinguish “scholarly publishing” from all other sorts of publishing if it has not just a distinctive content but a distinctive purpose.
The content is indisputably meant to be scholarly work of great merit. Even within a single field disagreements may (and do) arise about exactly what merit is, but no one seriously disputes that the content provided by academic presses is, or ought to be, characterized by a kind of defensible and substantive merit.
That is to say, scholarly publishing — at least in the days American university presses were established — was seen as a way for scholars to communicate their ideas with each other in ways that would not depend, at least not critically, on the market. Exactly because the market would be a poor judge of scholarly merit, producing scholarly work was seen as an extension of institutional mission. Colleges and universities exist not merely to create, but to communicate knowledge; and the social privileges conferred because of that mission (notably, qualification to receive charitable gifts incentivized by the tax code) entail social responsibilities to support both the process and the production of research.
So here’s a thesis. If there truly is a crisis in scholarly publishing, it has arisen from this fundamental first cause: the end of the era in which institutions sponsoring presses saw the publishing of scholarship as something near to the heart of their core mission, and deserving to be supported on those terms. Result: What was never intended to be a system left to the vicissitudes of the market has become exactly that. Scholarly books have become high-priced, prestige-driven luxury goods not by accident, but by forgetfulness.
Symptoms of this shift abound. Presses unable to break even are closed, or severely curtailed, as universities refocus on “strategic priorities." Book prices rise at a rate far higher than inflation in order to cover publishers’ fixed costs as institutional subventions vanish. Authors are chosen not so much on the basis of prize-winning, promising early work but rather because they can command the services of a literary agent.
It doesn’t have to be this way. To solve the crisis we should speak frankly of its causes, and imagine alternatives to received structures. There are three points to keep in view as we invent and test alternatives.
• Open access doesn’t mean poor quality. The push for open access, an idea received with acute suspicion in some quarters, has come about in no small way as a direct consequence of the predictable failure of a market-based system for scholarly publishing to serve its audience.
As a species we are pretty hardwired to associate cost with value — one reason why luxury goods, for which no rational explanation can suffice, yet exist. That is the hardest challenge for open-access advocates (of which I am one) to overcome; how can something free be trusted? But there is no logical connection between the price (as distinguished from the production cost) of a scholarly work and its merit. Yes, assuring quality is a costly business. But there are other ways of paying those costs than depending on purchase-price revenue.
• Communicating ideas is (or should be) critical to the mission of all institutions. The relationship between publishing and the institutional mission needs to be reassessed. Real and lasting change in the broken system of scholarly communication cannot be accomplished by publishers, or libraries, alone. Ultimately it will take a critical mass of institutional leaders able to see how abandoning academic presses to the market was, in effect, abdicating a core scholarly responsibility. I am fortunate to work in an institution led by such people, with the result that the revenue on which we will do the expected work of assuring quality and publishing scholarship will be borne by institutional commitments instead of consumers.
• Disruptive innovation is messy. Changing the revenue model — shifting the source of the revenue from either end of the value chain (purchases by consumers at one end, or “author fees” at the other) to institutional commitments at the center — is made possible by new technologies for distribution (digital publishing). But will also mean the emergence of a new set of ideas for the kinds of institutions that do scholarly publishing.
For one thing, there may well be a larger number of publishers producing a smaller number of works on a focused set of topics. Most of the proposed solutions to the “crisis,” both those offered by publishers and those sponsored by foundations, have been essentially focused on preserving the current demographic profile of university presses. It is not self-evident that this is the only solution. Liberal arts colleges (to cite my own example) have a valuable and distinct contribution to make to the identification of what constitutes “scholarship” — but, with a few admirable exceptions, have been frozen out of the conversation by the sheer volume of production required by a market-dependent system. That can now change.
So, too, digital tools make possible not only different ways of producing work, but different ways of organizing the work of publishers. University presses, by and large, are organized as hierarchical firms — and with good reason; such organizations manage market pressures efficiently. But academic publishing could become much more like a commons, adapting to its own purposes Yochai Benkler’s ideas of commons-based peer production in which the uniting thread is a shared passion for the development and distribution of new ideas among colleagues and peers. Said in different terms, what if the future of academic publishing looked less like the Encyclopædia Britannica, and more like Wikipedia?
Good luck on the book contract. When you get it — and, of course, you will — remember why you got into your field in the first place. It probably wasn’t to produce luxuries, but to create ideas and communicate them to your peers — the same reason I wrote this piece. So when you have an idea for your next book, think about working with a publisher who shares those goals.
Mark Edington is director of the Amherst College Press.
At a certain age, you find the slang of the day growing a bit opaque or slippery. Using it becomes a calculated risk. Not that the words or usages are necessarily incomprehensible, though some of them are. (The word “random” now has implications in the American vernacular that I have yet to figure out.) But the unwritten rules of informal correctness are sometimes tricky, and mastering them a challenge.
Simon Blackburn, for many years a professor of philosophy at Oxford, makes use of one recent idiom in his new book Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (Princeton University Press) and nearly gets it right. Complaining about “the swarms of ‘selfies’ who infest places of interest, art galleries concerts, public spaces, and cyberspace,” he elaborates:
“For today’s selfie, the object of each moment is first to record oneself as having been there and second to broadcast the result to as much of the rest of the world as possible. The smartphone is the curse of public space as selfies click away with the lens pointed mainly at themselves and only secondarily at what is around them.”
And so on, in the same vein. ("You selfies get out of my yard!” as it were.) Reaching for the meaning of a recent piece of slang, Blackburn has turned in the right direction but not quite grasped it: “Selfie” refers to a photographic self-portrait, not to the person taking the picture. The author is editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, so if there is a term for this kind of reversal -- confusing object and subjectivity -- he probably knows it.
But then he may not have fallen behind on the slang at all. “Selfie” really does sound like an apt term for the digital-age clones of Narcissus. Perhaps it will catch on? The phenomenon itself won’t be disappearing any time soon. The recent wildfires in California give us some idea of what an apocalyptic future would look like: people snapping selfies while everything around them is consumed in flames.
The appetite for self-documentation is not just a moral vice or a cultural symptom. The nuisance factor of the selfie is only the most blatant aspect of a tendency that Blackburn identifies as a fundamental problem for both serious thought and everyday life. “With a few exceptions,” he notes, "we can have just about any attitude toward ourselves that we have toward other people, or even to things in the world.”
Ordinary language is full of evidence for this point, since the range of expressions with “self-“ as a prefix is incredibly wide and practically uncountable: self-abasement, self-advancement, self-denial, self-respect, self-education, self-inspection, self-consciousness, self-murder…. For now that list should be sufficient, if not self-sufficient. "The exceptions,” Blackburn notes, "only include such trivial things as finding you in my way, which is possible, as opposed to finding myself in my way, which is arguably not, except metaphorically when perhaps it is all too possible.”
So the epistemological and moral problems raised by our relationship with other people or the world (where did they come from? what can we know about them? how should we treat them?) also apply in regard to the self, and are at least as complex, though probably more so. It seems the Oracle of Delphi cunningly hid a vast array of questions in her challenge to Socrates: Know thyself.
After 2,500 years, the mystery has only deepened. Writing in the 18th century, David Hume found the self to be elusive: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure…. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long as I am insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist.”
Now we map the neural pathways of the brain in fine detail without ever locating the spot where the self picks up its mail. Even so, whole industries exist to provide goods and services to the self -- especially by selling it, if not power, then at least Band-Aids for wounded vanity. Mirror, Mirror quotes the apt definition of arrogance by Kant -- “an unjustified demand that others think little of themselves in comparison with us, a foolishness that acts contrary to its own end” -- that conveys how repulsive and counterproductive it is. And yet costly advertising campaigns are built around models who project, as Blackburn neatly expresses it, "the vacant euphoria” of absolute self-absorption: “even [their] blankness is a kind of disdain -- a refusal of human reciprocity.”
The ads embody the fantasy of an invulnerable self, inspiring awe but immune to envy, available for the price of hair-care products or new clothes. It’s a con, but a successful one, meaning that it leaves the mark poorer but no wiser. (Hence still vulnerable.)
Mirror, Mirror is not primarily a work of social or cultural criticism. At the same time, phenomena such as selfies or billboards filled with pouty sneering beautiful people are more than just irritants that provoke Blackburn into writing casual but learned essays that leave you wanting to read (or reread) the philosophical and literary works he draws on. That, too. But the author's shuttling between current trends and venerable texts seems enlivened by the occasional hint that his interest is, in part, personal.
That could be my imagination. Blackburn never waxes memoiristic; he uses the first person sparingly. Still, the book implies a quest, Socrates-like, for self-knowledge -- by no means to be confused with what Narcissus was after.
Three people in the United States have contracted the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, so far -- two while traveling abroad, the third through contact with one of them. Another 600 or so cases have been diagnosed elsewhere in the world since MERS first appeared in early fall of 2012, according to the World Health Organization.
Or rather, that many cases are now confirmed. It could well be that more people have had MERS (wherever in the world they may be) and endured it as if a terrible flu; it’s also possible to be exposed to it and develop antibodies without showing any of the symptoms. With a new disease, solid information tends to spread more slowly than the vectors carrying it. Some of the online news coverage calls the disease “highly contagious.” But that doesn’t really count as solid information: while MERS has proven fatal about a third of the time, it seems not to be readily transmissible in public settings.
No travel advisory has been issued, nor are special precautions being recommended to the general public, though health care workers are vulnerable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests washing your hands regularly and keeping them away from eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible -- hygiene recommendations of the most generic sort.
But the fearsome label “highly contagious” became almost inevitable when MERS was branded with a name so close to that of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. For SARS was highly contagious; that’s what made it so terrifying. I use the past tense because no new cases have been reported in 10 years. The rapid spread of SARS was halted, and in its wake international efforts to monitor and exchange information about emerging diseases have improved.
MERS ≠ SARS. Even so, its very name calls up the specter of a quick-moving, lethal, and global pandemic. And those connotations insinuate themselves into discourse on the new disease -- as if to ready us for panic.
Well, don’t. That would be premature. (Try not to lick doorknobs or French-kiss anyone with a wracking cough, and you’ll probably be just fine.) The start of the 21st century may well be what CDC director Thomas Friedan has called the "perfect storm of vulnerability”: unknown new diseases can continent-hop by airplane and test their strength against antibiotics that have become ever less effective, thanks to overuse. But humans can think while viruses cannot, and it seems at least possible that could prove the decisive advantage.
Consider a new book from Southern Illinois University Press called Rhetoric of a Global Epidemic: Transcultural Communication about SARS by Huiling Ding, who is an assistant professor of professional and technical communication at North Carolina State University. It is a work of some factual and conceptual density, but I suspect it will play some role in how information about disease outbreaks will be organized and delivered in the future.
Ding has not set out to write the history of SARS, but she does reconstruct and scrutinize how bureaucracies and mass media, both east and west, communicated among themselves and with their publics as the disease emerged in China in November 2002 and began spreading to other countries in the new year. Her analytical tool kit includes elements of classical (even Aristotelean) rhetoric as well as a taxonomy of kinds of cultural flow based on Arjun Appadurai’s anthropology of globalization.
The author prefers to identify her approach as "critical contextualized methodology,” but for the purpose of making introductions we might do better to dwell on a single guiding distinction. Ding is wary of a number of established assumptions implied by the term "intercultural communication,” the very name of which implies two or more distinct cultures, standing at a certain distance from one another, exchanging messages. When things are so configured, “culture” will sooner or later turn out to mean, or to imply, “nation” -- whereupon “state” is sure to follow.
By contrast, "transcultural communication” drags no such metonymic chain behind it. It has a venerable history, with roots in Latin American cultural studies. “Transculturation,”writes Ding, “can be used to describe a wide range of global phenomena, including exile, immigration, multicultural contact, ethnic conflicts, interracial marriages, overseas sojourns, and transnational tourism.” A transcultural perspective focuses on layers and processes that constitute different societies without being specific to any one of them, and that can themselves be in flux.
So, to choose a SARS-related example, referring to "Chinese mass media” will, for most Americans, evoke a relatively simple-seeming concept -- one that involves messages in a single language, circulated through certain well-established forms of transmission (newspapers, radio, television) among a population of citizens living within the borders of a nation-state (presumably the PRC). I dare say “American mass media” has analogous implications for people in China, or wherever.
But whatever sense that outlook once might have made, it now distorts far more than it clarifies. The range and the audience of mass media are in constant flux; the messages they transmit do not respect national borders.
“My research,” Ding said in an email interview, "shows different values and practices of traditional newspapers housed in Beijing and Guangzhou (mainstream and commercial ones) despite the exertion of censorship during the early stage of SARS.” The People’s Daily, official mouthpiece of the Chinese leadership, remained silent on the health crisis until as late as March 2003. But by January 2003, regional newspapers in small cities began reporting on the panic-buying of antiviral drugs and surgical masks -- information that then became known elsewhere in the country, via the Internet, as well as to “overseas Chinese” around the world, well before the crisis was international news.
Ding also discusses the “ad hoc civic infrastructure” that sprang up during the outbreak, such as the website Sosick.org, which engineers in Hong Kong created to circulate information about local SARS cases and encourage voluntary quarantines. "Concerned citizens can learn from coping strategies from other cultures,” she said by email, "be it communities, regions, or countries, and adapt such strategies to cope with local problems. For instance, I am working on another project on quarantine policies and practices during SARS in Singapore, mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Canada…. Such bottom-up efforts often carry persuasive power, and in the case of Hong Kong, did help to introduce policy changes.”
Her reference to “persuasive power” is a reminder that Ding’s book belongs to the tradition of rhetorical scholarship. She devotes part of the book to an analysis of enthymemes in official Chinese commentaries on the crisis, for example. (An enthymeme is a deductive argument in which one of the assumptions goes unstated.) That a grassroots quarantine movement on two continents proved more successful and persuasive than state-sanctioned efforts to maintain social order is easy to believe.
What we need, Ding told me, are analyses of the "communication practices of global and/or flexible citizens, or multi-passport holders who regularly travel across continents in search of fame, wealth, or influence. Their familiarity with multiple cultures certainly introduce interesting transcultural communication strategies.” That bottom-up appeals for quarantine proved effective in a number of countries suggests she could be right: cultivating new skills in communication and persuasion might well be crucial for dealing with other public health crises, down the line.
“This might be too geeky for a column,” said the subject line of a reader's email, “but just in case …”
It sounded like a challenge, and I took the bait. The topic in question? A new statistical instrument to quantify the degree of open access for scholarly journals. In other words, exactly geeky enough.
The metric can, in principle, be used with journals in any field. At this stage, though, it’s only really being talked about in library and information science (LIS) circles. It represents a challenge to academic librarians to “walk the talk” in regard to their own professional publications. But it's an “inside baseball” discussion that merits attention outside the dugout, given the role of academic librarians in shaping the whole terrain of 21st-century scholarly communication.
That role is crucial but often overlooked. Academic librarians still have the core responsibilities of managing acquisitions and maintaining subscriptions, of course, but must also keep track of the new array (constantly growing, across all disciplines) of digital-format archives, databases, and other repositories. Plus they have the pedagogical task of instructing patrons in how to use new research tools as they become available.
As if that weren’t enough to do, research libraries have been mutating into scholarly publishers in their own right, sometimes in cooperation with their universities’ presses. To borrow a phrase from a recent paper in the journal College & Research Libraries, academic librarians have gone beyond being “gatekeepers of knowledge” -- in charge of its storage and retrieval -- to playing an active role in its promulgation.
Sugimoto et al. sent a survey to their colleagues at 91 academic libraries in the U.S. about how they kept track of developments within library and information science itself. Just over six hundred people filled out all or most of the questionnaire.
The findings reveal a profession that's seriously interested in its own rapidly changing role in scholarly communications: "A vast majority (94.2 percent) consult professional literature" -- defined to include scholarly journals as well as less formal venues such as trade publications and blogs — "on, at the very least, a monthly basis.” More than a quarter of respondents said they did so daily.
Over 80 percent of respondents indicated they followed peer-reviewed LIS journals. More three-quarters kept up with conference papers and proceedings in their field. "Nearly three-quarters," the paper notes, "reported sharing the results of research or reports of best practices" with their colleagues, with more than half (54.2 percent) doing so in peer-reviewed journals."
The other, more granular statistics in the paper are significant, but I want to stress a couple of important big-picture issues suggested by the study. On the one hand, the Indiana researchers describe a kind of virtuous circle. Academic librarians are eager both to produce and to exchange knowledge about their field -- not just to publish but to read one another’s work and to incorporate it into their own activity. (And that is a good thing for the rest of us, prone though we are to taking their efforts for granted.)
The paper also stresses that academic librarians have been advocates for "new (particularly open) systems of scholarly communication." They have shown prescient and growing support for open-access publishing for a number of years now. But here's where things become problematic, because it sounds like the library and information studies people could use some "new (particularly open) systems of scholarly communication” of their own.
Librarians who are also tenure-track faculty need to publish in the field's major peer-reviewed journals. (Forty percent of respondents to the Indiana researchers’ survey were either tenured or on the track.)
But with a prestigious journal, the lag time between between acceptance and publication can run to a year or more. That delay "impede[s] the timeliness and back-and-forth exchanges that are required for effective scholarly communication." And in "technology-related fields ... research may lose its currency if it is not delivered expediently."
Then there is the conundrum assessed in another recent study, Micah Vandergrift and Chealsye Bowley's "Librarian Heal Thyself: A Scholarly Communication Analysis of LIS Journals,” published last month by In the Library With a Lead Pipe, which is probably the best name ever for a peer-reviewed journal. (Vandergrift is a scholarly communications librarian at Florida State University. Bowley is library supervisor at FSU's Florence Study Center in Italy.)
While academic librarians have been strong advocates of open-access publishing, many LIS researchers seem to exempt their own field. One study the authors cite found that half of respondents “cared mostly about publication without considering the policies of the journals in which they published and that only 16 percent had exercised the right to self-archive in the institutional archive.”
Vandegrift and Bowley assembled data on the policies of 111 library and information science journals and found that with a large minority of them (well over a third) the author signs over all copyrights to the publisher — “including but not limited,” as the contracts run, "to the right to publish, republish, transmit, sell, distribute, and otherwise use the [article] in whole or in part … in derivative works throughout the world, in all languages, and in all media of expression now known or later developed.” (You could probably get away with giving the PDF to a close friend, just be very, very quiet about it.)
Just a handful of journals “had direct or implied policies regarding what the author is allowed to do with specific versions of the same work,” including self-archiving in an institutional repository. “A significant percentage of our professional literature,” Vandegrift and Bowley conclude, "is still owned and controlled by commercial publishers whose role in scholarly communication is to maintain ’the scholarly record,’ yes, but also to generate profits at the expense of library budgets by selling our intellectual property back to us.”
A norm doesn’t remain a norm unless nearly everyone involved acquiesces to it. A couple of years ago The Economist referred to the signs of growing unhappiness with the state of scholarly publishing as "The Academic Spring," and Vandegraft and Bowley's paper is part of it.
"A great example of a proactive and outspoken group,” Bowley told me in an email exchange, "was the Journal of Library Administration's Editor-in-Chief Damon Jaggars and entire editorial board who resigned in March 2013 … [over] an author agreement that they thought was "too restrictive and out of step with the expectation of authors.” Vandegrift was among the authors who had requested a Creative Commons license or to retain their copyright — an open-access policy that Taylor & Francis, the journal’s publisher, rejected.
Continuing the effort to bring the publishing practices of LIS researchers into accord with its ethos, Vandegrift and Bowled have created an instrument called the Journal Openness Index. It uses a points system for the various degrees of control over copyright and reuse indicated in a journal’s stated policies. The higher the JOI, the more open-access the publication. Crunching the numbers for several leading LIS titles, the authors find that the journals of professional societies get the highest scores while those from commercial-academic publishers get the lowest, with journals issued by university presses falling somewhere in between.
That is not exactly counterintuitive. But Vandegrift and Bowley offer JOI as a step in the direction of establishing open access as one of the criteria for how colleagues assess the value of scholarship in their own field.
"I imagine all the students that come out of library schools,” Vandegraft said by email, who "go into public librarianship and all of a sudden are cut off from access to the literature that can and should inform the practice of their work, which they were trained to do in library schools where ‘access' is touted as a value. I think we can do better, and I think it will take articles like this one to push librarians to be more proactive and to ask our faculty colleagues to join us."
As for applying JOI to journals in other fields, the idea is feasible but demanding. “Such a project would need proper backing,“ Bowley told me, "whether in the form of a team or institutional and financial support, in order to ensure its long-term upkeep. It could also be partially done through crowdsourcing the information, though. If a professional organization or institution is interested in taking up the project, they would certainly be welcomed to do so.”
I hope their colleagues take them up on it. An informed librarian is a helpful librarian — and it’s a fool who underestimates the value of that.
For five years now, off and on -- as massive financial crisis and spiking unemployment have given way to healthy corporate profits and a “recovery” characterized by a surge in low-wage job creation — the word has gone around that people are rediscovering Marx’s Capital.
Whether very many have the stamina to finish its opening chapter, on the commodity form, may be doubted. (Over the years I have been in at least three informal study groups that broke up before getting through the analysis of money in chapter three.) But anyone seriously considering making the trek through Capital might best start with Friedrich Engels’s shorter commentaries on it, including a number of reviews he published anonymously or under pseudonyms, as many an author’s friend has on Amazon.
Engels was not disinterested, of course, but as a critic he had the considerable advantage of knowing, from long and close acquainting, what Marx was trying to say.
You can find those fugitive pieces — and hundreds of other primary works, major and minor — at the Marxists Internet Archive, which has been around since well before the dawn of the World Wide Web. It makes available a constantly expanding array of texts by scores of writers (not all of them Marxists and some not radical by any standard) in an impressive range of languages, and all at no charge. The site draws more than a million readers per month. And yes, traffic has increased during the Great Recession and the not-so-great recovery.
More remarkable even than MIA's long-term survival as an independent and volunteer-staffed institution, I think, has been its nonsectarian, non-exclusionary policy concerning what gets archived. Much left-wing argument has traditionally taken the form of “But X isn’t really a Marxist! I am, and should know, and will demonstrate it now at great length.” (Quite a few documents in the MIA collection consist of just such claim-staking efforts.) MIA volunteers must occasionally shudder or roll their eyes at each other’s choice of authors to include in the archive’s holdings.
But they’ve agreed to “archive the controversy," so to speak -- and MIA’s users are all the better off for everyone’s generosity of restraint. The whole institution seems to embody what Marx himself identified as the goal of his work: a society of “freely associated labor," in which everyone gives according to ability and receives according to need.
And so it is all the sorrier a development that, as of tomorrow -- i.e., May 1st, the reddest of red-letter days -- the first 10 volumes of the English-language Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) will be taken down from the site, per a demand by the publisher Lawrence and Wishart.
After almost a decade of allowing its Marx translations to be freely available to a worldwide audience, the press is asserting its copyright in order to make digital access available to universities by subscription. MIA announced the impending change last Wednesday, giving readers one week’s notice.
The following day, I posted a notice and commentary on the situation at Crooked Timber. My tone was, it’s fair to say, a bit testy, but nothing like the tsunami of invective that hit Lawrence and Wishart soon after. A petition against L&W’s decision began circulating and soon had thousands of signatures, many of them accompanied by angry comments.
A friend who teaches political science in London mentioned that she’d written to the press, saying, "Should you really pursue this idiotic line of action, I and dozens of other people are quite happy to organise a boycott (to involve hundreds more) not only of your books, but of citing works published by you.”
Among responses to the news, it was definitely one of the more polite. On Friday, Lawrence and Wishart made a statement that sounded like it was being issued from a bunker under siege.
It characterized the protesters as believing that the press should, in effect, "commit institutional suicide.” Indeed, by that point some people were making the recommendation quite clearly. (For a calmer but quite pointed answer to L&W, see this reply, from the archive.)
Shooting yourself in the foot is seldom fatal, but reloading to fire a second time cannot be recommended. The publisher's aim is improving, however.
David Walters, one of the core group running the digital archive’s daily operations, tells me that Lawrence and Wishart not only demanded removal of the first 10 volumes’ worth of content, running to some 1,100 items, but even the tables of contents for the remaining 40 volumes. Now, the table of contents for a book can be an enticement to buy. With L&W we are faced, not with an overzealous protection of intellectual property, but evidence of diminished capacity to make a rational decision.
While Lawrence and Wishart's decision to re-privatize its translations was ill-advised and then some, its handling of the protest has been almost incomprehensibly self-destructive.
For the press has now dashed to smithereens its hopes of turning the MECW digital edition into a revenue stream. As of a few days ago, the entire collection became available in 50 PDFs that reproduce exactly the layout of the printed volumes -- at least for people savvy enough to know where to locate, and how to download, that sort of thing. Meaning, of course, that we late-adapters will probably have access in a few weeks.
In its statement last week, L&W portrayed itself as victim of "a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers." There is -- or rather, there soon will be -- some truth to that. People with no interest in Marx's critique of political economy or Engels's speculations on paleohistory are doubtless going download the PDFs anyway, just to assert that they can.
But what’s really been at issue throughout this past week’s furor is something utterly unrelated to a consumerist ethos. Lawrence and Wishart asserted its juridical rights to restrict, and to charge for, access to intellectual goods to which a great many readers have some reasonable moral claim -- scholars, that is, and Marxists, and Marxist scholars above all, perhaps. When I say they had a moral claim, it’s because those readers were largely responsible for circulating, teaching, and thinking about the texts.
That audience has not begrudged L&W its profit. On the contrary, we’ve given the press most of its business over the decades. Since 1987, the Marxists Internet Archive has expanded, extended, and deepened the public that’s interested in what the publisher has to sell. Establishing and running it, David Walters told me via email, "was a HUGE amount of work done by us before anyone at L&W even heard of the internet.”
The texts Marx and Engels wrote belong to whoever wants to read them. L&W is a delivery mechanism -- one among others -- and at present its viability is under review.
So, to wrap up, a message to David and everyone else at the archive: Thanks. And to Lawrence and Wishart: You’re welcome -- but seriously, cease fire immediately.
Brian Cranston’s recitation of “Ozymandias” in last year’s memorable video clip for the final season of Breaking Bad may have elided some of the finer points of Shelley's poem. But it did the job it was meant to do -- evoking the swagger of a grandiose ego, as well as time’s shattering disregard for even the most awe-inspiring claim to fame, whether by an ancient emperor or meth kingpin of the American Southwest.
But time has, in a way, been generous to the figure Shelley calls Ozymandias, who was not a purely fictional character, like Walter White, but rather the pharaoh Ramses II, also called User-maat-re Setep-en-re. (The poet knew of him through a less exact, albeit more euphonious, transcription of the name.) He ruled about one generation before the period that Eric H. Cline, a professor of classics and archeology at George Washington University, recounts in 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press).
Today the average person is reasonably likely to know that Ramses was the name of an Egyptian ruler. But very few people will have the faintest idea that anything of interest happened in 1177 B.C. It wasn't one of the 5,000 “essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts” constituting the “shared knowledge of literate American culture” that E.D Hirsch identified in his best-seller Cultural Literacy (1988), nor did it make it onto the revised edition Hirsch issued in 2002. Just over 3,000 years ago, a series of catastrophic events demolished whole cities, destroying the commercial and diplomatic connections among distinct societies that had linked up to form an emerging world order. It seems like this would come up in conversation from time to time. I suspect it may do so more often in the future.
So what happened in 1177 B.C.? Well, if the account attributed to Ramses III is reliable, that was the date of a final, juggernaut-like offensive by what he called the Sea Peoples. By then, skirmishes between Egypt and the seafaring barbarians had been under way, off and on, for some 30 years. But 1177 was the climactic year when, in the pharaoh’s words, “They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident…. ” The six tribes of Sea Peoples came from what Ramses vaguely calls “the islands.” Cline indicates that one group, the Peleset, are "generally accepted” by contemporary scholars "as the Philistines, who are identified in the Bible as coming from Crete.” The origins of the other five remain in question. Their rampage did not literally take the Sea Peoples around “the circuit of the earth,” but it was an ambitious military campaign by any standard.
They attacked cities throughout the Mediterranean, in places now called Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon, among others. About one metropolis Ramses says the Sea Peoples “desolated” the population, Ramses says, “and its land was like that which has never come into being.”
Cline reproduces an inscription that shows the Sea Peoples invading Egypt by boat. You need a magnifying glass to see the details, but the battle scene is astounding even without one. Imagine D-Day depicted exclusively with two-dimensional figures. The images are flat, but they swarm with such density that the effect is claustrophobic. It evokes a sense of terrifying chaos, of mayhem pressing in on all sides, so thick that nobody can push through it. Some interpretations of the battle scene, Cline notes, contend that it shows an Egyptian ambush of the would-be occupiers.
Given that the Egyptians ultimately prevailed over the Sea Peoples, it seems plausible: they would have had reason to record and celebrate such a maneuver. Ramses himself boasts of leading combat so effectively that the Sea Peoples who weren't killed or enslaved went home wishing they’d never even heard of Egypt: “When they pronounce my name in their land, then they are burned up.”
Other societies were not so fortunate. One of them, the Hittite empire, at its peak covered much of Turkey and Syria. (If the name seems mildly familiar, that may be because the Hittites, like the Philistines, make a number of appearances in the Bible.) One zone under Hittite control was the harbor city of Ugariot, a mercantile center for the entire region. You name it, Ugarit had it, or at least someone there could order it for you: linen garments, alabaster jars, wine, wheat, olive oil, anything in metal…. In exchange for paying tribute, a vassal city like Ugarit enjoyed the protection of the Hittite armed forces. Four hundred years before the Sea Peoples came on the scene, the king of the Hittites could march troops into Mesopotamia, burn down the city, then march them back home — a thousand miles each way — without bothering to occupy the country, “thus,” writes Cline, “effectively conducting the longest drive-by shooting in history.”
But by the early 12th century, Ugarit had fallen. Archeologists have found, in Cline’s words, "that the city was burned, with a destruction level reaching two meters high in some places.” Buried in the ruins are “a number of hoards … [that] contained precious gold and bronze items, including figurines, weapons and tools, some of them inscribed.” They "appear to have been hidden just before the destruction took place,” but "their owners never returned to retrieve them.” Nor was Ugarit ever rebuilt, which raises the distinct possibility that there were no survivors.
Other Hittite populations survived the ordeal but declined in power, wealth, and security. One of the maps in The Year Civilization Collapsed marks the cities around the Mediterranean that were destroyed during the early decades of the 12th century B.C. — about 40 of them in all.
The overview of what happened in 1177 B.C. that we’ve just taken is streamlined and dramatic — and way too much so not to merit skepticism. It’s monocausal. The Sea Peoples storm the beaches, one city after another collapses, but Ramses III survives to tell the tale…. One value of making a serious study of history, as somebody once said, is that you learn how things don’t happen.
Exactly what did becomes a serious challenge to determine, after a millennium or three. Cline’s book is a detailed but accessible synthesis of the findings and hypotheses of researchers concerned with the societies that developed around the Mediterranean throughout the second millennium B.C., with a special focus on the late Bronze Age, which came to an end in the decades just before and after the high drama of 1177. The last 20 years or so have been an especially productive and exciting time in scholarship concerning that region and era, with important work being done in fields such as archeoseismology and Ugaritic studies. A number of landmark conferences have fostered exchanges across micro-specialist boundaries, and 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed offers students and the interested lay antiquarian a sense of the rich picture that is emerging from debates among the ruins.
Cline devotes more than half of the book to surveying the world that was lost in or around the year in his title — with particular emphasis on the exchanges of goods that brought the Egyptian and Hittite empires, and the Mycenean civilization over in what we now call Greece, into closer contact. Whole libraries of official documents show the kings exchanging goods and pleasantries, calling each “brother,” and marrying off their children to one another in the interest of diplomatic comity. When a ship conveying luxury items and correspondence from one sovereign to another pulled in to dock, it would also carry products for sale to people lower on the social scale. It then returned with whatever tokens of good will the second king was sending back to the first — and also, chances are, commercial goods from that king’s empire, for sale back home.
The author refers to this process as “globalization,” which seems a bit misleading given that the circuits of communication and exchange were regional, not worldwide. In any case, it had effects that can be traced in the layers of scattered archeological digs: commodities and artwork characteristic of one society catch on in another, and by the start of the 12th century a real cosmopolitanism is in effect. At the same time, the economic networks encouraged a market in foodstuffs as well as tin — the major precious resource of the day, something like petroleum became in the 20th century.
But evidence from the digs also shows two other developments during this period: a number of devastating earthquakes and droughts. Some of the cities that collapsed circa 1177 may have been destroyed by natural disaster, or so weakened that they succumbed far more quickly to the marauding Sea Peoples than they would have otherwise. For that matter, it is entirely possible that the Sea Peoples themselves were fleeing from such catastrophes. “In my opinion,” writes Cline, “… none of these individual factors would have been cataclysmic enough on their own to bring down even one of these civilizations, let alone all of them. However, they could have combined to produce a scenario in which the repercussions of each factor were magnified, in what some scholars have called a ‘multiplier effect.’ … The ensuing ‘systems collapse’ could have led to the disintegration of one society after another, in part because of the fragmentation of the global economy and the breakdown of the interconnections upon which each civilization was dependent."
Referring to 1177 B.C. will, at present, only get you blank looks, most of the time. But given how the 21st century is shaping up, it may yet become a common reference point -- and one of more than antiquarian relevance.