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Essay on Wikipedia's fifteenth anniversary

Wikipedia came into the world 15 years ago today -- and, man, what an ugly baby. The first snapshot of it in the Internet Archive is from late March of 2001, when Wikipedia was already 10 weeks old. At that point, it claimed to have more than 3,000 pages, with an expressed hope of reaching 10,000 by the end of summer and 100,000 at some point in the not unimaginably distant future. The first entries were aspirational, at best. The one about Plato, for example, reads in its entirety: “Famous ancient Greek philosopher. Wrote that thing about the cave.”

By November -- with Wikipedia at 10 months old -- the entry on Plato was longer, if not more enlightening: you would have learned more from a good children’s encyclopedia. Over the next several months, the entry grew to a length of about 1,000 words, sometimes in classically padded freshman prose. (“Today, Plato's reputation is as easily on a par with Aristotle's. Many college students have read Plato but not Aristotle, in large part because the former's greater accessibility.”) But encouraging signs soon began to appear. A link directed the reader to supplementary pages on Platonic realism, for example. As of early 2006, when Wikipedia turned five years old, the main entry on Plato had doubled in length, with links to online editions of his writings. In addition, separate pages existed for each of the works -- often consisting of just a few sentences, but sometimes with a rough outline of the topics to be covered in a more ambitious entry somewhere down the line.

The aspirations started to look more serious. There were still times when Wikipedia seemed designed to give a copy editor nightmares -- as in 2003, when someone annotated the list of dialogues to indicate: “(1) if scholars don't generally agree Plato is the author, and (2) if scholars don't generally disagree that Plato is not the author of the work.”

Yet it is also indicative of where the site was heading that before long some volunteer stepped in to unclog that passage's syntactical plumbing. The site had plenty of room for improvement -- no denying it. On the other hand, improvements were actually happening, however unsystematically.

The site hit its initial target of 100,000 pages in early 2003 -- at which point it began to blow up like a financial bubble. There were not quite one million pages by the fifth anniversary of its founding and 3.5 million by the tenth. Growth has slowed of late, with an average of about 300,000 pages being added annually over the past five years.

I draw these figures from Dariusz Jemielniak’s Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia (Stanford University Press, 2014), which also points out how rapidly the pace of editorial changes to articles began to spike. Ten million edits were made during Wikipedia’s first four years. The next 10 million took four months. From 2007 on, the frequency of edits stabilized at a rate of 10 million edits per seven or eight weeks.

We could continue in this quantifying vein for a while. As with the Plato entry finding its center of gravity after a long period of wobbly steps, the metrics for Wikipedia tell a story of growth and progress. So does the format’s worldwide viability: Wikipedia is now active in 280 languages, of which 69 have at least 100,000 entries. It all still seems improbable and inexplicable to someone who recalls how little credibility the very concept once had. (“You can edit this page right now! … Write a little (or a lot) about what you know!”) If someone told you in 2002 that, in 10 years, the Encyclopædia Britannica would suspend publication of its print edition -- while one of the world’s oldest university presses would be publishing material plagiarized from Wikipedia, rather than by it -- the claim would have sounded like boosterism gone mad.

That, or the end of civilization. (Possibly both.) What’s in fact happened -- celebrate or mourn it as you will -- has been a steady normalization of Wikipedia as it has metamorphosed from gangly cultural interloper into the de facto reference work of first resort.

In large measure, the transformation came about as part what Siva Vaidhyanathan has dubbed “the Googlization of everything.” Wikipedia entries normally appear at or near the top of the first page of the search engine’s results. After a while, the priority that the Google algorithm gives to Wikipedia has come to seem natural and practically irresistible. At this point, having a look at Wikipedia usually quicker and easier than deciding not to (as someone once said about reading the comic strip “Nancy”).

Another sign of normalization has been the development of bibliographical norms for citing Wikipedia in scholarship. It signals that the online reference work has become a factor in knowledge production -- not necessarily as a warehouse of authoritative information but as a primary source, as raw material, subject to whatever questions and methods a discipline may bring to bear on it.

In the case of that Plato entry, the archive of changes over time would probably be of minimal interest as anything but a record of the efforts of successively better informed and more careful people. But Wikipedia’s role as a transmitter of information and an arena for contesting truth claims make its records a valuable source for people studying more recent matters. Someone researching the impact of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, for example, would find in the Wikipedia archive a condensed documentation of how information and arguments about the event appeared in real time, both in its immediate aftermath and for years afterward.

I've been reading and writing about Wikipedia for this column for most of its lifespan, and it won't be five years before there's occasion to do so again. There's plenty more to say. But for now, it seems like Professor Wikipedia should get the last word.

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Recommended books that give career advice for Ph.D.s (essay)

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Natalie Lundsteen shares a shortlist of standout books providing valuable guidance to Ph.D.s engaged in a career search.

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Author discusses physics envy book about cold war poetry

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Author discusses new book about poetry and science during the Cold War.

Review of 'Every Last Tie: The Story of the Unabomber and His Family'

Until fairly recently, I had in my files a copy of the supplement to the Sept. 19, 1995, issues of The New York Times and The Washington Post containing “Industrial Society and Its Future,” better known as the Unabomber manifesto. “Unabomber” was the moniker the Federal Bureau of Investigation gave the person or persons responsible for a string of mail bombs primarily targeting people at universities and airlines, which killed three people and maimed 23 more between 1978 and 1995.

The carnage was vicious, but it also appeared pointless, at least until the manifesto became available. It is usually characterized as neo-Luddite -- a call to halt and reverse the self-perpetuating course of technology-dominated human history, which both fosters and feeds on profound alienation. (My copy went into the recycle bin once I downloaded the text to my ereader. So it goes.) Blowing up college professors and airline executives seemingly at random was hardly the most logical or effective way of transforming civilization. But by the mid-1990s American culture had spawned a number of strange and disturbing combinations of means and ends. “Industrial Society and Its Future” was the work of someone more intelligent than Timothy McVeigh and less manifestly delusional than the Branch Davidians or the Heaven’s Gate people. It read like a master’s thesis in anthropological theory that had, at some point, gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Publication of his treatise in a major national publication had been the Unabomber’s condition for ending the terror campaign. The FBI figured that conceding would at very least save lives and buy investigators time; it might also increase the chances of someone reading the text and having a hunch as to its authorship.

And that is just what happened -- although things very well might not have worked out that way. David Kaczynski’s reflective and resolutely unsensational memoir Every Last Tie: The Story of the Unabomber and His Family (Duke University Press) reveals how difficult it was to accept even the possibility that his older brother, Theodore, might be a terrorist. The author is the executive director of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, N.Y., and (as testified in the afterword by James L. Knoll IV, a forensic psychiatrist who teaches at State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y.) a tireless speaker and activist in the movement against the death penalty. It took weeks of agonizing discussion with his wife for David Kaczynski to reach the reluctant conclusion that the Unabomber might be his troubled older sibling -- identified in captions to family photos as “Teddy,” which somehow feels a little disconcerting.

By 1995 they had been out of touch for several years. The estrangement was not quite as bitter as the one between Ted and his parents, but the recriminations were one-sided in either case. The older sibling’s back-to-the-land yearning for self-sufficiency had metastasized over the years. Introversion and reclusiveness gave way to a seething hatred of everyone -- even of those closest to him, those able to give him unconditional love.

Especially those people, in fact. The burden of the memoirist here is not just to recount his own past but to make sense of it in the context of an act of violence otherwise utterly disconnected from his own memories. Seven years younger than his brother, the author recalls growing up happily in his shadow; they remained on affectionate terms long after Ted went off to Harvard University at age 16. “Growing up,” David writes, “I never doubted my brother’s fundamental loyalty and love or felt the slightest insecurity in his presence.” He characterizes their father as “a blue-collar intellectual” -- one who “didn’t have much formal education [but] was widely read and believed progress was possible through mankind’s rational pursuit of the greater good” -- and the description sounds like it would apply to their mother as well. “Discipline in our family was based on reason and dialogue,” the author says, “not authority and fear.”

There were worse ways to spend the 1950s, but an unfortunate turn as a Harvard undergraduate may have sent Ted Kaczynski’s retiring and cerebral personality off in a dangerously pathological direction. For three years, he served as a human guinea pig for a study on the effects of aggression and humiliation on bright college students -- one of various projects intended to add psychological weaponry to the Cold War arsenal. He survived and went on to do award-winning doctoral work in mathematics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, followed by an assistant professorship at the University of California at Berkeley. But by 1971, Kaczynski, still in his twenties, left academe to cultivate a small plot of land in Montana, where he could be alone with his thoughts.

What happened over the following 25 years is presumably documented among the papers removed from Ted Kaczynski’s cabin. Every Last Tie does not refer to this material, and it’s hard to blame the author if he did not burrow through it in search of an explanation. (He’s been through enough.) What he did see was the letters full of accusation that Ted sent to their parents as his mind wandered deeper into paranoia and rage.

Eventually, when David’s long-unrequited love for a girl he’d grown up with ended in marriage, it was the end of that family connection as well: Ted disowned his brother. The memoir is made up of essays focusing in turn on each member of David Kaczynski’s nuclear family and finally on his spouse, Linda, who was the first person to suspect that the brother-in-law she’d never met might be the Unabomber.

One effect of narrating the past this way is that the book as a whole is not linear. Events are recounted as moments in the author’s relationship with each individual. The effect is to underscore precisely the thing that Ted Kaczynski could not experience, or at least not endure: the intimacy of shared lives. And although they remain estranged, David does not disown his brother for the simple reason that he cannot:

“Ted’s cruelty stigmatizes my good name; but my reputation for goodness comes at his expense. Like all contrived opposites, we reinforce one another. The worst thing that he can do to me is to deny an opportunity for reconciliation. Hope of reconciliation is something I am bound to maintain, but it costs me little -- only the sneaking sense that some part of me is missing.”

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U.S. Supreme Court seen as unlikely to take up Google Books fair use case

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Copyright experts say U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to take up the Authors Guild's case against Google, a decision that likely would end more than a decade of litigation.

Review of Colin Dayan, 'With Dogs on the Edge of Life'

As our schedules and the weather permit, my wife and I walk dogs rescued from high-kill and overcrowded shelters and held in a foster-care facility. The walks are, in part, a way to find the dogs new homes: they wear vests or bandannas inviting people to inquire about adoption. (Anyone inclined to make an end-of-the-year donation to this worthy cause should inquire here.)

For the dogs, of course, a walk is an end unto itself. Most are raring to go, though we’ve occasionally had new arrivals from the countryside who feel overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of an urban downtown. One got about half a block out the door before he’d had enough and, refusing to budge, sat down and cowered in place. But that was a rare and extreme case. Normally it takes just a few minutes for a dog to adjust to the environment and feel drawn into it, pulling us along into the excitement of open space.

Before long we start crossing paths with attentive people who stop to admire the dog, and sometimes Rita interests them in taking information on how to adopt. The foster facility seems to have pretty high turnover, so mission accomplished, presumably. But after the first or second expedition, that part of the walk became much less interesting to me than the moments of heightened awareness that sometimes occurred between contacts with other humans. It was an almost meditative absorption in our surroundings -- an effort to imagine the world as experienced from the other end of the leash.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake asks, “How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?” A dog on the ground raises that question in an earthier way than a bird in the air, for there’s a constant reminder (at least two or three times per block) that the dog’s landscape consists of a fine-grained texture of smells that is almost entirely lost on humans. (Likewise with sounds beyond our ken.) The bird’s ecstasy was a matter of conjecture for Blake. But that an “immense world of delight” opens itself to a dog’s senses seems self-evident, even though the human imagination is closed to most of it.

My musings on dog sensibility have been a lot like the walks themselves: occasional and fairly restricted, exploring no more than could be covered by a circular route in about an hour. Colin Dayan’s With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Columbia University Press) is a much more comprehensive exploration -- the work of a mind that slips the leash of genre or narrow specialization at every opportunity

The author, a professor of humanities and of law at Vanderbilt University, makes sharp turns and intuitive leaps that are, at times, unexpected and disconcerting. She published parts of the book in The Boston Review and other journals as essays of diverse kinds (memoir, reportage, criticism, political commentary, etc.) but with continuities and themes developing across the differences in framework and voice. Generalization seems hazardous with such a hybrid text, but here goes anyway.

Dayan refers to “those of us who believe that the distinction between human and nonhuman animals is unsustainable.” She takes the experience of toggling between human and canine awareness -- as with trying to imagine walking the dog from the four-legged perspective -- as a given. It is basic to the relationship between the two species that has developed from tens of thousands of years of cohabitation.

Humans and dogs read each other’s minds, in effect, or at least we try -- and anyone who lives with or around dogs for very long knows that a real zone of intersubjectivity emerges from the effort. A degree of anthropomorphism is probably always involved, but we get around it a little in moments of recognizing, and respecting, the dog’s own capacities.

“Dogs live on the track between the mental and the physical,” Dayan writes, “and sometimes seem to tease out a near-mystical disintegration of the bonds between them. What would it mean to become more like a dog? How might we come up against life as a sensory but not sensible experience? We all experience our dogs’ unprecedented and peculiar attentiveness. It comes across as an exuberance of a full heart. Perhaps this is what the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards meant when he emphasized a physical rather than a moral conversion. He knew that the crux of divinity in earthbound entities lay in the heart’s ‘affections.’”

The movement within that paragraph -- between metaphysical categories and the ordinary dog owner’s intuitions, with the dismantling of dichotomies raising moral implications which then, even more sharply, plunge into the sphere of theology -- presents in miniature what the book does on a much larger scale. At the same time, Dayan’s thinking is grounded in concrete particulars, including issues around a particular variety of dog, the pit bull terrier, which appears to have become the contemporary, secular embodiment of diabolical menace. In some places they are very nearly the target of a campaign of extermination.

Not so coincidentally, perhaps, it is African-American residents of housing projects and poor white Southerners whose pit bulls are most likely to be confiscated and destroyed. Video of the police killing poor or homeless people’s dogs, whatever the breed, seems to be its own genre on YouTube. (I am willing to take her word for it.) At the same time, an association between impoverished or collapsing cities and feral dog packs has become a commonplace in journalism, while a number of directors have used the roaming dog as a character or scenic element in recent films.

It’s tempting to say that Dayan does for dogs what Melville did for whales: tracking the social roles and symbolic frameworks built up around them and depicting them at the intersection between cosmic order and human frailty, while also giving them (dogs and whales alike) due recognition as animals with worlds of their own, which we humans impinge upon. That description may intrigue some people while doubtless putting off at least as many. So be it, but I’ll say that With Dogs on the Edge of Life was one of the most memorable books I’ve had the chance to read this year.

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#IHEreaderschoice: And the Winner Is ...

Inside Higher Ed is pleased to announce that The Poems of T.S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Johns Hopkins University Press), is the winner of the first #IHEreaderschoice award for the university press book of 2015 that would make the best holiday gift for someone in academe.

More than 300 books were nominated on Twitter and Facebook, and more than 1,350 votes were cast. Inside Higher Ed will now conduct a drawing of those who voted for the winning book and we'll be shipping copies of it to five of the voters. Watch Twitter to see the winners announced. The book will also be on display at the Inside Higher Ed booth at the Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, Texas, early next year.

Runners-up (in order): The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation, by Darrel Wanzer-Serrano (Temple University Press); In the Name of Editorial Freedom: 125 Years at the Michigan Daily, edited by Stephanie Steinberg (University of Michigan Press); Letters to Santa Claus, by the Elves (Indiana University Press); How to Write a Thesis, by Umberto Eco (MIT Press). Scott McLemee wrote about How to Write a Thesis for Inside Higher Ed in March.

This was our first #IHEreaderschoice and we welcome suggestions on how to enhance the contest next year -- send ideas to Scott Jaschik.

Congratulations to all who entered and especially to the editors of The Poems of T.S. Eliot and Hopkins Press for their win. If you are still looking for last-minute holiday gifts for the academics in your life, check out the winners and all the entries at #IHEreaderschoice.

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Mandatory open-access publishing can impair academic freedom (essay)

As they have gained momentum over the past decade, the open access (OA) movement and its cousin, the Creative Commons licensing platform, have together done a tremendous amount of good in the world of scholarship and education, by making high-quality, peer-reviewed publications widely available both for reading and for reuse. 

But they have also raised some uncomfortable issues, most notably related to academic freedom, particularly when OA is made a requirement rather than an option and when the Creative Commons attribution license (CC BY) is treated as an essential component of OA.

In recent years, major American and European funding bodies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Research Councils UK have all instituted OA mandates of various types, requiring those whose research depends on their funding to make the resulting articles available on some kind of OA basis. A large number of institutions of higher education have adopted OA policies as well, though most of these (especially in the United States) only encourage their faculty to make their work openly accessible rather than requiring them to do so.

At the same time, Creative Commons licensing has emerged as a convenient way for authors to make their work not only publicly readable, but also reusable under far more liberal terms than copyright law would otherwise provide. When an author makes her work available under a CC-BY-NC-ND license, for example, this signals that the public is allowed to copy, redistribute, and republish that work for noncommercial purposes, though not to create derivative works without permission. 

The most liberal of these is the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY), which effectively assigns all of the exclusive prerogatives of the copyright holder to the general public, allowing anyone who so desires to copy, distribute, translate, create derivate works, etc., even for commercial purposes, as long as the author is given credit as creator of the original work.

Along with the great and undeniable benefits offered to the world of scholarship by the emergence of both OA and Creative Commons licensing, these programs and tools (like all programs and tools) also entail costs and unintended consequences, and have raised some uncomfortable issues. 

One such issue has to do with academic freedom. More and more publishers, funding agencies and academic institutions have begun not only requiring OA of their authors, but also adopting a definition of OA that requires CC BY licensing. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) which is easily the world's largest and most powerful OA publisher (producing more than 30,000 articles per year), does not permit its authors to use any license except CC BY, nor does BioMed Central.

In late 2014 both the Gates and the Ford Foundations announced that articles published as the result of research they underwrite must be published on an OA basis, to include a CC BY license granted to the public. The Research Councils UK -- which controls about $4.5 billion in research funding in the United Kingdom -- also requires OA/CC-BY whenever its block grants are used to fund article processing charges. Obviously, the more funding agencies and publishing venues require CC BY, the less choice is available to authors who rely on those funds or those venues.

What do authors think of this? When they are asked, the answer seems clear: many of them don't like it. When the publisher Taylor & Francis surveyed its authors in 2014 and asked them to give their opinions on a variety of licensing options, three times more respondents rated CC BY “least preferred” than rated it “most preferred” or “second preferred,” combined. When Nature left it to authors to choose a license for their OA work, 74 percent of them selected licenses more restrictive than CC BY. (Since making CC BY the default license earlier this year, however, Nature has found that authors leave the CC BY license in place 96 percent of the time.) Authors who have published under CC BY licenses have, in a couple of recently documented cases, been dismayed to find their work being repackaged and sold by commercial publishers with whom they would not have chosen to associate. 

The issue in such cases is not a loss of revenue, which the authors surely never expected to realize in the first place, but rather being forced into a publishing relationship not of their choosing -- as well, in some cases, as an objection to the commercial reappropriation of their work in principle. In some disciplines, particularly in the humanities, authors worry about translations of their work appearing under their names (in accordance with CC BY's attribution requirements) but without their vetting and approval. Sometimes authors who are anxious to see their work made as freely available to readers as possible balk at granting the world carte blanche to repurpose, alter, or resell their work without permission.

Those who advocate for OA with CC BY argue that there is no reason for authors to object to it: scholars and scientists (the argument goes) have already been paid for the work they're writing up, and since they have little if any expectation that their writings will generate additional revenue for them, why not make their work freely available to those who may be able to find ways to add value to them through reuse and “remixing,” and maybe even to profit from doing so? In any case (the argument continues), authors retain their copyright under a CC license, so what's the problem?

The problem, for many authors, is that their copyright becomes effectively meaningless when they have given away all of the prerogatives over their work that copyright provides. The right to make copies, to publish, to create derivative works, etc., are not the meaningful rights that the law gives to copyright holders -- after all, these are rights that the general public has in relation to works in the public domain. The meaningful right that the law provides the copyright holder is the exclusive (though limited) right to say how, whether, and by whom these things may be done with his work by others. 

So the question is not whether I can, for example, republish or sell copies of my work under CC BY -- of course I can. The question is whether I have any say in whether someone else republishes or sells copies of my work -- and under CC BY, I don't.

This is where it becomes clear that requiring authors to adopt CC BY has a bearing on academic freedom, if we assume that academic freedom includes the right to have some say as to how, where, whether, and by whom one's work is published. This right is precisely what is lost under CC BY. To respond to the question "should authors be compelled to choose CC BY?" with the answer "authors have nothing to fear from CC BY" or "authors benefit from CC BY" is to avoid answering it. The question is not about whether CC BY does good things; the question is whether authors ought to have the right to choose something other than CC BY.

In other words, the issue here that has a bearing on academic freedom is the issue of coercion. CC licenses that are freely chosen by authors are one thing, but when those licenses are imposed on authors by those who have power over their careers, we begin talking about a different set of issues. Such coercion exists on a spectrum, of course: when a powerful publisher says "We won't accept your work, regardless of its quality, unless you adopt CC BY," that represents one kind of coercion; when a funder says "We won't fund your research unless you promise to make the published results available under a CC BY license," that's a somewhat different kind. Both have emerged relatively recently.

To say that authors ought to be able to choose for themselves whether or not to adopt CC BY is not to oppose CC BY or to deny the very real benefits it offers. It is, rather, to suggest that retaining some say in how one's work may be reused is an important aspect of academic freedom, and that academic feedom matters. And one might go a step further and suggest that by refusing to fund a research proposal on the basis of its author's publishing plans (rather than on the proposal's intrinsic merits), or by refusing to publish an article based on its author's unwillingness to adopt CC BY (rather than on the article's intrinsic merits) we do a potentially serious disservice to the advancement of science and scholarship. 

Openness and reuse certainly do contribute importantly, even crucially, to the advancement of knowledge -- but they are not the only things that do, and when authors are denied funding or excluded from important publishing venues based not on the quality or significance of their work but rather on their willingness to comply with a particular model of dissemination and reuse, we introduce distortions into the system that have the potential to do damage even as they attempt to do good.

Perhaps those in the OA community who are confident in the attractiveness of CC BY, and in its lack of real costs and downsides to authors, should demonstrate that confidence by endorsing policies and programs that allow authors to choose for themselves. Educate them as to the issues, certainly; make the strongest possible case in favor of CC BY, absolutely. But then stand back and let authors decide for themselves whether or not they agree. 

Arguments backed up by coercion are always suspect; if they are as strong as those making them seem to believe, then coercion should not be necessary. Where coercion is shown to be necessary for widespread adoption, then perhaps that suggests the need for a more rigorous examination of costs and benefits.

Rick Anderson is associate dean for collections and scholarly communication at the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library.

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Time to Vote in #IHEreaderschoice

The nominations are now in for the 2015 #IHEreaderschoice contest for the best university press book for a holiday gift for someone in academe. Use the hashtag on Twitter and you'll see all the nominees -- winners will be determined by the number of "likes" (hearts these days).

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Survey finds growth in number of humanities books being published

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Study finds increase in number of new titles -- and their share of all new scholarly books.

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