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From Conversations to Things
December 2, 2013 - 8:07pm

Last week I was thinking about how librarians think of knowledge as a collection of things and faculty in the disciplines think about it as a conversation among people. This morning I realized, thinking about the Georgia State University e-reserves lawsuit and the ways nations are negotiating the limits and latitudes of fair use in the classroom, that publishers, like librarians, tend to think of scholarship in terms of things. Librarians do it because we have had to take care of things and provide access to them. Publishers do it because the sale of things (or the licensing of things) is how they pay their bills and, in some cases, make their profits.

Managing things is complicated for libraries, and each academic library spends a small fortune and a great deal of staff time setting up software that enables library users to track down texts they know about or discover material that matches their interests. Librarians also need to know under what terms we can share a book or article and with whom (and apply locks and combinations accordingly). We need metrics to know whether things are actually getting used so that when it’s time for renewal we can decide whether to pay for continuing access to the most in-demand things – and decide what things we will stop subscribing to or not purchase in order afford the increased cost of what we keep. It’s thing-management that never ends, since content can change in mid-subscription as publishers pull out of package deals or new publications are added to them. No wonder we get so obsessed with things.

Scholars and scientists write up new research as a contribution to an ongoing conversation, and send these contributions through disciplinary channels – presentations at annual conferences, posters, articles for journals that record those conversations, or books from university presses that pay attention to and document them. The publication process turns those contributions to conversation into things. Publishers acquire either first publication rights to these things or (more commonly) all rights by requiring the author to transfer copyright to them. In order to reenter the conversational state, these things must then be purchased or licensed by a library or an individual. In some situations, additional payment is made for the right to use an extract of one thing in another thing, or for the right to assign the thing as a course reading. A new wrinkle is for authors (or their funders) to ransom a thing’s freedom by paying a publisher up front to make it available to anyone with an Internet connection. Because revenue is tied to exclusive rights attached to things, publishers have a vested interest in limiting the circulation of these things to those who have paid for the right to access them, or in collecting enough money to cover their costs (and profits, if they are used to them) up front.

Publications as things are valuable to scholars. A scholar’s place in a conversation is most clearly marked with things that are tagged with their name. It mattered so much to Niels Bohr, for example, that Lise Meitner be credited with being the first to understand that atoms could be split that he announced her insight at a conference in early 1939, knowing that she wouldn’t have the opportunity to publish that idea formally before it began to spread like a, well, chain-reaction. Giving her credit by tagging that idea with her name didn’t work entirely; her former research partner was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering nuclear fission, even though when he published those findings he had no idea what they meant. (Physicists remember where the credit belongs, nonetheless.) This act of making one's name by tagging publications can get quite elaborate. The ritual dances around first authorship is a case in point. Even when the work is collaborative and search engines don’t care about the order of authors’ names, being first has curiously potent reputational value. But it only has value if that thing is circulated, commented on, and folded into other conversations. Its thingness is important for CVs and for name recognition, but it doesn't exist if it isn't shared.

In the past, scholarly publications were primarily associated with disciplines, which are formalized conversations, and still scholars tend to think in social terms – which society or association is responsible for a journal, who is on the editorial board. When scholars sign over their copyrights, they tend to see it as a formality and believe that expression of ideas is still theirs. They do this so that the thing they created and tagged with their name can take the conversation in a new direction or enrich it in some way.

Or they do it because they need to demonstrate that they are productive and that they belong to the right clubs. Journal impact factors tend to determine which clubs are the right ones to belong to, even though a journal’s impact factor can't calulate the worth of an article published in the journal. (Why scientists and scholars who should know better consistently make this error is beyond me.) This is where the conversation ceases and the worker bees become committed to producing things. The thingness of what they produce is all that matters. Who has time for conversation when individual productivity is what counts?

It has been nearly two decades since John Ziman warned us that when public knowledge becomes intellectual property, the disinterested search for truth is bound to be compromised. Individual gain becomes more important than sustaining a conversation that depends on listening at least some of the time and on being able to build upon one another’s ideas without negotiating rights and payment for each use. Ziman was particularly worried about how this transformation of knowledge into property would alter what questions get asked and how they would be addressed. In an era when libraries acquired materials important to their communities, negotiating rights and paying for access was not a major hindrance to conversation. But as libraries become merely bill payers and publishers the owners and curators of knowledge, we’ve seen the value of public knowledge retreat in the face of private property and individual productivity. 

If by “open access” we simply mean shifting costs from readers to authors, retaining the value of ideas as things, we will not solve this problem. What can we do to advance knowledge, not just careers?

 

 

 

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