From Library Babel Fish, November 8, 2012

I get a little testy when every attempt at developing a new way to share scholarship is required to pass a sustainability test. What we’re doing now isn’t sustainable. So why should new things have to prove they can do something our current system cannot provide? I’m all for thinking through the implications and having a some kind of plan. I’m not in favor of abandoning ideas because we can’t figure out how to put them to a test that the status quo has already failed. Miserably.

Likewise, I get frustrated when people reject open access publications because they aren’t “high quality” – not acknowledging that a large percentage of what is published traditionally is pretty rubbishy. The fact that we pay for it doesn’t make it good; the fact that we don’t pay to read it doesn’t make it bad.

I feel grumpy when I see publishers that disdained open access suddenly embracing it, trying to make us think they will take good care of it for us by charging huge author-side fees. No thank you. You already messed this up. We can’t afford to keep up your profit margins.

I get irritated when I hear “we can’t do anything until the tenure and promotion system changes.” It’s not going to change unless we change it. And why the hell don’t we, if it’s not working?

I become annoyed when we equate publications that few can access and even fewer read with “productivity.” Why did we decide our worth could be measured in this clumsy way?

And don’t get me started on the flawed but ubiquitous impact factor.

Ultimately what makes me fractious and ornery is that we are so caught up in spending our energies doing things traditionally, but with a crazy inflation rate (it takes a wheelbarrow of publications these days to buy a loaf of job security), that we fail to communicate the value of shared knowledge, of the benefits of ideas as inexhaustible public goods. We don’t have confidence that our scholarship can be an agent of change. We only see it as a metric of personal industry, a smalltime currency used by members of our little disciplinary fiefdoms, of value only within our walled gardens.

The printing press was more than a disruptive technology or a new business model for copying stuff. True, the printing press was a great copy machine, but it had a more profound impact. It made it possible for us to discover our cultural past by making classical texts widely available in uniform editions. It gave us more time to write new texts because we didn’t have to painstakingly copy the old ones before they could be shared. The printing press enabled us to compare and share ideas and spread them further than ever before.

So why did we decide to go backward? Why do we deliver this stuff we do to a system that will lock it up with licenses and copyrights and firewalls to prevent unauthorized access? Why do we work so hard for a deliberately tiny audience? Why did we lose faith in the power of ideas as a force for good?

“Force for good.” Yeah, I know, I’m a hopeless romantic given to highfalutin’ statements that sound like they belong inside balloons in a comic strip. But Thomas Jefferson, who knew something about enlightenment, wrote,

if nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

This world of ours needs more light.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.