From Library Babel Fish, July 31, 2013

A friend asked me on Twitter if the recent debate about whether to embargo dissertations wasn’t overblown, given it was prompted by a draft statement about giving students in some programs in one discipline a choice. Why all the fuss? I think the embargo debate, like the MOOC debate, has been about much more than dissertation licenses and the impact of MOOCs. These topics draw heat because they call on people’s assumptions, aspirations, anger, and anxieties about the future of academia. Which is to say our own futures.

A lot of claims and counterclaims have been made in the battle of #AHAgate, leaving us with some complex questions. Is the dissertation the author’s intellectual property, with all rights reserved, or does the university granting the degree have some claim on it? Or does ProQuest, or the world at large? What is scholarship worth and who decides? What choice do we have? Who is to blame?

That’s in addition to a lot of factual quibbles. Circle the right answer: Libraries do / do not avoid purchasing books based on open dissertations. Publishers do / do not reject book proposals based on open access dissertations. It’s a good thing / a disaster that my dissertation is open access.

Some claims are uninformed: “Of course access to dissertations should be free. That work was paid for by the public, so belongs to the public.” Um, no. If you got through your PhD without debt thanks to public funding, please don’t rub it in. It doesn’t work that way for historians.

And then there’s “This is the 21st century!” No argument there, but so what? And “Dissertations are dreary, unreadable exercises in making mountains out of molehills and nobody wants to read them anyway.” That’s a silly, facile generalization.

The one that surprised me the most: “ProQuest (or the university) made me sign something, so I guess they own the copyright.” I’m pretty sure you hold the copyright and granted ProQuest (and/or possibly your institution) a non-exclusive license to do whatever that license says they can do. Some argue that forcing copyright holders to put their work online essentially renders their copyright unexploitable and so is the same as taking the copyright. That’s debatable, but it’s a decision made by the program involved. Though libraries often have a role to play, they don’t make the rules, and sometimes arrangements for electronic deposit with ProQuest, including the language of the license, are made without the knowledge or input of the library.

What we saw with #AHAgate is the agitated flipping of a two-sided coin. We have the ability to share information globally at far less expense and much more quickly than ever before. As Clay Shirky famously said, the internet allows us to do “big things for love.” As millions of people have pointed out since, that all depends on having an income that pays the rent and allows enough leisure time to go around loving big things. As the old revenue models for publishing have faltered and new sources of news and entertainment have absorbed audience attention, writing is looking a lot like internships: something that seems to open doors and provide meritocratic opportunity, but is more often unpaid labor that not everyone can afford. It could be labor donated for love, or as a kind of intellectual venture capital, an investment in branding. In any case, “free time” like love, has a bitter ring to it if you’re piecing together several part-time jobs but still are at or below the poverty line, as so many faculty are these days.

Let’s flip that coin some more. Today, we don’t have to rely on gatekeepers. That means each scholar/author has to work hard at being noticed. Networks connect us and bring us together – or pit us against one another jousting for attention and its rewards. Education is a social good, education is a consumer good. Education can level the playing field. Or does it reproduce inequality and make it worse? We members of a discipline. We are on our own.

As John Warner pointed out, our culture is obsessed with superstars. We’ve traded in the idea of solidarity, of common cause, for a chance to develop our personal brands as entrepreneurs in hopes of scoring big. (A recent example of this opportunity rhetoric is Thomas Friedman’s claim that these days everyone can start a business, using as exhibit A a man who  was unemployed and couldn’t make the rent, so started renting out an air mattress, which turned into Airbnb – and so can you!  The solution to unemployment and poverty? Start a business. Isn’t life grand.) Warner linked to a though-provoking piece by Jonathan Rees, provocatively titled “To Be a Superstar is an Act of Aggression.” Doling out rewards on the basis of individual competition is assumed to be the way of the world, even if it means there are a few winners and a lot of losers. Once research became primarily a job of promoting and protecting one’s professional interests, we lost something really valuable.

Too often, scholarship is described as our property. We buy job security (or gamble on the chance we’ll get job security one day) by exchanging it with publishers for prestige, or we give it away because it will build our brand and the metrics will be awesome. Or we don’t actually own it because the taxpayers funded it, which makes it public property.

What gets overlooked is the possibility that knowledge isn’t property, but is rather a common good. We work together to create something bigger than any of us. Culture, according to Jonathan Lethem (and his sources) is a mix of market and gift economy, with market on the ascendency. “The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange,” he writes, “is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.” He argues that nothing is truly original, that we inevitably share and remix our words and ideas and can’t claim them as ours alone. “Honoring the commons is not a matter of moral exhortation. It is a practical necessity.”

We have a lot of practical necessities in our personal lives: a place to sleep, enough to eat, a sense that we will be safe tomorrow, that our children will be okay. When those are threatened, holding tight to our words and ideas, when they cost us so much, is natural. But it’s also deeply unnatural. Why is it more valuable to turn 90,000 words that were built on other people’s words into books that may sell 200 copies when those ideas could be available (though in rougher shape) to a much wider audience? It’s not just that the old ways of sharing information are broken or backward, it’s that the old ways of sharing education, of sharing our aspirations for a better world, have been dismantled, restructured, made leaner, more productive, more like a business. Students pay more, their teachers are paid less, and the “practical necessity” to invest our resources in making scholarship more widely available without lots of entrepreneurial hustling and bare-knuckled competition seems impossible.

But making that happen is kind of what libraries are for. They may seem like soulless vending machines – punch in your code, grab the article that slides out, and bang on it when it doesn’t work – but the idea of a library, like the idea of a university, is much more than that. It’s a shared endeavor to understand and make things better that this damaged world needs badly.


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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.