Sunday, June 03, 2012

Piracy and academic publishing

We all need to publish. It's part of the job description: The knowledge we, the scholars, are gathering, needs to be distributed. We do quite a bit of that through teaching, but it's not enough. Society not just expects us to publish, it demands it.

This demand is institutionalised through several different structures. The different roads to degrees, jobs, titles and opportunities are all paved with journal articles, the stepping stones are monographies and the embellishments all come in edited anthologies. The Universities are rewarded by the publishing of their scholars, and so they reward us, and the publications are used for public relations and for media attention, which again covers another part of our job: that responsibility to participate in the public debate. Research and learning is ok, but we have to demonstrate that we have done so.

There are of course rules to publishing. This blog doesn't give me any points. I have had (and still have) great pleasure from it. It has brought me in touch with some incredible people over the years, and in a few cases have been immediately useful. But it circumvents the structures that puts value to academic publishing. It's not peer-reviewed, it has no editor, no isbn-number and no rejection rate. It is, in short, not an academic journal. Academic journals is where it all happens, where publishing becomes elitist and important, and, for everybody but the scholars, where the money is. Some of them get paid both coming and going: Universities pay to have the articles of their scholars published, and then they pay to display the same journals (and articles) in the libraries, physical and digital. For a small university the price of journals is through the roof: there's no way we can afford it all.

And so we end up pirating.

When I am in a library with full access, I download like crazy. You can spot the experienced scholars in a big research library or inside a flush university network by the suddenly intense look of a treasure hunter about to download two or three or five years of journal volumes, and on the backchannel of conferences there will be a quiet whisper among friends about who grabs what, while we're still connected. Now, this is a pretty legitimate "piracy" - after all, we are supposed to exchange knowledge. The piracy university libraries targets is the stealing of journals by stealing student emails and passwords, and then grabbing volumes of journals for resale. Considering how extremely expensive it can be to buy one article - Jstore often asks for 25$ or more for 10-12 pages - this quickly becomes very profitable.

I am mostly a law-abiding person, and I couldn't hack Jstor even if I really tried, but I do get a little bit annoyed with the practice of making us pay both coming and going. As it is, scholars and their universities handle all the costs of the initial production. We are talking about years of work in many cases, and decades of education and study. The scholars write the material up, often presenting it at a few conferences on the way, to get feedback. This means it's already been through one or two peer-review processes before a version reaches a journal. This means at least 5 people have been directly involved in creating and editing the materials, before it's even sent to the journal.

Scholarly journal editors often work for free, and the peer-reviewers certainly do. We read and give feedback because we know we are in a loop of favours returned. I read for you, you read for me, and in the end we all get peer-reviewed. The double-blind process stops the most immediate exchange of favours, but there are still levels at which we are mutually dependent. Anyway, the journal itself does more or less decent copy-editing (often lacking, something that skews academic publishing heavily in favour of native English speakers), some design, some legal work as to registering the materials with the relevant libraries or central archives, printing and online publishing, and a minimal amount of advertising. And the sales, of course, where the largest revenues come from libraries, libraries at the universities where the same scholars who wrote the articles have to buy their own material back.

In other discussions about piracy, content producers point to the poor creative souls who try to make a living by writing their souls out, only to be ripped off by the pirates. In academia, pirates just can't steal anything more from us. We already pay, often twice, for content we have produced and the universities and research institutions have financed. And yes, we get something back, but not from the publishers. Hence, I don't hesitate to mail an article to a colleague or a student. I dip into the stored secrets of my hard-disk, and hand articles out, mine and others.

I do feel guilty though, in a looking-over-my-shoulder kind of way, but not because I think I am doing something bad. More in a slightly paranoid fashion, as if I expect Big Brother to look over my shoulder, not in the reality show version, but the Orwellian Science Fiction of 1984.

And now, back to downloading articles.


Unknown said...

What a great article, I couldn't have said it better myself. Check out and for other interesting perspectives. Your admission of your internal sharing habits is comforting, but don't you think there may be a greater moral issue here? The raw fibers of collective human knowledge is walled by economic factors, what does this say for differential access, equity, development of countries, free thought? I would personally like to see some sort of systematic attempt to build a database, with share-ratio and requests systems like is found with private torrent databases. What's your opinion on this? Of course I'd never attempt to build it myself, I don't know enough about online security to incur the wrath of brilliant computer scientists and lawyers etc.

balkanization said...

OK, I am coming to this post, and even to this subject a bit later than most. And open sounds so good. But, I need to think this metaphor of a the academic with an eye-patch and peg-leg through. As an academic, I flourish to the extent that I can show a difference an added-value between what is already available to the public and what I can provide. As a historian, I flourish to the extent that I can (i) show something that either was not generally out there or was but hadn’t really been noticed; (ii) organize it in a way that it makes sense, helps others, makes us feel more knowledgeable, etc. And, as you note, I do this by trawling, ransacking, thieving from archives, etc. The more whatever I have found is easily found by everybody else in the world, the less need for me. Pirates only exist, certainly smugglers only exist, to the extent there is a difference in values out there (pirates profit by asserting something is theirs and selling, when in fact it was someone else's, so I am shifting the metaphor slightly). For example, if I smuggle brandy because it is prohibited to be imported, I can charge more the more the State patrols making sure that very few can import brandy, or, if they do allow it but charge a duty on it, the duty is my profit margin. We return to my home as an academic, which is a university, with a university library at its center. We sell the university experience (and I am America so we do have to sell it or cease to exist, because public funding of universities is increasingly a joke) as something they cannot get elsewhere. This makes less sense if all the material we have amassed is no longer gated. And what is my role? Well, I can certainly find better stuff faster than most others. But what about my students?; there will be less a role for them. And ultimately less a role for the academy. Neither smuggling nor piracy are social crimes like gleaning which help those most in need. And, remember that smugglers also called themselves Free Traders. You can rest assured that the capitalists will figure a way to win, long before the academics.