A Waterloo for Publishing or for the University?

Cathy Davidson raised a series of issues in her reaction to a lawsuit known as Cambridge University Press, et al. v. Patton et al.

“My larger point?  We are in a confusing and damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t moment for publishing.  Scholarly publishing loses money.  Scholars who do not publish (at present) lose careers.  How do we balance these complex and intertwined issues in a sane way?  That is our question.”

Jim Groom has some thoughts on one aspect of this question — the issue of credit, or reputation, generated by journal publication:

“And, often times, but not always, that class [of author] is accompanied by three letters after their name and a long list of publications in similar journals which often, but not always, gives them entrè into the journal in the first place. Is this necessarily bad? No. Does it help certain ideas circulate to a particular audience? Yes. Are we putting too much power in the hands of these journals by reacting this way to the idea of credit? Absolutely.”

And as a result of highly valuing publishing in journals, we have created a system that is producing an avalanche of low-quality research.

Cathy’s question makes me think of the work of physicist A. Garrett Lisi, who is working outside the traditional academe system and who’s practice gave me insight to understand other ways of thinking about credit/reputation and also about gathering feedback for learning from a community:

“Lisi is developing social and intellectual capital by his strategy of working in public, and has posted a “pre-print” of some of his work in the highly visible High Energy Physics – Theory section of arXiv entitled ‘An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.’

“The Wikipedia entry on Lisi’s paper gives a picture of how the work has generated social capital and become a focus of theoretical debate. The paper has been accumulating peer reviews (in the form of blog posts) and a number of citations including in refereed Physics journals as well as comments on the social news website Reddit.com.”

So, I think Cathy is pointing us to a multi-faced conversation about moving beyond the University (see John Seely Brown or Charles Ledbetter or Clay Shirkey) each of whom is exploring forces that I think will probably address Cathy’s “damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t moment” by rendering traditional publishers in academe irrelevant.

In her post Cathy says

“Shouldn’t we be teaching the genre [scholarly monograph] to our undergraduates (because we believe it is intrinsically worthy enough to determine someone’s career in the academy) as an estimable form? … [If we] require at least one scholarly monograph in every English class, … we show respect to the genre we say that we live by and we give back something to the publishers who, right now, are expected to publish our work but who experience abysmal sales of it.”

Here, I think Cathy’s comment brings academic publishing into the national conversation about university accountability to stakeholders (the students and those investing in them). Molly Corbett Broad wrote in the Chronicle about the political landscape for accreditation and accountability “The administration has already indicated a willingness to take action when it believes that higher-education institutions are not adequately serving students’ interests.” (alas it is “premium content” that you may not be able to access) I think Corbett and Shirkey are talking about forces that may render more than just traditional academic publishing irrelevant.

It strikes me that the scholarly monograph, as a discipline for the mind, could be useful, but it might not be a form “worth studying in every English class.” It might be more useful for students to be developing skills in peer-to-peer pedagogies, based in forms like blogs and wikis, that operate in a context of information abundance rather than to be studying a form based on information scarcity and expensive publication; a form that will not be used by most students in their future careers.

Why do I focus on credit/reputation and legitimate peripheral participation rather than the academic monograph in a conversation about accountability for learning outcomes? Because, I think discovering conversations, contributing and getting feedback are important aspects of peer-to-peer learning beyond the university. Good feedback is a tool for growth, both for the author and for the community of lurkers (see John Seely Brown on legitimate peripheral participation.)

As to Cambridge University Press, et al. v. Patton et al., I think it will be a passing blip, swept away by much larger forces transforming learning.

PS. And thinking about feedback and peer-to-peer learning is why I’m posting this in my blog  (  )  and then cross-posting it as a comment in Cathy’s blog at HASTAC. HASTAC’s blogs do not appear to support Trackback, so  I can’t comment to Cathy in my blog, and consequently I need to post a comment in hers. Which means I need to create a HASTAC identity (see these objections to creating accounts everywhere). Further, a HASTAC comment does not track back to the people I cite – making it even harder for them to discover and join the conversation.

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