The old and the new in publishing

Jacques Barzun as an editor. The amazing experience of a virtual beginner in book-writing, coached through several re-writes by one of the premier scholars of the 20th century.

I see from looking over the correspondence that he asked me to begin the entire book again four times. He told me unequivocally the first time and was circumspect enough during the next attempts to outwit any inclination to throw the damn thing out the window. I suppose I employed some self-help quirks to deal with the punishment. In my mind he became a tormenting suitor determined to win: nuisance notes in the mail, calling at all hours, banging and yelling at the door, leaving me querulous, achy, and distraught. I hated him and I loved him and there was no way to rid myself of the affliction without finishing the job properly.

A Nature special edition on the future of publishing. Something for everyone. h/t Peter Klein (CR Scholar No 7) at Organizations and Markets.

For example, the future of the scientific paper.

Henry Oldenburg created the first scientific journal in 1665 with a simple goal: apply an emerging communication technology — the printing press — to improve the dissemination of scholarly knowledge. The journal was a vast improvement over the letter-writing system that it eventually replaced. But it had a cost: no longer could scientists read everything someone sent them; existing information filters became swamped.

To solve this, peer and editorial review emerged as a filter, becoming increasingly standardized in the science boom after the Second World War. This peer-review system applies community evaluation of scholarly products by proxy: editorial boards, editors and peer reviewers are nominated to enact representative judgements on behalf of their communities.

Now we are witnessing the transition to yet another scholarly communication system — one that will harness the technology of the Web to vastly improve dissemination. What the journal did for a single, formal product (the article), the Web is doing for the entire breadth of scholarly output. The article was an attempt to freeze and mount some part of the scholarly process for display. The Web opens the workshop windows to disseminate scholarship as it happens, erasing the artificial distinction between process and product.

Over the next ten years, the view through these open windows will inform powerful, online filters; these will distil communities’ impact judgements algorithmically, replacing the peer-review and journal systems.

Amazon ebooks, the joy of zero cost vanity publishing to earn 35% or 70% royalties on almost zero cost books. And the joy of html coding as well!!

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7 Responses to The old and the new in publishing

  1. Filbert

    Thanks for the ebooks link Rafe.
    I am not a very e-savvy chappie however as fate would have it I am currently having a digital book of my oil paintings published and Amazon could be an excellent way to reach a potential mass market.
    So thank you for bringing it to my attention.
    I shall look into it.

  2. I love zero-cost vanity publishing! I have used, which works OK for me.

    But yes, the new Gutenberg thing is fascinating and potentially devastating for our bloated universities in particular. I wrote about this in Quadrant last October, and if Sinc will let me, I’ll cut and paste the relevant paras here:

    Changes in the world outside the grantosphere

    … Then there is the electronic publishing revolution, which can only be good for research: it gives researchers many more choices about where they publish, and to work out ways of concentrating their energies in specialised fields, because no one is going to be able to read “all” the literature on a particular topic. Ranking journals has becoming increasingly difficult, and it’s actually quite amusing for someone like me (who believes in absolute truth) to see diehard relativists trying to define some set of objective standards for research publications.

    The impact of all this on Australia’s already tiny and struggling hard-copy academic book market has been devastating. The presses, even the university ones, are now on the back foot: they will take on fewer and fewer academic publications that are not paid for in advance. It is only a matter of time before universities accept that under these conditions, having a book published by a commercial publisher is no guarantee of excellence. All it indicates is that the author could afford it, which is the vanity press principle.

    Sadly, at present universities continue to prop up a system that is becoming increasingly outdated, and also to prop up their own publishing arms—books published solely online, even if they meet all the other criteria for a “book”, are not eligible for government kickbacks.[24] If you can get a grant to pay for the publication of your book in hard copy via the university’s press, it is eligible, but if you can do it yourself for almost no cost (and save some trees), no one gets anything. The university’s attitude seems to be that if you can’t persuade someone else to pay for it, it’s not worth doing.

    And perhaps it is this attitude which most of all needs to change, among individuals as well as institutions. What are you really in this game for—to do good research and then put your work out there in the public domain so that others can read it? Or is your real priority to spin straw into gold for your university masters, making sure that you only publish in the journals they have approved for you, and that you ensure that you get someone else—such as the Australian taxpayer—to pay for your at-best-peripheral research project?

  3. Aynsley Kellow

    Thanks for posting this. I missed it first time around and will read carefully your whole piece with interest when I have time.

    I think another issue is the whole peer review process for scholarly journals (especially in the more politically sensitive natural sciences like climate change). The traditional peer review process assumes that the kind of social networks facilitated by electronic communications, cheap air travel and even the bringing together of cognate scientists into international institutions such as the IPCC do not exist.

    Not just Khunian groups defending positions through careful selection of referees, etc but outright Feyerabendian behaviour to ‘win’ contests by fair means or foul is now rife. The latter then includes the use of effectively ‘crowdsourcing’ techniques to despatch the ‘white corpuscles’ of the immune system of prevailing paradigms to sites where infectious ideas have appeared.

    Combine this with the fact that many of the activist scientists think it unnecessary to disclose their political preferences and affiliations, and you have virtuous corruption. (Andrew Wakefield’s devastating effect on measles vaccinations – now causing havoc in Wales – was a much a result of his beliefs as his financial links to the alternative medicine interests at stake).

    The merging ideas of open review and eventual ‘acceptance’ after web-based scrutiny (or something like it) with full disclosure of all interests is probably the way of the future. A sort of Steve McIntyre on steroids – or vast hordes of him.

    Popper would approve!

  4. Aynsley –

    I have long had grave doubts about ‘peer review’ since I saw it being abused in the 1990s by an academic journal which asked me to review a profoundly flawed paper – which was then published with almost no corrections, because the author was a mate of the editor.

    In another place I’ve also commented on the smallness of the history world in Australia, and the adverse effect this can have on peer review there.

    I know that academic historians struggle under the dual burdens of the need to publish continually and to obtain as many grants as possible, even though they have nothing like the time to carry out the projects. I know that those who evaluate grant submissions are the “usual suspects”. I know that archival research is time-consuming, and that it’s much easier to get places if you know how to use media sources and create a bit of spin for yourself. I know that the peer review process for Australian journal publications is often frustratingly sluggish, and is used by some historians as an opportunity for invective against the author of a piece (whose identity, in the small and closed shop of Australian history, can often be guessed pretty accurately), making recommendations which, if acted on, would change its principal subject matter and orientation to the area in which the peer reviewer, rather than the author, is interested. I know that after the personal scalding some historians received in the “history wars” there was a general closing of ranks, and that there is now a vastly increased sensitivity to anything outside the walls which might cause a repeat performance.

  5. PS Aynsley, this is telling tales out of school, but the editor of the journal was at the time a UTas employee, as was I …

  6. Aynsley Kellow

    The ‘clubbiness’ of the historians in Australia was in evidence with the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise assessing research quality. They tended to come out as ‘better than world class’ despite many of them published predominantly on Australia. How is that judged?

    Part of the answer first time around lay in the rankings of journals. To reflect the problem of research on Australia, several Australian journals were (appropriately) pushed up to an A ranking (one short of A*). But the Australian Journal of Politics and History was pushed to A, which meant that our main journal in Political Science, the Australian Journal of Political Science, could not also be an A. So it was pushed to the Field of Research classification ‘Policy and Administration’ as an A. This meant that the Australian Journal of Public Administration was pushed to a B. In the ISI rankings, AJPA outranks both of them, and in the Google Scholar metrics it is in the top 20 in its FOR (#17).

    The gaming of the system was quite remarkable.

    I should add that I have published in all three, so I have no particular axe to grind here.

    Astronomy was a real eye-opener: average score 4.2 first time up (4 is above world class). This despite the fact that Australia comes in 7th in the best international ranking system. It gets a high ranking through geography and a system that does not distinguish between authorship and coauthorship. If you want to want to study the Milky Way, you have to come to the Southern Hemisphere, which means lots of collaboration (and coauthorship) on the leading papers for Australian astronomers. It says very little about actual quality.

  7. dragnet

    I bought a Jacques Barzun book “From Dawn to Decadence”back in January at second hand store and its excellent! Had never heard of Jacques Barzun prior to that but subsequently gather that he is on the right side of the trenches.

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