The Trouble with Trying to Stand on The Shoulders of Giants

Standing-on-GiantsIt has long been thought that academia provided a refuge from the sordid world of business. But when a Nobel prize-winning academic says that if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t publish, you know something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Laureate Peter Higgs (of Higgs-Boson fame) told the Guardian:

“Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”

The whole point of publishing is to share knowledge. But academic publishers don’t seem to have received that memo. For the past two decades, publishers like Reed Elsevier, John Wiley and Springer, who got in on a good gig early, have propped up ridiculous profit margins by slowly squeezing non-profit publishers out of the picture. In the process, they’ve turned academic publishing into a hamster wheel that stresses quantity over quality. Most academic research is rushed out to a limited audience that has been designated as the ones who “count” and the rest of us have to pony up ridiculous sums to access an article that lies on the far side of a barricaded pay wall. Academic publishing is one of the few bastions that has managed to resist the digital tide of declining transaction costs.

I love academic research. I am a big believer in scientific inquiry. I am an avid reader of blogs like Science Daily and Big Think. But 9 times out of 10 (or 99 times out of a hundred), when you actually read an academic paper (if you can get your hands on one), it’s hopelessly mired in academic jargon and the actual findings fall disappointingly short of remarkable. What should be a reflection of the best of who we are has turned into a sordid little business run by shortsighted people who are only in it for a quick buck. If one of the pre-eminent physicists of our generation would rather become a used car salesman or worse yet, a marketer, than follow his passion, we know something is seriously wrong.

Google tried to remain true to the spirit of academic publishing when they introduced Google Scholar. I use Scholar a lot, and have found it very useful for accessing landmark papers from a few decades back that have managed to seep into the public domain. But if you use it to try to access more recent papers, you typically run headlong into one of the afore-mentioned pay walls. I tried to see how academics feel about Google Scholar and was amazed to find this quote from the McKinney Engineering Library blog at the University of Texas:

Google Scholar has an ambiguous status in the library and research world. Obviously, it is powered by the Google, which is kind of a dirty word in academic research. Also, the fact that it is free throws further suspicion on its quality, particularly when libraries pay lots of money for database access.”

WTF? Forget for a moment that Google is referred to as “the Google” – which I hope is a joke aimed at fellow Texan George W. Bush. Since when should knowledge be judged by the size of its price tag? Stewart Brand identified the disconnect 30 years ago when he said,

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

The rest of the world seems to have moved in the right direction. What the hell is the problem with academia?

If you’re not mad about this, you should be. The vast majority of academic research is funded directly by your tax dollars. Academic publishers don’t pay anyone for content. They have done nothing but agree to publish, which, in today’s world, costs virtually nothing. But somehow they still feel entitled to charge $50 to access an electronic version of an article. Reasonable profits are the right of an honest businessperson, but academic publishing doesn’t even come close to passing the “smell-test.”

One of the big Academic publishers, MacMillan, is at least considering loosening the drawstrings a touch. They’re lowering the drawbridge of their pay wall just a smidge by offering the ability to read and annotate articles on line. But academic publishing still has a long way to go before it approaches the accessibility that marks almost every other form of publishing in the digital world. So far for most researchers, the draw of being published in a prestigious journal has outweighed the idealism of openly publishing their work for all to see on a digital platform.

I suspect this is an area just waiting for disruption. I hope that the academics that are creating the content agree. It seems that academic publishing has been hiding in a previously overlooked nook that has escaped the relentless liberation of information driven by technology. But if MacMillan is feeling threatened enough to lower their defenses, however slightly, I suspect that the tide is beginning to turn. I, for one, thinks that day can’t come soon enough.

One thought on “The Trouble with Trying to Stand on The Shoulders of Giants

  1. Certainly, academia is mostly petty and narrow in the grander scheme of intellectual inquiry or the passionate pursuit of social justice. It also doesn’t pay off for the 95% who orbit around its pyramid scheme, making slave wages to prop up senior faculty and bloated administrations. For all of those reasons, I left. For anyone who wants free access to the whole shootin’ match (every book and journal in the world), it greatly helps to be married to a tenured faculty member, like I am. In practice, though, I very rarely ask. I’m too busy to plow through academic papers, esp. considering I’ve already gotten that out of my system. I believe there may be a middle ground. Depending on where you live and your motivation level, you can likely find some time of library access that you pay for, whether it’s in public libraries or by applying to be an “external researcher” of a major university for an all-you-can-eat annual fee in the hundreds of dollars. If these folks are willing to spend ten years working towards a PhD and fifteen years leading up to their significant published works, maybe it’s material that isn’t particularly accessible to non-specialists anyway, so figuring out how to become an external fellow or researcher of a university, in exchange for journal access and the like, is probably a reasonable trade-off. After all, we already *have* intellectual chaos and free information everywhere else. Peer-reviewed journals and so on may be a specialized taste but also a counterbalance against a world of surface impressions and snap judgments by non-experts.

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