Thursday, August 9, 2007

Echoes from the dance of the elephants

Echoes from the dance of the elephants: A few days ago, I learned that I was the author of a chapter in a book whose existence I had previously not suspected, and that as a result, a medium-sized European publishing conglomerate had paid a not-entirely-trivial sum of money to a much larger European publishing conglomerate. This makes me feel, in a small way, like an athlete who learns that he has been traded from one team to another. Except that I don't have to move. [...] his sort of publishing has become a strange ceremonial dance among business conglomerates, the libraries of research universities, and the governments who pay the library costs. It plays almost no role at all in actual scientific and scholarly communication, at least in the fields that I work in. [...] The libraries who buy these publications are mostly, in the end, funded by taxpayers. Certainly in the U.S., the budgets of university research libraries form part of the overhead that universities charge on government research grants (which of course also pay for much if not most of the research whose results are published or reprinted in these volumes). In general, research libraries are wonderful institutions, more than worth what they cost; but the process that we're talking about is driving their costs way up, with little benefit to anyone except the publishing conglomerates. (Via Language Log.)

A couple of months ago, I linked to a critique of academic libraries by Clay Shirky:

Academic libraries, which in earlier days provided a service, have outsourced themselves as bouncers to publishers like Reed-Elsevier; their principal job, in the digital realm, is to prevent interested readers from gaining access to scholarly material.

Adam Corson-Finnerty from the Penn Libraries commented on my post, criticizing that "slam" on academic libraries. The Penn Libraries are outstanding, and they have been very progressive in their development and adoption of appropriate technologies, but all academic libraries have to seriously ask themselves whose interests they are serving when they continue "business as usual" with the rent-seekers in the academic publishing cartel. The example Mark discusses shows another facet of the problem. The only reason Routledge publishes such useless collections is that a few hundred sleepwalking academic librarians are willing to write a big check for a very strained acquisitions budgets. If any faculty member asks their library to buy such a wasteful collection, the librarian should push back, awkward as that might be. Libraries need to not only embrace open access, institutional archiving, and self-archiving, but lead by example and persuasion. The Penn Libraries have done more than most in these areas, but we all need to do more to retake control of the diffusion of our intellectual production.

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