The Real Alternative

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Philosophy is useless, theology is worse?

Some older readers might recognize the title/lyric from a 1980s Dire Straits tune, “Industrial Disease.”

That sentiment might seem somewhat cynical but, in a way, I can see where Dire Straits was coming from. When I wrote about the social thinker Michel Foucault in my PhD program, I could sense that some of the most powerful players in my life at the time either didn’t give a damn or just didn’t understand.

One professor, so I heard through the grapevine, apparently said that “a university is a place where a professor gets a paycheck.” Well yes, but that’s pretty cynical. This guy ended up shafting me at the last minute, effectively trashing my chances at getting postdoc funding.

Pearls Before Swine – Pieter Brueghel via Wikipedia

Another professor was so incompetent that he got visibly upset at the very idea of my studying Michel Foucault. He thought Foucault’s work abrogated morality. I had to explain to this guy that Foucault was interested in how some moralities are highlighted while others are ignored at a given moment in history. Foucault wasn’t advocating the abandonment of morality.

The bottom line?

Even academics can be incredibly callous, uncaring or just uninformed. However, that doesn’t mean we should give up and stop looking at society in intelligent ways. But be beware. A lot of people won’t get what you’re saying. And some might even try to turn your wisdom against you.

Didn’t someone else say this a long time ago?

Do not cast your pearls before swine…”

Jesus, of course, was talking more about holiness and spirituality. But I think his teaching applies to many fields, and sadly, to more than a few people today.


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Today’s Top Tweet X2 – Do we need a new game for a new era?

The Human Use of Human Beings

The Human Use of Human Beings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I first discovered The Conversation I was excited. I’m always looking for fresh material at, and The Conversation seemed to be a cornucopia of Creative Commons material.

However, only researchers actively employed or funded are allowed to contribute. So that means any second- or third-rate thinker who gets their job or funding through a potentially corrupt system of patronage can write there. But smart people who don’t get academic jobs or funding – because they’re too clean or different – can’t write there.

This shortcoming is pretty evident in these two tweeted articles. Sure, the articles contain a reasonable amount of fairly well written material. Academics, be they cronies, stooges or not, need to perform to some degree. But also present is the usual constriction of thought that most academic game players must adhere to or simply exhibit. And it’s that very constriction of thought that and intends to surpass.

Comment – I don’t believe we’ve ever had nonpartisan news. Different papers have always appealed to different markets.

Comment – Gosh. Back in high school we learned about checking sources and evaluating arguments. Just because someone uses the magical word “algorithm” doesn’t mean that it points to truth. This word is so common today. But it seems to mystify more than explain. Another case of human beings being duped by scientism?

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Academic print books are dying. What’s the future?

Donald Barclay, University of California, Merced

The print-format scholarly book, a bulwark of academia’s publish-or-perish culture, is an endangered species. The market that has sustained it over the years is collapsing.

Sales of scholarly books in print format have hit record lows. Per-copy prices are at record highs. In purely economic terms, the current situation is unsustainable.

So, what does the future look like? Will academia’s traditional devotion to print and legendary resistance to change kill off long-form scholarship? Or will academia allow itself to move from print-format scholarly books to an open-access digital model that could save, and very likely rejuvenate, long-form scholarship?

Sales down. Prices up

First, let’s look at some of the sales trends. Take the book-centric academic field of history as an example.

In 1980, a scholarly publisher could expect to sell 2,000 copies of any given history book. By 1990, that number had plummeted to 500 copies. And by 2005, sales of a little over 200 copies worldwide had become the norm.

From my own field – library and information studies – the numbers are no less bleak. The editor of a major academic publishing house confided to me this summer that, circa 1995, he could expect to sell 1,000 copies of even a ho-hum library studies book during its first year of publication. In 2015, an outstanding book in the field is considered doing well if it manages to sell 200 copies in its first year.

In a classic response to a downward spiral, publishers ended up raising prices of scholarly books. In 1980, in the field of history,the average price for a hard cover history book was US$22.78; by 2010, that price had almost quadrupled to $82.65.

Similar increases were seen in every other academic field. The average price of a hardcover book on the subject of religion went from $17.61 in 1980 to $80.88 in 2010. For education, the price climbed from $17.01 in 1980 to $177.59 in 2010.

Libraries losing buying power

Neither an anomaly or a bump in the road, this total market collapse is the result of a long-term trend from which the print-format scholarly book cannot recover.

A root cause for this market collapse is the loss of buying power among academic libraries, traditionally the biggest customer for printed scholarly books.

Libraries have been hit by a double economic whammy of beyond-inflationary increases in the cost of journal subscriptions and an ongoing drop in governmental support for higher education in the past few decades.

As a result, academic libraries have been forced to choose between maintaining their paid subscriptions to journals, the favored information resource of the STEM fields, and scholarly books, the workhorse of the humanities and interpretive social sciences.

Here are some numbers that tell the story of where academic libraries have chosen to put their money:

In the mid-1980s, the ratio of spending on journal subscriptions compared to scholarly books was roughly 50-50. By 2011, that ratio had shifted to 75-25 in favor of subscriptions to academic journals.

The fact that only about half of the scholarly books in academic libraries are ever borrowed has further discouraged librarian investment in the scholarly book.

Changing nature of market

In any case, in a perfect ivory tower world, the economics of the print-format scholarly book would not be a consideration. After all, university presses were created for the specific purpose of publishing scholarship that, while rich in intellectual value, has little or no economic value.

However, in a higher-education environment in which the subsidies once enjoyed by university presses have shrunk or entirely vanished, editors are left with little choice but to consider sales potential before accepting a manuscript for publication.

Consequently, academic rigor aside, the market value of a scholarly book on a perennially popular historical figure like, say, Theodore Roosevelt or a current hot-button social issue such as racism is simply going to be more attractive to a scholarly publisher than a book on Spain’s Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) or land-ownership patterns in Hungary’s 12th-century Árpád Dynasty, whose sales prospects might be dismal.

Even so, in many academic fields the publication of scholarly books still remains the standard by which emerging scholars are credentialed. Is it acceptable that a PhD student in one of those fields might feel forced to choose a dissertation topic based on how a publisher views its sales potential as a book rather than on its contribution to the field?

Why not consider open access?

Bleak as it may seem, the good news is that this need not mean the end of long-form scholarship.

Facing a dismal market, a number of leading scholarly publishers are taking steps to change the economic model of the scholarly book. This change involves moving from a foundation in print to a foundation in digital, and from a focus on sales to libraries to a focus on open access.

What about going digital?
PRORob DiCaterino, CC BY

In a notable example, the University of California Press announced the publication this October of the first five titles as part of its Luminos initiative. <a href=”http://www.luminosoa.orgLuminos titles are fully peer-reviewed, professionally edited scholarly books initially published as open-access e-books with a print-on-demand option for those who prefer physical books.

Hardly a one-off venture, similar open-access models for publishing scholarly books are being implemented by such presses as The Ohio State University Press, Penn State Romance Studies, Amherst College Press, ANU (Australian National University) Press, De Gruyter Open, and others.

Open-access initiatives such as these are positioning themselves to disrupt the scholarly book market by shifting to a model in which the cost of publication is recouped by upfront underwriting rather than via sales of copies.

Besides rescuing the scholarly book from oblivion, open-access digital books offer many advantages over their print forebearers: The number of potential readers dwarfs what is possible for a run of a few hundred printed copies. Open-access scholarly books can be used, wholly or in part, as course texts at no costs to students.

Additionally, digital formatting loosens constraints on the number of pages and illustrations. Scholars are free to employ tools of digital-age scholarship ranging from timeline-enhanced maps to data visualizations to embedded video. Open-access books can be read in regions of the world where few people can afford First World price tags.

Academic distrust

However, open-access scholarly books can still fail if those senior faculty who make decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure refuse to embrace it.

In my experience, many among the senior faculty harbor a lingering distrust of digital publication. Some faculty consider any underwriting of publication costs by the author and/or the author’s institution as nothing more than vanity press publication, where authors have to pay to get published.

For faculty who take this view, such new models of open-access publication are considered to be academic sins in the rank of plagiarism and “diploma mill” degrees.

In my view, there is no reason why scholarly books published under legitimate open-access models cannot undergo rigorous peer-review and editing processes. Quality peer review and editing are not, after all, functions of paper and ink.

Additionally, with very few exceptions, the cost of publishing a scholarly book has always been subsidized to one extent or another. Circa 1980, publication costs for a printed scholarly book were very likely underwritten by a university press’s campus subsidy.

Arguing that publishing a book under the auspices of a subsidized scholarly press occupies some higher moral ground than publishing under one of the emerging models of subsidized open-access publishing is entirely specious.

If, in the end, the forces of academic conservatism kill the open-access scholarly book by refusing to hire or reward emerging scholars who publish in this way, an unintended consequence will be the death of the scholarly book.

Will the academy stand by and allow the market to determine who succeeds and who fails as an academic? Or, will it move toward open-access publication that offers a viable alternative to a market in collapse?

The Conversation

Donald Barclay, Deputy University Librarian, University of California, Merced

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.