Freedom of Thoughts: Some Radical Perspectives on Publishing

February 16, 2008, 12:58 pm

For a truly radical idea, take a look at Manan Ahmed’s post at Cliopatra, praising the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences in their move to make their research accessible. Ahmed, who has cross posted from the blog to which he is also a regular contributor Chapati Mystery, challenges JSTOR to make itself available to all, and makes a good argument as to why access to published research should be distributed to as wide an audience as possible.

Indeed, although I know that academic publishing has been squeezed by shrinking educational budgets on one side and the troubles of the publishing industry on the other, I have often wondered why other people make money, paltry as it might be in the scale of things, from articles and reviews from which I receive no direct compensation. And I am not even going to start about the so-called “journalist” who re-wrote my first book with made-up conversations, published it to a mass-market, and then sold it to Hollywood. The movie, starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, is now in production, which I know because an assistant designer (who also worked on Titanic) called to see if I wanted to give them free advice about the authenticity of their costumes.

I declined, and was unpleasant enough that I have not heard from the production company since. But as I have already pretty much given my book away without a fight, it does make me feel a little breezier about giving other things away too — and why should that process be hindered by having my work hoarded by entities like The Johns Hopkins University, that started Project Muse on grant money, and now sells access to it, when Hopkins has all the money in the world? I ask you.

Of course, as one of my more radical senior colleagues at Zenith pointed out when that first book of mine saw the light of day, a well-received monograph that secures tenure does also secure several millions of dollars in lifetime income, pension, healthcare and whatnot, and none of these things are to be sneezed at. Furthermore, in the years when I publish, Zenith then has reason to bounce my salary into a slightly higher range in July, and that does result in an enhanced income stream that compounds itself upward over time. So one can make an argument that uncompensated publication of one’s intellectual labors has exchange value. But if it weren’t for publications like the Women’s Review of Books and the small but steady checks I receive from Rutgers University Press (thank you Leslie Mitchner for simultaneous paperback and on-demand publishing! Thank you Amazon for inventing yourself! Thank you History Channel for occasionally putting my mug up there and causing people to look for a book on the New Deal they would not otherwise know about!), and the occasional speaking gig, I would make no direct income on my intellectual work at all. And the vast majority of scholars make far less than I do.

Manan suggests that we all begin to retain copyright to our published work so that we can re-publish in ways that benefit a larger audience. Here’s two suggestions: that the AAUP and professional associations that do not do so already make access to JSTOR part of the benefit for unaffiliated scholars (while we’re at it, access to health insurance would be good too). But for those of us who are affiliated with institutions that reward us for publishing, it would make sense to establish web pages where we upload PDF’s of our published work to our web pages as a gesture towards those who need and want to read it.

For another radical take on the sale of knowledge, check in with Siva Vaidhyanathan at Siva’s books have been groundbreaking in discussing these issues, and he is an important voice in the current discussion about Google.books and their ambitious and controversial attempt to upload all published knowledge to the web.

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