Monday, April 22, 2013

The Sibyl of Cumae

“The seventh was of Cumae, by name Amalthaea, who is termed by some Herophile, or Demophile and they say that she brought nine books to the king Tarquinius Priscus, and asked for them three hundred philippics, and that the king refused so great a price, and derided the madness of the woman; that she, in the sight of the king, burnt three of the books, and demanded the same price for those which were left; that Tarquinius much more considered the woman to be mad; and that when she again, having burnt three other books, persisted in asking the same price, the king was moved, and bought the remaining books for the three hundred pieces of gold: and the number of these books was afterwards increased, after the rebuilding of the Capitol; because they were collected from all cities of Italy and Greece, and especially from those of Erythraea, and were brought to Rome, under the name of whatever Sibyl they were.”
The myth of the Sibyl of Cumae from: The Divine Institutes, by Lactantius (b. ca. A.D. 250), Book I, Chapter VI.

Publishers select, prepare, market, and disseminate information. They developed their selection processes at a time when it was expensive to prepare and disseminate information. As these costs decreased, they could publish more and be less selective. However, the selection process endows information with gravitas, a valuable commodity for marketing. Today's publishers must balance two conflicting interests: increase revenue by publishing as much as possible vs. increase profit margins by selectively publishing high-value information. Scholarly publishers found a way to do both.

Where the Sibyl of Cumae burned some books to increase the value of the remaining books, a scholarly journal rejects a certain number of papers for each paper it publishes. Many of the rejected papers may be interesting, but they do not fit the journal's mission. For the publisher, this is an opportunity to spawn new journals in the wake of its successful journals. Such portfolios of journals are less selective than their individual journals. Of course, if one considers the scholarly publishing industry at the macro level, the notion of selectivity virtually vanishes. Papers are submitted and re-submitted until an outlet is found.

The Sibyls of Scholarly Publishing perform an elaborate dance with pyrotechnic effects that give the illusion they burn papers. In fact, each Sibyl takes in new and rejected papers, packages some of them in a journal, and pretends to burn the rest before handing them off to her sisters. Each Sibyl maximizes the price in her respective corner of the universe. Academia repeatedly acts like King Tarquinius, who thinks the woman mad and pays the price she demands.

It may take years and several turnovers of the editorial board before an established journal that covers a large domain accepts papers in an emerging field. This has created a seemingly insatiable demand for new highly specialized journals. Each successful journal serves its publisher by raising revenue, its editorial-board members by raising their research prestige, and its authors by providing an avenue for dissemination of material without a natural home in existing journals. Many of these journals cater to such a small cadre of specialists that they subvert the single largest scholarly benefit of the refereeing process: a critical reading by someone with a different point of view and background. Even when run with the best of intentions, these narrow journals are echo chambers for group think. Emerging fields need some breathing room, particularly in the early developmental stages, but they should not be immune from outside criticism. Do these journals really serve the cause of good scholarship? Are they worth the super-inflationary cost increases, which they help create?

Open Access may not reduce the cost of scholarly communication as originally hoped. A large-scale conversion to Gold Open Access would shift the costs from universities to governments. Once university administrations no longer feel the budgetary pain and the costs are baked into government budgets, publishers would be free to continue the super-inflationary trajectory. There would not be any market forces that limit the introduction of new journals, the growth of existing journals, or the price charged per paper published. The access problem would be resolved by hiding, compounding, and postponing the cost problem. In the end, the scholarly-communication market would remain as dysfunctional as ever.

Technology has eroded the foundation of the current scholarly-communication system. It assumes that there is a scarcity of dissemination, and it uses that scarcity for the purpose of gatekeeping. In fact, dissemination is abundant and nearly free. The scarcity and associated gatekeeping are marketing illusions.

The reluctance to change is understandable. A scholarly-communication system is a delicate balancing act. It must be fair, but critical. It must discourage poor research, yet be supportive of new ideas, including ideas that challenge established views. Because scholarly communication is tied to research assessment, any changes to the system must gain wide institutional acceptance.

Ultimately, we have little choice but to accept today's reality. Anyone has the power to disseminate any information, regardless of quality. No one has the power to be a gatekeeper. At most, editorial boards have the power of influence in their respective communities; they can highlight important achievements and developments. But even this power to influence may soon be challenged by crowd-sourced quality labels of alternative metrics. (Perhaps not.)

We should be elated about the recent successes of the Open Access movement. We should also recognize that Open Access is not an end point. It is only the first step in the reinvention of scholarly communication.

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