Post-Gutenberg galaxy wars

May 12, 1995

The electronic medium is undoubtedly revolutionising academic communication. But it is still unclear who will benefit in the long term from this revolution. Since so much is up for grabs at this point, a clear sense of where we have come from is needed to make sense of where we might be going.

To his credit, Stevan Harnad offers such an account, the "Faustian bargain", which is very much part of the folklore of academic life. Its image of the profit-driven publisher provides a convenient scapegoat and remedy for academics who feel that they never quite get their message across to all who could potentially benefit from it. Unfortunately, like all such self-serving stories, its grain of truth is buried under a mountain of mystification.

First, Harnad's position needs a name, one that does justice to its historical roots: Cyberplatonism. The Platonist's Holy Grail is the frictionless medium of thought that can transcend time and space to get at The Truth. The Cyberplatonist believes he or she has found the Grail in the Internet. However, the Achilles heel of all forms of Platonism is an obliviousness to the material conditions of thought.

Academics are not the only people who have had an interest in fostering academic communication. The Internet itself arose from Cold War concerns about the United States' ability to respond to a nuclear first strike. To beef up its communication networks, the US department of defence drew upon some work then being done at MIT on resource-sharing between computers. From this came the idea of collaboration among different computer user communities. The prototype of the Internet, Arpanet, was thus launched in 1969 to connect Defense Department researchers working all across the continent.

Hardly auspicious beginnings for Cyberplatonist pursuits. However, this history highlights the basic point that if there is, indeed, a "Faustian bargain" in the life of the mind, it is the one that academics strike with their sponsors that buys them the leisure to pursue their studies collectively.

A quarter century ago, the Internet's capacity to transform academic work was seen to be about as great as the telephone's, which is to say, not very great. However, over time professors and students alike have taken full advantage of this free facility, so that the Internet is on the verge of becoming the umbilical cord of academic life. Many know first hand that academic productivity is definitely enhanced by the new regime. What better time, then, to privatise the entire Internet, putting its virtual real estate on the market to the highest bidder among those - including publishers - who have an interest in promoting academic work! As the Internet evolves from a mere convenience to an outright necessity, it invites thoughts about how much academics - or their sponsors - would be willing to pay to continue feeding their technological fix.

The more that Harnad insists on the centrality of electropublication to future academic productivity, the more he unwittingly opens the door to what I have called the "commodification of knowledge". My own best guess is that governments will welcome the privatisation of knowledge production as a way of quickly relieving their overburdened budgets. In that case, academics should start worrying more about how intellectual property law might apply to forms of knowledge traditionally regarded as "public goods".

Harnad's strategy of locating a medium beyond the reach of economic considerations is no more than a temporary solution, one akin to having everyone who lives in a high-rent district move to a less expensive neighbourhood. It will not be long before the latter locale acquires the property values of the former. The metaphor is telling. Harnad gives the impression that paper-based production costs provide the main economic barrier to free inquiry, when in fact the cost of renting channels and licensing broadcasters may pose even greater barriers in the long term. In other words, Harnad may be naive in assuming that the Internet is more like a publication without paper than, say, a television with text.

But let us say, for the sake of argument, that the material conditions for realising Harnad's utopia remain intact. Wherein lies our failure to realise it? Is it fair to portray publishers as Mephistophelean agents in a Faustian bargain with academics? No, I am afraid that demons have always possessed Faust's soul. However, Faust has developed some rather good defence mechanisms for not recognising them. Once again, a little history goes a long way.

To begin with, it is misleading to suggest, as Harnad does, that authors and publishers have had opposed interests throughout the Gutenberg era. Only in the late 18th century do "authors" come to be regarded as more than just the first stage of the book production process. After chronic book piracy forced publishers to cut authors' commissions and, in some cases, replace them with cheaper scribes, authors retaliated by claiming a special legal status for the kind of work they do that transcends the medium in which they do it: the print may belong to the publisher, but the words are the author's own. A cynic could say that modern copyright laws were thus designed to insure against low demand by upgrading the quality of what the author supplies. A more positive gloss was the Romantic image of the "misunderstood genius" whose works appeal only to a coterie of admirers. Though it first applied to poets, philosophers and scientists adopted this image as their own.

Now consider the "self-organising" form of academic life known as "peer review". It was designed, not to allow academics to hide from their sponsors in esoteric splendour, but to dictate the terms on which academics accounted for their use of their sponsors' resources. When the first scientific journals were founded in 17th-century Britain and France, editors were cast in the role of trusted correspondents with the leading scientific minds, whose letters they would edit for gratuitous metaphysical jargon and personal nastiness. Thus scientific writing was first standardised. Eventually the single correspondent was replaced by the editorial board and more specialised referees. While standardisation is often said to be a prerequisite for genuine knowledge growth, a more pressing historical reason for disciplining scientific communication was to ensure that the scientists' aristocratic patrons were not unnecessarily confused or offended. The aristocrats supported scientific societies in order to be amused, edified and, in some cases, technically empowered. Peer review instituted the decorum needed to persuade patrons that their money was well spent.

In these developments, publishers have often functioned as correctives to the pursuit of specialised inquiries fostered by peer review. They continue to encourage academics to write books that are suitable for either students or general audiences. Of course, publishers have also expedited the specialisation of academic journals. But that would not have become such an attractive financial proposition, had academics not been allowed to set their own paths of inquiries, and hence settle into ever narrower domains whose state-of-the-art is defined by one or two journals. Once academic specialists agree that a certain journal is "essential reading" for their field, they deliver a captive audience to publishers that is too good to resist.

The result has been to place at risk the future of the most of the creative aspect of publishing - marketing. Academics tend to see publishing as little more than a matter of editing manuscripts and printing books and journals. Such dualistic thinking breeds the kind of "us versus them" rhetoric with which Harnad discusses publishers. However, in their search for new markets, publishers have been leaders in giving voice to groups whose interests cut against those of the established academic fiefdoms. Prominent recent examples include women's studies and cultural studies, two fields that received considerable attention from publishers before receiving formal academic recognition.

Here it is worth recalling that not all academic fields are constituted in the same way. Sociologically speaking, there is little reason to think that the success of journals in fields as different as high-energy physics and Harnad's domain of cognitive science can be explained in terms of their common characteristics. Whereas high-energy physics is probably the most intellectually focussed and socially stratified specialty in science now, cognitive science is a very active, but relatively amorphous, interdisciplinary field. The elites in high-energy physics coordinate their activities to dictate to the rest of the field, and sometimes to the entire physics community. By contrast, the success of Behavior and Brain Sciences may be better explained in terms of the bandwagon effect caused by several elite cognitive scientists from different parts of the field publishing early in the journal's history. If one wanted to take Cyberplatonism deadly seriously, then not only should paper publishing go by the wayside, but also the whole idea of seeking personal credit for as many articles as possible in peer-reviewed journals. This idea is not intrinsic to pure inquiry, but the result of academics having to account for their activities in a competitive environment involving the allocation of scarce resources. The aristocratic patrons may be gone, but, as Harnad admits, the Research Assessment Exercise is just around the corner.

Who, then, will most likely benefit from Harnad's brand of Cyberplatonism? If we grant Harnad's (big) assumption that the future owners of Internet will subsidise all of present networkers, the answer seems to be the very same people who currently thrive in print. Consider Harnad's call for everyone to post their articles on the World-Wide Web. "Knowbots" notwithstanding, this would only strengthen the system's elitist tendencies, which sociologist Robert Merton has euphemistically dubbed, "the principle of cumulative advantage". Faced with a plethora of titles on a common topic, an author's name recognition will count more than ever. The sheer availability of a work by no means guarantees that it will get into the hands of the people who could most benefit from it. Here marketing can make all the difference, thus providing a fresh challenge for the 21st-century publisher.

A relatively democratic cross-section of the academic community can be found on the "mailing lists" and "newsgroups" of the Internet. Teachers, administrators, and students do not merely consume the knowledge that cutting-edge researchers generously deposit on the Web. They are themselves knowledge producers, and often incisive critics of what passes for quality in the print and electronic media. The result is a multiple-registered, rough-and-tumble atmosphere that has put off some elite inquirers but has empowered many more. Admittedly, women and minorities remain underrepresented, but cyber-activists like Sadie Plant are endeavouring to change that.

Cyberplatonists like Harnad tend to downplay the heterogeneity of the Internet, perhaps hoping that it will eventually come under the decorous thumb of peer review. However, if we took Plato's Socratic dialogues as a model for "free inquiry", anyone would be allowed to participate in any line of thought wherever it may lead. A discrete publication would result, if at all, only after considerable discussion, by which time it would be difficult to identify who deserves credit for which idea. Crackpots and ignoramuses would be given their say, but then one would do the obvious: refute, ignore, or delete. The filtered world of anonymous refereeing would thus dissolve into open commentary.

I do not mean to suggest that this radical vision is entirely realisable, even in these low cost days of electronic communication. But elements of the vision are worth pursuing. Tardy referees are not the worst problem facing journal editors today. More troubling is that authors read referees' reports pretty much as editors do, namely, as a red or green signal for publication. Harnad's enthusiasm for quick turnaround times from acceptance to publication only nurtures this mentality. However, the reports may wind up playing little or no role in shaping an author's thought, at least as long as there are other journals to which the author can submit a rejected piece with minimum alterations. No wonder referees find theirs to be a thankless lot.

The source of the problem is simply that authors are encouraged to submit their work in a finished form. By that time, they have normally become so attached to it that they are psychologically incapable of grappling with substantial criticism. However, because there is so little to which one can become attached on the Internet, authors are more prone to submit drafts with holes that others may be better positioned to fill. Thus, a genuinely collaborative inquiry may be fostered.

But for any of this to become a reality, we need to keep a sharp eye on the changing political economy of electronic communications, question the bases for the next Research Assessment Exercise, and, most of all, remember that the only time Socrates submitted to "peer review", he was forced to drink hemlock.

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology and social policy at Durham University. He is the editor of the journal Social Epistemology (Taylor & Francis). steve.fuller@durham.ac.uk These texts can be accessed with details of web sites and references at http://www.timeshigher.newsint.co.uk. We welcome contributions to the debate by email, fax or letter. Email: theschat@timsup2.demon.co.uk. Fax: 0171 782 3300. Address: THES Multimedia, Admiral House, 66-68, East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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