September 17, 2004

You couldn't have a starker contrast

It's not quite up to the level of "Let them eat cake". However, among recent symbols of ancien-regime arrogance, it's hard to beat what Jonathan Klein said, on the Fox News Channel on September 9, in a debate with Stephen Hayes about the authenticity of the forged Rathergate documents:

"You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."

Klein used to be the CBS News VP in charge of 60 Minutes, so he knows what he's talking about. And indeed the contrast could not have been starker. The multiple layers of highly-paid journalists, producers and editors at CBS News, and the many layers of less well paid staff working for them, swallowed a set of crude forgeries, hook, line and sinker. In contrast, a small set of unpaid, self-motivated citizens were able to unmask the forgeries within a few hours. By now, anyone with any sense recognizes that the bloggers were right.

As a result of Klein's remarks, I have to confess that I'm generally underdressed for blogging at home, where my usual costume is a t-shirt and shorts; and overdressed elsewhere, wearing a shirt and trousers and shoes. But I'm thinking of buying myself a set of formal blogging pajamas.

The Rathergate flap reminded me, indirectly, of a strange, striking article by Lindsay Waters in the 8/30/2004 Village Voice. Here the issue is not the arrogance and ineptitude of (some of) the mass media, but rather the arrogance and ineptitude of (some of) the guardians of high culture. Waters, who is executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, explains that he has "warned humanities scholars and publishers to prepare for a future when publishers ... would go from publishing too many books to too few". In the larger pamphlet from which his piece was taken, he gives the obvious explanation: "We have gone from selling a minimum of 1,250 books of each title in the humanities to 275 books in the past thirty years." This doesn't surprise me -- I can find a way to be interested in a lot of different things, but the fraction of such books in which I can find anything of interest has declined in a similar proportion.

Waters blames librarians, who "have not been protecting book budgets from rapacious commercial presses who gouge them on journals." He blames "the corporatist demand for increased productivity and the draining from all publications of any significance other than as a number." He does observe that this problem has something to do with the fact that humanistic scholars are writing and publishing books that no one much wants to read, but he blames this on "markets", which "generate the pressures that increase productivity". According to Waters' analysis, "when the dollar becomes the ultimate term, the sky closes in."

But no one is making many dollars from a book that sells 1,250 copies, much less one that sells 275. And presumably it's only some minimal regard for financial prudence that's keeping the sales as high as that. The problem is the product, not the market. It's not market pressures that have resulted in the product's lack of appeal, but rather the lack of market pressures, and the broader lack of motivation to reach an interested public. If the sky has closed in on scholarship in the humanities, this is surely not because humanists are out there maximizing the dollar return on their scholarly product. What Waters means by "the corporatist demand for increased productivity" is a system of tenure and scholarly evaluation that depends heavily on publication counts, weighted roughly by the publisher's prestige. I worked for 15 years in an industrial lab, and for 15 years in a university, and I can say with considerable confidence that there is nothing "corporatist" about that system. It's a purely academic invention, and academics should stop trying to blame others for any problems it may have.

What does this have to do with Rathergate? Well, just as there are political bloggers and technical bloggers (and gardening bloggers and knitting bloggers and whatnot), there are also humanistic bloggers, who write about novels and poetry and history and philosophy and music and languages and so on. Many people cross categories as well -- the blogosphere is not a great respecter of traditional disciplinary boundaries. The level of knowledge and ability is variable, and there's a lot of junk out there, but some people are very good, and most readers are able to recognize quality when they see it, and to recognize it independent of professional status. I don't know how big the humanistic end of the blogosphere is, but it must include at least thousands of writers and hundreds of thousands of readers.

I'm not trying to make an equation between weblog entries and serious, large-scale works of humanistic scholarship like the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. But the popularity of many humanistic weblogs shows that there is an audience out there. If the humanities offerings from Harvard University Press aren't reaching them, Waters shouldn't blame Wall Street or Main Street either.

He's probably right that the current regime in academic publishing will not last much longer. Its replacement(s) will emerge from the ferment of experimentation with e-journals, e-print archives and so on. It would be nice if the blogosphere's openness, energy and popularity could be part of that future, whatever it is.

[Note: the illustration above is not, as some may think, a portrait of Geoff Pullum without his parrots. I took it (with some small modifications) from James Lileks' Bleat of Monday, 9/13/2004.]

[I should also add that it's unfair for Waters to blame librarians for failing to (try to) defend their budgets against the increasing costs of journal subscriptions -- they've tried very hard, and continue to try hard, as you can learn by reading back issues of Peter Suber's Open Access News.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 17, 2004 10:45 AM