Irrational publishing and recursive publics

A courtesy “heads up” from Ellen Duranceau, a scholarly communications colleague at MIT, alerted me to this podcast about scholarly communications with Dan Ariely, the author of the fascinating and best-selling book “Predictably Irrational.” This 20 minute interview is well worth the time for both librarians and scholarly authors who are concerned about the current state of scholarly publishing and interested in its future. I am looking forward to listening to the other interviews that MIT makes available.

Ariely was a Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT, which is why Ellen is interviewing him, and he recently moved to a similar position here at Duke, which is why she alerted me to the podcast. Ellen deserves great credit for the insight – “I wish I had thought of that” – that Ariely would be a really interesting person to ask about the state of scholarly publishing. Not only because has he recently made the successful transition from obscure academic author to public intellectual, which he discusses in the interview, but because the theories and experiments that have made his work so well-known themselves suggest important insights into the scholarly communications system.

Much of Ariely’s work focuses on the odd things that happen when economic and social norms collide and intermingle, which is exactly what happens in the system of scholarly publishing. Faculty authors are largely driven by social norms and reward structures that are quite different from, and increasingly at odds with, the economic incentives that drive publishers. The result is a strange and dysfunctional system.

During the interview, Ariely refers to his “back of the envelope” calculation that it costs a university over $50,000 to support the production of a single scholarly article, which indicates how badly askew the economics of publishing are, when universities not only subsidize production to that extent but also repurchase that subsidized content after publication. It is precisely because the academy is governed by an entirely different set of social norms that we have allowed the economic situation to get so far out of hand. But Ariely’s endorsement of a more open and accessible system of scholarly communications is not itself, finally, based on these economic conditions. Rather, he has discovered, through his own experiences with the public attention he has received, the great benefit both to the individual scholars and to society, of open and interactive scholarship. The ultimate take-away from this interview for me was that scholarship itself can be improved by reaching out to larger publics and incorporating those publics into the work of research and writing.

As a sort of “proof of concept” of Ariely’s claim, I was interested in the experiment in a new kind of “hybrid” publishing going on with a recent book by Rice University professor Chris Kelty. “Two Bits: the Cultural Significance of Free Software” is published by Duke University Press (you can buy a copy here), but is also available online on this author-maintained website, One can read the book online, comment on its various chapters, and “modulate” with it – use it in small chunks to create new scholarship. Kelty uses the concepts of re-mix and recursive publics to experiment with what we really mean when we say that scholarship builds on the works of others. This experiment with modulations will be the most interesting part of Kelty’s new model of scholarship to follow, but in light of what is discussed in the Ariely interview, I think there are two more basic questions to ask about this kind of hybrid model for scholarly publishing. First, will online availability depress sales of the print book, or will people who come to it first online be motivated to buy a hard copy (as I was)? Second, will the experiment in public comment and reuse really result in improvements to the text and to scholarly output that builds creatively upon it? This latter question is a way of asking if the results that Dan Ariely reports in his interview can really be replicated for scholars who do not attract the same level of celebrity.

3 thoughts on “Irrational publishing and recursive publics”

  1. thanks for the plug… and I too hope that the experiment succeeds. It’s great that you draw attention to the simultaneously economic and scholarly issues here, since most people tend to focus on one or the other and it is really only people like Ariely or myself who might experience both–people who have both been through the publishing experience and seen what new forms of scholarly communication are doing to our scholarship. It’s not easy though– and the biggest hurdle is convincing scholars themselves to take a more experimental approach. I think the publishers are slowly getting out in front of the scholars in some areas, and are willing to try more radical things than some scholars might be. But we’ll see, it’s a huge change for the “infrastructure of science” (see chapters 8 and 9 🙂 )

  2. Hey — who was an ” obscure academic author “?

    Thanks for the posting — I just ordered Kelty’s book

    Irrationally yours


  3. Thanks for this great post. As a shameless plug, I should mention that HASTAC helped make the economics of this deal work by helping to subsidize hidden costs of online publishing, such as lost revenue from folks buying the book, different modes of advertising, and so forth. You can also get to the book or Chris’s online site from HASTAC’s homepage: I’m a huge fan of Da’s book (am writing another one myself—more shameless plugging—about how we come to be predictably irrational in the first place, more the cognitive cultural neuroanthro side of this) and totally believe that scholars miss the boat when they don’t understand the economics of what they do. Not paying attention to the economics of the economic is, well, so predictably irrational. There, that’s my two bits on the matter! Thanks so much for this great post. Best, Cat

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