The Worm at the Core (and several mixed metaphors)

Last week, I was a last minute substitute speaker at a “Master’s Class” for mid-level managers in the STM publishing business.  I was invited to speak on “The Battle for Copyright and Digital Rights” opposite Mark Seeley, who is a Senior VP and Legal Counsel for Elsevier.  That Mr. Seeley was a kind and gracious “opponent” was not a surprise, nor was it surprising that we reached a state of civil disagreement on some copyright issues. What did surprise me, however, was the fact that the members of the class were less interested in the copyright issues we raised than they were in talking about open access and, especially, the motivations that led Duke’s faculty to adopt an open access policy.  Many of them seemed to be working hard to wrap their minds around the idea that faculty authors would elect a distribution system that bypassed, or at least paralleled, the traditional publication system.

The day after this discussion came the announcement from the University of California that they felt pushed to cancel their contract for digital resources with Nature Publishing Group and to ask their faculty to decline to submit to, or edit or review for, NPG publications.  Dorothea Salo has a great blog post about this situation in which she muses about worms turning. Indeed, this kerfuffle does suggest that things are changing quickly in the way scholars distribute their own work and get access to the work of others.  Dorothea’s point (albeit with her metaphors of turning worms and pierced veils getting rather mixed) that the last veil being pierced in this argument is about journals as non-substitutable goods is an excellent one.  Dorothea quotes a UC scholar as saying that where a work is published these days really doesn’t matter much, and notes that this is a huge disruption in the norms we have come to rely on.

For me, the coincidence of these two events really suggested a fundamental truth that has not been well articulated in the debates about scholarly communications; what I have called the worm at the core, to appropriate Dorothea’s original metaphor.  From both the publishers’ side, illustrated by reactions at the STM class, and from the scholars’ side we are seeing a growing awareness that the publishing industry needs scholarly authors much more than scholarly authors need traditional publication, at least for distribution of and access to scholarship.  This is a big worm eating at the core of the traditional environment for scholarship, and the sooner we come to terms with its implications, the better.  Open access policies and outlandish pricing policies at journals are both pushing us in a new direction, and it is really incumbent on scholars, and the libraries that serve them, to manage the journey.

2 thoughts on “The Worm at the Core (and several mixed metaphors)”

  1. I am the QUEEN of mixed metaphors. I don’t just mix them — I put them in the blender and hit PUREE.

    Anyway, what strikes me about the conversation you recount is how similar it is to conversations libraries were having five to ten years ago. “They want to bypass our wonderful stuff? HORRORS!”

    We’re learning to cope. Publishers will have to as well.

  2. Gotta love a blog post that uses the word “kerfuffle”!

    On a serious note, where the academy lags behind, in my opinion, is how to judge and reward the impact of research. Is it better to be published in a high impact journal (as determined by impact factor) or quoted in the New York Times? Do downloads count? By how much?

    New measures of success need to be in place at universities for tenure and promotion and at granting agencies to give rising faculty members confidence that the axiom “where a work is published these days doesn’t really matter much” is really true. I think this will happen, but we haven’t gotten there yet.

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