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The album cover is iconic. In the foreground, a man lounging under a sun umbrella with a drink and newspaper while his background shows a grey, dystopic, industrial wasteland. The image is powerful and those of you who used to collect vinyl will remember the British rock band Supertramp’s 1975 album, Crisis? What Crisis? The title alone conveys a blatant sense of denial and disregard for the sunbather’s surrounding. He’s out to catch some rays, then return to his drab and futile existence. Crisis? What Crisis?
With the risk of depicting myself as the sunbather, I’m becoming more skeptical of the perpetual “crisis” we seem to be in. The “crisis in scholarly communication” is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it shows up routinely in the literature from the late 1920s onward. How is it possible to be in a perpetual crisis? Why a “crisis” and not merely a “systemic problem” in scholarly communication? Why is the word “crisis” such a powerful word?
A crisis requires a frame of liability and accountability. The Exxon Valdez runs aground in Alaska spilling millions of liters of oil and it is easy to point a finger at a drunk captain. A faulty o-ring is the cause of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. When a crisis takes place, someone or something is always to blame: If it is not apparent, convenient scapegoats are brought in. It is much more difficult to talk about systemic problems in an organization – why there are barriers to information flow, why some organizations are underfunded, understaffed, and lack regulation. These are complex stories to tell, and they often don’t satisfy our psychological need for accountability and closure.
The “crisis in scholarly communication” points its accountability finger directly at greedy commercial publishers. In doing so, it ignores all of the other players (authors, deans, librarians, funding agencies, etc.), who together create an environment which allows these publishers to thrive. Most of us, I hope, understand the complexity of this economy. It is vast, interrelated, and not very easy to understand in its entirety. This does not make a simple story, which is undoubtedly why simple accountability narratives are used in its place.