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The forces leading to the democratization of knowledge exchange and creativity continue to push at the foundations of academia and traditional publishing. And they aren’t about open access, but about free knowledge exchange — two very different concepts (as you’ll see, open access is about getting a pass to the castle, not about democratization.)

This past weekend seemed rife with examples of these trends, many courtesy of John Sack’s Twitter feed.

A recent article in the online journal First Monday presents the shift from feudal to democratic information exchange.

the problem with castles, whether physical or intellectual, is that they dominate the landscape, they make the majority subservient and apathetic

Brian Whitworth and Rob Friedman, the authors of this paper, talk about how intellectual feudalism is defended because it defends against error — either errors of commission or errors of omission. Yet in the information ecosystem we have now, are these bastions of quality just slowing things down, and for the sake of a 10% savings on errors of commission? Has the inherent premise of a feudal scarcity economy led to high rejection rates, equated these to quality, all the while leading to errors of omission?

Can we have the speedy, rich, and community curated scientific literature that’s conceivable today while we have castles at the center?

Around the same time, ReadWriteWeb published Part 3 of its series on the destruction of the book business. They cite a video description of an alternative book business model — an alternative to the consignment model — proposed by Canadian book publisher Bruce Batchelor, an innovator in self-publishing. Batchelor talks about the mathematics and financing of book sales currently — the discounting, the costs of returns, the fat in the system, the waste — and makes a convincing case that the Canadian book publishing industry could save $300 million immediately by stopping the insanity (the US market would easily save 10x more, he posits):

Through the publication of my novels, I’ve also been involved in a set of discussions around a group I’ve been invited to join, a set of independent authors who publish literary fiction in various genres. Called Backword Books, this little consortium is a friendly arrangement among smart, talented people. A number have published traditionally, but have shifted to self-publishing for the enhanced control and better financial model.

We’re trying to do in books what has already happened in music, film, and other arts — create a vibrant, quality, independent alternative. Think “Sundance for readers.”

The group recently had a long discussion with an author who is currently publishing traditionally (through a publisher) while also self-publishing other works. He defended traditional publishing and disavowed his self-publishing activities, as if ashamed of them. As the discussion continued, it became clear that what he was defending was that he’d gotten into the castle and talked with the royals — and not much more. The traditional approach didn’t have a better financial upside, a stronger marketing plan, or a clear path forward. But after having visited the royals, he didn’t want to be associated with any of his more plebeian efforts.

Feudal. And futile.

Which brings me in a strange way to a recent inflammatory stance apparently taken by James Neal at Columbia University, who is quoted in the Library Journal as stating that a “Doomsday Clock” is ticking, marking the hours until publishers and librarians must clash in “potentially explosive conditions.”

Really? How feudal. The lords of one set of castles (librarians) must bring arms against the lords of another set of castles (publishers). Will we array our forces on the field of battle, shed blood together, and those who did not fight will think their manhoods cheap when years from now those in battle speak of that day?

Perhaps there is another way — the continued democratization of knowledge exchange. Google seems to think there’s a way forward for books that doesn’t require bloodshed, but perhaps does threaten a few castles. Others seem to think there’s a way to publish thoughts about science without using the journal form.

Maybe we should focus on the ends instead of the means. We’re so busy defending the means (open access, impact factors, copyright enforcement) that they have become ends in themselves, castles preserved so that we have castles.

Meanwhile, has anyone else noticed the large world beyond our respective moats? Funny, but the Googles, Facebooks, Amazons, and Twitters seem to be doing quite well with democratic information exchange.

Makes me feel positively North Korean at times.

Will the shift of academia from feudal to democratic happen? What will it take? Is it true, as Whitworth and Friedman state, that:

people produce more when control is shared. One driving force for this change will be the breadth and speed of knowledge exchange required by cross–disciplinary research.

I sense change happening in creative writing. I sense it changing in scholarship. Where will it lead?

Who knows?

And isn’t that the beauty of democracy . . .

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


7 Thoughts on "Will Feudalism Fade from Knowledge Exchange?"

Regarding James Neal and the “Doomsday Clock”:

Leaders in the academic library profession (and especially ARL) have been rallying around this singular crisis rhetoric for years and it is no different than the argument I get when the Jehovah’s Witnesses ring on my doorbell:

1. The end of the world is nigh
2. Be very afraid
3. We have the answer
4. Follow us

Its time to shut the door on the leaders of ARL. They (and SPARC) have done more damage to publisher-librarian relations than anyone else.

I’m not sure Google is the answer you’re looking for–isn’t that just moving from a system with lots of castles to one big dominant monopoly castle that will rule the world for all perpetuity? The current proposed book settlement seems to offer them a permanent monopoly on all the world’s literature, which is worrisome, particularly if you’re interested in openness and competition. Google has yet to prove an expertise at selling anything other than small text ads, so the quality of service they’ll provide as a bookseller is still an open question. We’ve seen Microsoft struggle as they moved into areas away from their core competency, will Google suffer the same fate?

But to address the bigger question, as in all things, I think we need to strike a balance. There are advantages to open systems and closed systems, and the ideal system takes the best from each and creates its own hybrid vigor. Open systems frequently lead to mediocrity. As Rob Malda, one of the founders of Slashdot puts it:

“When you’re building a system like this you’re balancing the wisdom of the crowds versus the tyranny of the mob. Sometimes a crowd is really smart, but some things don’t work so well by committee. Crowds work when you have a tightly knit group of people with similar interests, but when you have a loosely knit community you get “Man Gets Hit in Crotch With Football” and Everybody Loves Raymond, where it’s just good enough to not suck.”

I think most students and teachers would be surprised to learn the enormous amount of work that goes into creating a really successful textbook. The painstaking editing, the art program, etc., etc. These sorts of things take a directed effort, and are unlikely to work as well by committee. There’s a reason that a closed, focused castle like Apple can create the iPhone while an open community can create Linux. Linux is of tremendous use and value, but it’s not known for its elegance, its huge creative leaps or its usability. Most scientists I know want their literature to be more like the iPhone than Linux. They don’t have the time or interest in tinkering under the hood. They don’t want to have to wade through piles of mediocrity to find gems. No matter how much you crowdsource things, someone still has to read and review the terrible, terrible papers that would never get published by a journal. I don’t know anyone who is volunteering to be that person. People don’t want to spend their time that way, and most are willing to pay for experts to do that work for them so they can instead do what they really want to do.

There’s also an interesting article here explaining why openness in science may be a detriment to progress:

“Sometimes when I hear Science2.0 fans fantasize about the brave new world they want to create, one in which every scientist throws his thoughts into a vast global pool of knowledge and thousands colleagues contribute and advise, I get really scared. For all we can tell from current knowledge, the result will be a combination of streamlining and self-supporting fads.”

Democratization is not chaos. Google isn’t chaos, either. In fact, each brings a new type of order that is renewed constantly. That’s one beauty of democratic systems that are properly attenuated. Yes, a lot goes into textbooks, but the amount going in and the amount coming out are often imbalanced, to the extent of making you wonder who the team is doing the book for. Just because some obsessive line editor labored for weeks over copy changes or an indexer knocked themselves out for a nested hierarchy doesn’t mean the end result is useful or interesting to students. Most textbooks leave them cold, and are viewed as necessary evils, not useful learning aids. Sorry, but I think that’s more true than it should be. If textbook editors were more “of the people,” they might come up with books on subjects which students actually find engaging and useful, not dry, stilted, heavy, and expensive.

Google is the only one I see stepping up to reintroduce out-of-print titles on a wide scale, so kudos to them. We can carp all we want and worry about monopolies, but they’re doing it and in a way that I find pretty acceptable, all things taken into account. Who else has the vision, money, and expertise to do it? Why don’t they step up? The publishers have thrown these books away for all intents and purposes, but once someone else found a way to maybe get some more money from them, the publishers got all upset. Pretty feudal. Someone discovered oil on the swamp I was using as a trash heap? One moment . . . Did I show you the deed I have to that acre?

I agree we must strike a balance. Democratization seeks that same balance. It’s not chaos. It’s about election, evolution, adaptation, and consistently measuring against reality. That’s a balance I can live with.

Maybe I wasn’t clear–I think it’s great that Google is making orphaned works available and findable. The problem I have is that the settlement they’ve proposed is extremely one-sided and prevents anyone else from ever doing the same thing. As a self-published author, you got to choose from a variety of ways of releasing your book, you got to choose which offered the best terms, the best quality printing, the best level of control for what you wanted to do. If Google is the only game in town, that choice goes out the window. So yes, it’s great that Google is doing what they’re doing, but the settlement needs to be changed so it allows others to do the same and provide competitive balance (also so it doesn’t violate international treaties, but that’s a different subject).

For what it’s worth, others have stepped up to the plate to do what Google is doing including Microsoft (who gave up on things a while ago), Yahoo and The Internet Archive/Open Content Alliance. And yes, you are correct, there are a lot of awful textbooks out there. But a really well-done textbook is a wonderful teaching tool, and creating one is more effort than most people think. Take a look at some of the open courseware available on the web and let me know how it compares with the best textbooks.

Second, the problem with democratization is not that it’s chaos. The problems are that it leads to mediocrity, and it’s more time and effort-consuming. Popularity is never a good way to judge quality, particularly when it comes to art or fiction. Was the “High School Musical” soundtrack really the creative highlight of the last decade? Take a look at the top 10 most viewed videos on YouTube on any given day and let me know if you think they’re reflective of quality and if they’re the sorts of things we should be looking for in scholarly publishing. Often progress requires going against the crowd, against public opinion. To make a great breakthrough, you must dispose with the current orthodoxy. And if the mob is ruling, that’s very difficult to pull off. Which is why I favor something like the way Slashdot has proceeded over the years, a democratic process with editorial oversight.

I think maybe we’re talking about different things when we’re talking democracy. I don’t mean pure majority rules, but partcipatory government. I think there’s a huge difference. Putting the tools of information creation and distribution in everyone’s reach changes the balance from feudal scarcity and hoarding. Quality can become a niche definition, or could be based on things you don’t agree with. “High School Musical” may not be your cup of tea or “art,” but it didn’t prevent works you do admire from being done. Freedom is messy. In science, I found the argument in the First Monday paper about sins of omission worrying. People in the sciences may be too worried about the royals to truly say what they think. Stories of kowtowing and self-censorship still abound because payback looms. A democracy may be messy, but you’re less worried about pissing off the royalty and suffering the consequeces. Hence, more is said, and directly.

I think it’s great that there are more opportunities to create. I’m thinking more from the other side, from the position of a consumer. Filters are becoming increasingly important, and editorial oversight is one of our best-developed and most effective filters for weeding out noise and finding signal. A strictly democratized system eliminates that filter, resulting in more noise.

I’m not sure why doing away with the “feudal” system of publishing would make any difference in terms of the sins of omission mentioned in the article. Any time you have a system where there are limited numbers of jobs and limited funding opportunities means you’re going to see that system bending to avoid things that threaten one’s well-being. People don’t hide their dogma-breaking results because they’re worried about upsetting the editor of a journal, they’re worried that the person they’re disputing will be sitting on their next grant review or hiring committee.

If anything, the more democratized the system is, the less likely people are to do things to stand out. As the cited blog article above notes, the more open and community-like you make your system, the more you get groupthink and the enforcement of consensus.

Having just come back from an academic meeting last week, it’s fascinating to me to see that the talks at the meeting are no longer places where there’s a free exchange of ideas. There’s too much social pressure in the room for anyone to stand up and tear apart a speaker’s talk in public. It’s just not done anymore, and science is the poorer for it. The good news is that these sorts of exchanges still happen at the poster sessions, where things are more one-to-one, rather than having a very public debate in the middle of a crowd. That’s why I’m skeptical that we’re likely to see open community-driven means of announcing and debating scientific results any time soon. If anything, the culture is trending in the opposite direction.

Kent asks, “Will the shift of academia from feudal to democratic happen?”. And he notes that both publishing houses (they are even called ‘houses’) and libraries are castles of a sort. Universities probably can out-castle and out-feudal them both! (Ask any graduate student or postdoc serf.) As many have noted, the shift would probably require something to happen in academic promotion or at least recognition.


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