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Introspection and self-doubt are nothing new to publishers or librarians. One standard joke in the field is that the second book printed after Gutenberg’s Bible was titled, “Is This the End of Print?”

Our current form of angst often arrives in the form of what I can best identify as the polyptoton, a rhetorical device that, according to one of my favorite books, “Figures of Speech“:

. . . is rarely recognized as a figure at all and hence the phrase is more likely to be experienced as strikingly original.

The polyptoton can boggle as much as it intrigues, with simple constructions we’ll all recognize from meeting programs and white paper introductions  — Can we save [publishing] from [publishers]? Can we save [libraries] from [librarians]? Can we save [research] from [researchers]? Can we save [academia] from [academics]?

Push a little further on this Madlib-like construction, leveraging and extending the polyptoton, and you can mix and match. Can we save [publishing] from [librarians]? Can we save [libraries] from [publishers]? Can we save [academia] from [researchers]?

The questions emanating from these rhetorical games are always worth asking, but perhaps there is also an illusion at work here. That is, by structuring the rhetoric into parallelisms, we’re not including other participants in our ecosystem. In fact, we may be blinding ourselves to the forces and influences that are truly changing the game.

For instance, while college tuitions have increased by 375% since 1982, serials budgets at libraries have increased at about half that rate. Why is this? Why would the budget for research and intellectual materials not increase at the same rate as tuition and fees? A cynical explanation might be that administrators have found that pushing on library budgets doesn’t cause them problems — librarians work against publishers harder than they work against the administration, so sending a cut through the library causes publishers problems, but leaves administrators with nary a scratch.

University presses are strapped, some have closed, and disinterest in their futures isn’t at all uncommon. Yet these were the crown jewels of institutions not a half-century ago. Certainly the publishers, authors, librarians, and academics involved haven’t botched it that badly. Perhaps there are other things determining their fates, their perceived relevancy, and their value to the organization.

Playing Madlibs the way we’ve been playing them isn’t identifying the real challenges. Our current tactics are too internecine, too self-referential.

Better questions might be:

  1. How can we save [research] from [politicians]?
  2. How can we save [libraries] from [administrative indifference]?
  3. How can we save [publishers] from [technology companies]?

Defining our problems, challenges, and opportunities as if they only involve familiar players and those we easily see is rife with falsehoods and faulty logic. Our futures are much more defined by external factors, decision-makers we can only hope to influence, and large companies with goals only tangentially related to ours.

Within universities, dependency on government research contracts has led to an explosion of building and hiring, yet budgets for information resources have not increased nearly as much. Governance and administration interest in sprucing up their research reputations is intense; their interest in libraries and content licensing was once just as intense, but these are no longer the showplaces of old. Is this publishers’ fault? Librarians’ fault? Not at all. External factors and large-scale trends are the culprits. Yet we continue to deploy rhetoric as if we have control, as if convincing one another and our traditional, accessible counterparts will somehow equate to salvation and answers.

Other rhetoric is also potentially self-defeating or misguided. Perhaps we can’t [save] publishers or librarians. Perhaps we need to consider the option to [redefine], as is frequently discussed. Maybe the terms carry too much baggage. We might consider [relabel] as a verb of choice. Maybe the rhetoric of the word itself is part of the problem.

As we play Madlibs with the titles of events, articles, papers, and such, perhaps we’ll find more answers if we think beyond the usual verbiage and beyond our circle of comfortable players. If we begin to consider some of the truly novel forces at work, which are redefining, reshaping, and restructuring the industries and trades we’re in now, we may arrive at new and better responses.

To do otherwise would be truly [mad].

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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.


3 Thoughts on "The Rhetorical Consequences of STM "Madlibs" — Saving [ __________ ] from [ ____________ ]"

The prevalence of such rhetoric probably also explains why institutions that lament escalating costs of intellectual material nevertheless frequently build/endorse new repositories that for the most part duplicate information available elsewhere.

This is a very thoughtful post. The reason why these simple constructions are so powerful is that they reduce a complex system of actors and relationships down to a simple narrative that we can all understand. Storytelling is the basis of how we make sense of the world and we are cultured into this form of learning from birth.

The library’s budget problem is the result of many factors, but describing it as a complex systemic problem lacks a clear story line, as I’ve argued previously. Describing it as a “crisis in scholarly communication” gives it urgency, broadens its devastating effect, and portrays the library and researchers as victims. However, when you have a victim, you need a villain (publishers), a motive (greed), and a hero (open access). Some strong advocates even view themselves as martyrs of the cause.

Put all of this together and you have a clear plot line that politicians and the public understand. While I don’t agree with how this story is constructed, I have to tip my hat to those who were involved in constructing this narrative understood the power of language and how it can motivate people to take action.

The difficulty is that this isn’t fiction. We’re talking about making sense of the real world. To do that, we need to be more careful than we would in constructing a fictitious narrative. Rhetoric, dramatic narrative structures, and sound bytes may resonate with the casual observer, but we should be able to dig deeper, to root causes.

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