The Arrogance of Publishers vs. Academic Culture – Why the Outcome Is Virtually Certain

“Technologists also believe that publishing is transportable — anyone can be a publisher. All you need are some basic skills, access to a blogging platform, and some determination. While for certain forms of expression this can be true — this blog is an example — for a complex organism like an academic press or an academic journal, much more is needed, including people with the talent and experience to get it right. I may think I’m a good cook because I can occasionally prepare a surprisingly tasty meal on a Sunday night by following someone else’s recipe and using the right ingredients, but that by no means translates into my ability to create, finance, run, and manage a restaurant. If you’re a “cooking technologist,” you think all you need is an oven, pans, and ingredients.”

from IT Arrogance vs. Academic Culture — Why the Outcome Is Virtually Certain on the Scholarly Kitchen 

Imagine a situation where homes had no kitchens and utensils were unavailable. We would all be dependent on cafes and restaurants to eat and, it follows, our idea of what it is to prepare food would be exhausted by those working in such a capacity within these establishments. Now introduce kitchens into homes and affordable utensils into shops. Suddenly we can cook meals at home. Obviously the quality of the infrastructure is lower and there’s less expertise. For the sake of the thought-experiment, assume kitchens and utensils appeared suddenly, to an extent profoundly disruptive of established practices of going out for every meal. The meals cooked at home would be of poor quality, probably pragmatically orientated and often imitating (poorly) the meals available in restaurants and cafes.

With time, hobbyists become more adept at imitating such meals and, as cooking becomes an everyday activity, new kinds of meals emerge because the practical intent behind cooking is no longer constrained by the economics of the restaurant. Then the utensils get ever better and cook books become a market in their own right, with expert guidance being commercially (and sometimes freely) available to anyone who wants it. The gap between the professional chefs and enthusiastic amateurs becomes ever narrower. Likewise, the vast majority of the populace becomes capable of cooking in a purely functional way, with a range of outcomes shaped by personal preference.People can even, god forbid, cook for each other. Those who put the effort in are able to cook very well.

None of this means that restaurants go out of business. But it does mean the economics of the restaurant business change profoundly. What was once, in the thought-experiment, a position of hegemony where everyone is reliant on the restaurant for all their meals becomes a position where the restaurant must offer some additional value vis-a-vis the meals people are able to cook at home. If everyone can cook in a way which is good enough for everyday purposes, the restaurant must offer something else. For a while, it might get by on the social convention that you don’t socialise or celebrate with meals at home. It might also get by on people either being unable to cook or choosing not to cook once they have that capacity. But once the infrastructure and the expertise is distributed widely enough, it simply has to innovate or its position will eventually become untenable. The fact the populace is able to cook for themselves doesn’t mean the restaurateur has no future, far from it. However if they spend this time arrogantly dismissing the pretensions of the amateur cooks rather than creatively redefining their role to take account of the fact they no longer have a monopoly on cooking then, frankly, they’re screwed and, more over, they deserve their fate.

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3 replies »

  1. The analogy needs some tweaking. DIY cooking preceded restaurants, for example, not the other way round, and while few of us could compete with the world’s top chefs at the best restaurants, a great many restaurants and fast food joints cannot compare for health values or taste with home cooking. Scholarly publishing is analogous, it is the commercial sector that emerged from the amateur scientists. Outsourcing publishing has always been a nice to have, not a need to have. There will continue to be a role for professional publishers if the services are attractive and good for us (don’t lock up our work), and the cost reasonable. If not, well there really is nothing better than mom’s apple pie!

  2. Superb Web-site, Keep up the great job. With thanks.

  3. Cooking is essentially a solitary activity. The quote at the beginning does note that having access to technology does work for certain types of writing. What it is talking about is the teamwork aspect of traditionally published academic material. So while it is easy to publish a novel, which is essentially the product of one mind, like the cook in the kitchen in your analogy, (although it benefits greatly from professional editors, layout artists and so on) it is more difficult to achieve something like the academic press does with a team, for example, having peer review that is recognized as expert or technical editors who not only know the language but know the field who can double check your conclusions and wording.

    So while the home cook may become as expert as the chef at producing great meals, this does not mean that he or she will have the ability to do everything that a whole team of specialists can do. The original quote may have been worded unfortunately in saying that you need people “who know what they’re doing.” But the point is that if you wanted to, say, cater a wedding, you would probably need some help and that this is an area where it might be more useful to just go to professionals who do it all the time than to take the time to learn all of those skills.

    An academic writer may study his subject every day, but he probably does not have to be expert in book publishing on a regular basis and may find that skill set less necessary to develop when he can hire others to do it for him. (By having them act as publisher and giving them a percentage.)

    It seems as though getting the kind of peer review that instills confidence for a self-published venture might be more time consuming and difficult than just using the publishing structure that exists. This could change if academic writers came together and built networks to serve that need. At the moment, though, it seems as though using the existing structure rather than building a new one that serves a similar purpose is more practical. So this would be the “value added” that restaurants have to offer over cooking in the home in your analogy.

    It seems to me that the quote above (I didn’t read the full article) and the response are actually in agreement. Both say that there is a place for the self-published and that there is a place for the traditional publisher.

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