April 19, 2005

Publication, the Public University, and the Public Interest

I’m blogging from Publication, the Public University, and the Public Interest, a day-long conference sponsored by the University of Minnesota Libraries. The speakers this morning will be Paul Courant, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Edward Ayers. Below are my impressionistic notes on the proceedings; they are not for attribution. My comments appear in square brackets.

The first speaker is Paul Courant:

Conservative Revolutionaries and Revolutionary Conservators: Universities and Scholarship in the Digital Age

I. The Value of Publication

We must begin with the public interest; this must drive our discussion of publication.

Publication is what scholars do, but publication is increasingly expensive, and increasingly under attack. First-rate research universities are seen as unnecessary luxury expenses.

But higher education allows us to solve real problems and causes real economic prosperity. We can make a powerful narrow claim based on the economic value of the contribution to the public interest.

Done well, liberal education is both expensive and worth it. We must convince society to support it.

Out craft is learning (research) and teaching. We must have a contribution to make via scholarship, or there’s nothing special or valuable about the academy. And publication is the essential technology of learning and teaching. In order to qualify as an idea, it must take physical form.

“Publish or perish” is a moral imperative, not just a tough fact of academic life.

Collaboration across time and space is the fundamental activity of scholarship, and it is affected by IT.

II. The Economics of Libraries

The library is central to the University. There are large costs, but they are all fixed; the marginal cost of taking out each book is extremely small. All of the copies must be held locally to keep the marginal cost reasonable (interlibrary loan is slow and somewhat expensive). Markets are bad at providing services with this profile.

The digital age exaggerates this cost structure. The relative cost of acquiring and maintaining versus using is the same or higher, but downloading is pretty much free. Locally-held copies are nearly irrelevant; reliable internet-accessible copies are public goods. The market price, thus, ought to be zero, in theory. Any charge for a public good is a loss of social welfare. [He quotes from Jefferson -- the "lights his taper from mine" quote.]

But while the marginal cost is zero, these things are still expensive to produce. How do we fund it? How do we keep from underproducing public goods? We must solve the coordination problem.

That which is not online simply will not be read. We must find a way to provide this material online, and pay-per-view isn’t it.

It is in everybody’s interest that somebody do it, but in nobody’s interest to do it. Everybody wants to free-ride, since they’re rational actors. But we can coordinate among institutions, but it’s not clear how it’s all going to come together.

We need to adhere strictly to standards and paractices that don’t yet exist. (And that’s not even the hard part.)

The university with the competitive advantage will the the university with the best usability and the best filtering. Faculty and librarians will become closer together. Universities have to stop competing on the size of collections.

With regard to Google, we have to show the rest of the world that we’re doing the right kind of collecting. And if the cultural record doesn’t get locked up, it’s because the way we in academe collect things is going to be of value to public entities. It might be because of the kindness of Disney and Time-Warner, or it might be because of bomb-throwing from the open-source copyright guys, but showing the value is the best way.

The vast majority of scholarly work has no street value. Copyright law works against a rational setup, causing scholars to lock everything up in case they win the scholarly lottery and can actually sell the thing. That’s bad. Copyright goes against the scholarly norm of sharing ideas and giving credit. Copyright isn’t just a problem for scholarship, it is inimical to the methods and norms of scholarship.

The academy paid for everything, and this worked well until somebody realized that they could extract monopoly rents at the very end of the chain — filtering and final publication. Most of the pressure happens in the sciences, and most of the squeeze is experienced in the humanities — where the library is the lab. University presses are then squeezed too, since they can’t sell as many books to university libraries. And institutional repositories don’t always have the guts to demand final copies.

What do we do? Experiment with new forms of publication — but these are hard to get faculty to publish in these, since the Elsevier journal has the reputation. Can we just buy out Elsevier and the rest? It will cost only hundreds of millions of dollars, and that’s less than the damage that’s currently being done. We should be digitizing everything — disrupting a system that needs disrupting. What’s attractive about what Google is doing is that public demand will shake up the system.

We need all kinds of copyright reform — especially for orphan works.

A remarkable opportunity to be both revolutionary and conservative. New kinds of search, done by librarians, working for the academy, will get this done. Publication — putting it in the library — is in the public interest. All we have to do is get together and create that infrastructure.

The second speaker is Siva Vaidhyanathan.

Critical Information Studies: A Manifesto

I usually speak to laypeople; now I get to speak to the academy.

The best academic cultures have a thin membrane between the campus and the community.

Just came from Cornell — is it the University’s business to choose a software platform, especially a proprietary software platform? That debate generated lots of interest in the outside world.

Scholarly norms are spreading out into the rest of the world, in areas like CC licensing and open source software.

What is Critical Information Studies?

  • It’s an exercise in taxonomy. He’s seen this developing, so he wants to name it. But taxonomy isn’t that useful.
  • It’s an exercise in branding. (Self-serving, of course.)
  • It’s fun and interesting. He figured this out while putting together the index for his first book. (There’s an easter egg in the index.) James, Rick and James, William were next to each other. Fantastic.
  • We are fighting the good fight. We like sharing and collaboration.
  • We are doing well. Used to be gloomy about the fight in the halls of congress, but the fight is being fought in every home wiht a computer and every university library. The fight is in our practice. The other side is finally taking us seriously. They used to ignore us. When the DMCA was passed, there was no consideration of the public interest. ALA and Jaszi were on top of it, but they couldn’t compete. But now, Congress can’t help but ask about the public interest.

This academic movement is a partner to the “Free Culture” movement. It is to the free culture movement what Silent Spring was to the environmental movement. We provide phrases, footnotes, and cultural capital to activists — the people arguing and filing lawsuits. We also contribute to hacktivism, which is bad.

We have a disorganized interdisciplibary field here. What do we know about it? It’s critical because it challenges the status quo and dominant policy trends. It’s about information, and it’s studies because that’s what we do.

Roots are in legal scholarship on copyright, and these works cross over into the rest of the academy. Benjamin Kaplan, Jamie Boyle, Rosemary Coombe, Peter Jaszi, et al.

We are bridging academic divides. CIS can only be public scholarship that crosses over to other areas. The research is always linked to teaching, and our students actually care and grasp the conflicts. We are both producers and consumers of knowledge; we are all copyright holders and copyright users. This deflates the cultural studies vs. political economy debate, since it requires both. Science and the humanities are getting together in exciting ways; this brings together people from every corner of the university. It’s also unifying the humanities and the professional schools, since we’re all in the same boat.

This isn’t just about copyright. The public domain doesn’t always serve every important ethical claim. “Local knowledge” challenges both proprietary regimes and free culture principles. Trademarks are important to what goes on at a university, even if we don’t always realize it. It’s also about technology and technological standards. What sort of formats and platforms are our universities perpetrating? And of course patents now regulate all kinds of scientific research.

CIS interrogates everything — histories, structures, functions, prices, habits, notms, ideologies, practices, and regulations.

We aren’t just talking about negative liberty — about fair use, academic freedom, and free speech. “Fair use” is neither fair nor useful. We make a mistake when we think we have fair use rights. We can defend ourselves in court, but University counsel won’t defend us in court. It’s meaningless unless you get sued; you can’t play the card up front. It’s so nebulous that a conversation about it always includes “well, it depends.” And that’s not a good way to guide behavior. Once we realize that, we can start getting tough. We’re always afraid of getting sued, and that’s not a good way of doing scholarship or of being a human being.

We ask questions about access — abilities, costs, and chilling effects on audiences.

What we’re doing. Scholarship about this stuff. Public criticism. Public engagement. Open access journals. Open courseware. Pushing publishers to lower costs of scholarly production.

We must be explicit about the fact that this scholarship is for something. We are for cultural, semiotic, information, and political democracy. (E.g. contracting out electronic voting machines so we can’t see what’s under the hood; this links to the Swarthmore Diebold memo incident.)

Some challenges to CIS. Institutional challenges include academic protectivism of their work. Trying to capture the value of what came out of their labs. Universities positioned themselves as content providers; getting through the content provider paradox now. Cultural challenges include that classical liberalism doesn’t translate well. Economic challenges include that subjects of scholarship can put up barriers to examination with IP rights. Political challenges include that coalitions are hard to maintain; global agendas are not forthcoming; scholars are privileged and elite and often elitist.

What happens next? We need to be powerfully vocal about open access journals. We need to stand up to journals about copyright contracts. Use Creative Commons licenses. We need to actually get together — to establish and maintain a global network of interdisciplinary scholars. Generate a wikibibliography of CIS works.

The third speaker is Edward Ayers.

Scholarship in the Digital Age

This is a jeremiad — it’s intended to stir us toward salvation. The sermon has three parts. A reminder of the sacred text, a descent to our decayed state, and then holding out the possibility of salvation for scholarship, especially in the humanities.

I am a historian, and our method is narrative and example and particularity and connections.

Universities are unified by the language of scholarship. There is a mother language of scholarship, and until the 90s it was locked in since the late 1800s. The forms of scholarship themselves have remained fixed as struggles have raged over the context. The monograph and the journal article have remained fixed. (Should we fool around with something that’s worked so well for so long? Of course.)

What is it that a book or an article does? What is a footnote or a bibliography or a page?

Scholarship is research and rigorous anonymous peer review, and that’s it. There’s a lot at stake here.

All of the sublanguages of scholarship are based on the root language of research and argument and persuasion and connection. All good scholarship is beautiful. [Ayers is a truly fantastic writer and speaker.]

These represent a search for certainty. An act of faith that it will be read by someone else, that its passon will be shared. Our books and articles, we dream, may outlive us. And scholarship embodies our hard-wired hope of progress. If we really, really understand this particular problem, we’ll be able to make life better. It is not an accessory to modern life; it is the cause and the center of modern life.

Technology is helping historical research. He can search his own books on Amazon faster and better than he can search them in Word on his computer. This revolution has been led from above, by the AHA and the MLA and ACLS. They aren’t waiting for the scholars, but building the tools first and hoping the scholars rush in.

We need to do what the discipline wants, better than it can on paper. Not just digital archives, but digital articles. Started the Valley of the Shadow project. He wrote a general-audience book and a scholarly article from it. [He demos the article site; very cool.]

There is a market for people doing digital scholarship. Don’t wait for some dean to open up the gates. We need to persuade the disciplines that this is not a dilution a distraction or a diversion of our own work. This is not a displacement, but an enhancement.

The tool creates the desire. This is not a felt need among academics. To get people involved, we need to tap into the irrational passion that always gives rise to scholarship. Only a passionate scholar, not a rational business, would create these things. Building capacity will not transform scholarship until the passion attaches.

History got burned in the 70s. they tried to abstract patterns out of historical data. “Time on the Cross” is the big book — loved for two weeks, excoriated since. It got rid of particularities, and that is reductionist history. Now we don’t have to. We have a subtle, individual process. We can amplify particularities, not cancel them out for the sake of symmetry. GIS can let us see patterns of population movement and politics and economics and cultural life in new forms. We can tell new kinds of stories. We can model lost buildings and landscapes and worlds, then invent forms of scholarship to study those things. Archives are to historians what nature is to scientists.

I am not celebrating technology. It will let us down. It is a fickle mistress. I am celebrating scholarship and the curiosity that drives it.

Thanks to archivists and librarians, we now possess thrilling new possibilities. Cheap computers, free networks, fast easy access to content worldwide. But we’ve barely begun to use that potential for scholarship. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than that.

Panel Discussion: Courant, Vaidhyanathan, and Ayers
Moderated by Laura Gurak.

G: What’s a scholar to do? Respond to each other’s presentations for a few minutes.

V: What Ayers is doing is great, but that kind of scholarship stops at 1923 due to copyright clearance problems. Couldn’t do the same thing about the 1960s instead of the 1860s. We need to study times of intense turmoil, but we can’t study some of them in certain ways because the culture is locked up. Does our history stop in 1932 (he means 1923)? This is about more than orphan works (works you can’t track down); it’s about things you can’t buy at any cost. We need to make clear to legislators that we have to use these to describe our culture. We need to make it clear that this is driving up the cost of education and public media. And we need to inject a bit of courage in our own institutions.

C: Yeah, that’s right. The way scholars deal with information is valuable to copyright holders; we can make a deal with copyright holders. The ways in which we keep things have commercial value. And perhaps we can find ways to use them in the spirit of fair use, that doesn’t involve bomb-throwing (though bomb-throwing is all right sometimes). Is fair use salvagable? Is there such a statute?
The things many people do with the technology, while valuable, aren’t deep. We aren’t going to give tenure for that, in print or online. It’s not that it’s in new media, it’s that the scholarship isn’t that good. The humanities don’t understand how to exploit their graduate students — they must contribute a data archive in the sciences. Humanities abuse their graduate students, but they don’t exploit them.

A: You’re right that we need to pay grad students more and expand their skill sets. But the humanities aren’t able to do the same sort of thing because we reinvent the wheel every time — unless you do it yourself it’s not real scholarship. We don’t reuse others’ research because it’s against our norms.

We need scholarship tools like an iPod — a personal size, not a 12-year project like the Valley project. But it doesn’t speed the process yet. We need to invent the equivalent of word processing programs that people can do scholarship with. [Has anyone thought about using a wiki?]

We avoided the copyright issues, but we need to change both on a large scale and a small scale. We can sometimes convince people to let us do what we want. (“We’ll give you the digital versions for your archives, I’ll get to use the stuff for my research and put it online.”)

V: You can do that, but you have a swiss-cheese problem.

C: That generates political demand with the cool stuff you can do, generating a generation of users who think they should be able to do certain things with our culture.

V: But we’ve never had this kind of surveillance before. We used to trade tapes like crazy. We used to use uncleared photos because the stakes seemed lower. It seems like now there is such mania about protection — that you won’t be able to charge for the Rembrandts in your attic. But in the 90s, the ephemeral became valuable, and people tried to lock it up and make it scarce.

As far as fair use, there are other non-section 107 exceptions to the exclusive rights. It’s intentionally unclear and flexible. Section 110 has some specific exemptions that lock us into certain ways of doing things in a classroom.

Question from the audience: How do we make these things visible to the community, especially immigrant and indigenous communities?

V: Standards and platforms are important. Choose open platforms.

A: There’s more history about it online than there was before. But that’s not the same thing about living people who are their descendants having access and actually using these things. There are lots of possibilities in ethnography. There is much left to be done regarding access.

C: The online world can get very specialized and can create things for very small markets. Once you find it, you cna build a community. [Interesting angle -- the long tail helps multiculturalism.]

V: We are huge players in the information ecosystem and bear responsibility for the heath of that ecosystem. We must keep public libraries well-funded. Any harm to the ecosystem harms us.

Q: Paper has been a great medium for preserving information. How do we know this stuff is going to be there in 100 years. Where’s the redundancy of libraries all having a copy?

A: The LoC might be interested in preserving it, or LOCKSS. It’s not that expensive to make a lot of copies, but what about the software? How do we keep it runnign forever?

Followup Q: What about persistence of links?

C: You can’t do Ed’s article on paper. You actually can’t. Not that it’s expensive, but that it’s really genuinely nonsensical. There are two things we need to do, both expensive. One is finding media that will be secure, not based on bits and chunks of proprietary hardware and software. That’s expensive but doable — have librarians figure out how and have the librarians give us the bill. If it started on paper, we’ve got to keep the original. For material that’s born and naturally digital, we’ve got to make lots of copies on live servers running places. CDs break, tapes get old. But, you know, it’s a good use for old missile silos. How many are needed worldwide? A lot less than we have ARL members.

V: The promise of providing stuff forever is getting less true due to licensed digital resources. The library can’t archive it, so if the company goes away, so does the content. The idea of preserving for an archive doesn’t occur to Washington or Hollywood, but it’s important and we need to tell them. DRM is going to mess it all up. Historians will be driven nuts.

Q: We’re the big ten. We’ve got to have some sort of leverage. What can we do?

C: There’s a potential for lots of cooperation among the CIC. We’re working on a big repository for all of our archival materials. The hardest part is getting the faculty to be willing to drop things into a local digital repository in a replicable structure. We’ve got to make it easy — dspace is good, and copyright gets in the way. We need to make it a two-minute proposition. What we can’t do is just announce that we’re not buying journals from Elsevier. We can break it open once we have a way to publish scholarship and store it ourselves.

Q: No Text Left Behind: What percentage of the print record is available now? In 10 years? What happens after that to the stuff that’s not online?

C: 100% before 20 years. 50% in 10 years. The Google fraction is nontrivial. It now becomes imaginable. But some will disappear in the next 20 years. Will it be accessible or locked up? That’s an open question. We leave behind 31 milion items in UMich libraries that are not text. He means what’s in libraries.

Q: How will we access the Google stuff in 2009? Who can access it?

C: That’s a really good question. We will make it as available as we can. The pre-1923 stuff will be available to anyone. The stuff that’s protected may be more complicated depending on what happens between now and then.

Q: The copyright law has largely reflected the capitalist nature of this society, and as scholars we need something slightly different. Do we have the clout to write a copyright law that is good for scholars (not just an exception for scholars)?

V: The copyright laws changed so radically in 1998 because the industries went crying to the government (an anti-free market move). The University is a market player, too, but that becomes are strength in the larger sense because we can affect the market. Copyright was great until 1976; as the cost of distribution is now low, we may need to rethink this.

A: We need to show why we need a different kind of copyright law. We need to demonstrate. We need to build things and talk to our senators and show them how we can teach and bring down the cost of education. It’s all about monetization of education now, and we need to go the other direction. We need to play a card with more rhetorical power. I’m not optimisitc about that, because everything has a pricetag now.

C: We need to show that we deliver something that people care about — education and local economic development. There’s a constitutency of people who love goofing around on the internet who can’t get into some of the public university’s stuff. Didn’t we pay for this? Isn’t it ours? Maybe that way we can get somewhere.

Disclaimer Haiku:
West wind seems to say,
"This is not legal advice;
I'm not your lawyer."

(And if you're a client with whom I have a preexisting attorney-client relationship, this still isn't legal advice.)

In case you're wondering, this blog is also not intended as advertising, as a representation of anything but my personal opinion, or as an offer of representation.

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