An interesting concept from John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture which I think has important implications for scholarly publishing. From pg 276-277:

Oprah and Richard and Judy are prime examples of what I shall call ‘recognition triggers’. I use the term ‘recognition trigger’ to refer to those drivers of sales that have three characteristics. First, they are triggers based on a form of recognition that endows the work with an accredited visibility . Thanks to this recognition, the work is now both visible , picked out from an ocean of competing titles and brought into the consciousness of consumers, and deemed to be worthy of being read , that is, worth not only the money that the consumer would have to pay to buy it but, just as importantly, the time they would have to spend to read it. Visible and worthy: a form of recognition that kills two birds with one stone.

The second characteristic is that the recognition is bestowed by individuals or organizations other than the agents and organizations that are directly involved in creating, producing and selling the work. Literary agents, publishers and booksellers cannot produce the kind of recognition upon which recognition triggers depend. They can produce other things, like the buzz and excitement that surround an author or a book, and these forms of laudatory talk can have real consequences, as we have seen. But recognition triggers presuppose that those individuals or organizations who bestow the recognition are, and are seen to be, independent in some way and to some extent from the parties that have a direct economic interest in the book’s success. It is this independence and perception of independence that enables recognition triggers to grant worthiness and explains in part why they can have such dramatic effects.

The third characteristic is that, precisely because recognition is bestowed by individuals and organizations that are independent and seen to be so, it follows that publishers themselves have only a limited ability to influence the decisions that result in the bestowal of recognition, and hence a limited ability to control their effects. They certainly try to influence these decisions where they can, or to second-guess the decision-makers where they can’t directly or indirectly influence them, but at the end of the day the decisions are not theirs. So recognition triggers introduce yet another element of unpredictability into a field that is already heavily laden with serendipity.

Do these recognition triggers exist in scholarly publishing? The obvious example is the journal system itself. The anonymity of peer review is understood to ensure independence and negotiating the peer review process is understand as a marker of quality signifying the paper is worthy of being read.

But the over abundance that characterises scholarly publishing has complicated this, as has the growing functional imperative to self-promote one’s own papers. People will be searching for more ‘recognition triggers’, despite not using the concept, leading to all sorts of competitive dynamics which I think we’ll begin to see over the coming years. I suspect many of them will involve social media.

From Merchants of Culture, by John Thompson, pg 238. In the United States:

The number of new books published in the US each year prior to 1980 was probably under 50,000. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the number of new books published greatly increased, reaching nearly 200,000 by 1998. By 2004 the number had risen to over 275,000 (see table 9 ). 2 After falling off in 2005, the total climbed to over 284,000 in 2007 and continued to rise in the following years, reaching an estimated 316,000 by 2010.

And this has been supplemented greatly by non-traditional outputs. From pg 239-241:

The data from Bowker suggest that the number of non-traditional outputs rose from 21,936 in 2006 to a staggering 2,776,260 in 2010, which, if added to the traditional books published in 2010, would give a total output of more than 3 million titles. The non-traditional outputs include books released by companies specializing in self-publishing, like Lulu and Xlibris, but the vast majority of these non-traditional outputs are scanned versions of public domain works that are being marketed on the web and made available through print-on-demand vendors. 

A similar pattern can be seen in the UK. From pg 241:

Prior to 1980 there were probably fewer than 50,000 new books published each year in the UK. By 1995 this number had doubled to more than 100,000, and by 2003 it had increased to nearly 130,000.The total number fell off slightly after that, though by 2009 the number of new books that were published in the UK had risen to more than 157,000 (see table 10 ), spurred on by the growth of print-on-demand, digital and self-publishing.

In John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, he makes a number of observations about the importance of brand-name writers which could easily be applied to the growth of academic celebrities within scholarly publishing. From pg 212-214

Brand-name authors are important for two reasons: first, their sales are predictable, and second, they are repeaters. Their sales are predictable because they have readerships that are loyal to them. Readers become ‘fans’ of a particular writer, or of a series of books by a particular writer, and they want to read more. The publisher can therefore count on a market that is to some extent captive, and the sales of the author’s previous books become a good guide to the sales of the author’s next book. If the author’s career is developing satisfactorily, the publisher can count on cumulative growth: each new book will sell more than the previous one, and the overall trajectory will be a steadily climbing curve. In a world where so much frontlist publishing is a crapshoot, predictability of this kind is a gift.

Brand-name authors are also repeaters. They write a book a year, or maybe a book every two years. This means that the publisher with a number of repeaters can plan their future programme with much more accuracy and reliability than a publisher who is relying on the normal hit-and-miss business of frontlist trade publishing. They know when each of their repeaters will deliver and they can plan their publishing strategies for each author and each book in order to maximize their sales potential –each year a new hardcover, which is subsequently relaunched as a trade or mass-market paperback, etc. The regular, predictable output of repeaters enables the publisher to build the author’s brand over time, feeding new books into the marketplace at regular intervals to maintain the interest and loyalty of existing fans and to recruit new readers. It also enables the publisher to build the backlist, since the better known the author is, the more valuable his or her backlist will tend to be, as new and existing fans turn to earlier books in order to sate their appetite for their favoured author’s work. So the publisher with brand-name authors wins on both fronts: predictable frontlist hits that can be turned into staple backlist titles.

In John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, he describes what might be termed the bounded autonomy enjoyed by some editorial teams within publishing houses. From pg 128:

the devolution of editorial decision-making to small editorial teams operating with a high degree of autonomy within certain financial parameters is the best way to maximize your chances of success. As one senior manager in a large corporation put it, ‘We’re giving somebody a playing field and we’re putting fences around the edge of it and saying, “If you want to cross one of those fences, you have to ask a question. But if you’re playing in the field you can do what you like.” You give people a lot of scope, but you provide a framework within which they operate.’

I was struck by how absent this seems in (British) academia, with the possible exception of some business schools. Rather than seek to return to a full system of collegial self-regulation, does this provide a model for arguing for autonomy within managerial structures? E.g. Scholarship is something which needs autonomy to flourish but this can be bounded in terms of outcomes and rules?

It’s worth noting that there’s a brutally instrumental attitude which underwrites this bounded autonomy. From pg 131:

‘There is an unspoken rule,’ explains one senior editor who has worked at Star for some 30 years, ‘put one toe out of the elevator to interfere with us and we will cut you off at the knees. And the only thing that enables us to take that attitude is profitability. As long as we make the money, we can tell them to go fuck themselves. It’s as simple and as old-fashioned as that. The second that goes wrong, we’ve had it. If we stop being profitable, the incursions will start.’

And underlying this dynamic is a certain ineffable trait, a resistance to quantification amidst demonstrable sources of profit and gain to the organisation. From pg 131-132:

This is part of the mystique of the imprint, ‘and the one thing corporate owners are scared shitless of is messing with mystique,’ said another senior editor. ‘Mystique is what they don’t understand. All they know is, if it works, don’t break it.’

Thompson later offers counter-examples to this. I’m intruiged by the analogy between high prestige imprints and successful research groups. How does the negotiation of bounded autonomy empower group leaders? The figure Milena Kremakova calls ‘the troll on the bridge’ could become very powerful here: mediating pressures towards granular control within the group and negotiating bounded autonomy for the group as a whole.

My experience of watching the literature on asexuality spiral from a handful of papers ever through to new ones each month has left me fascinated by how quickly ‘the literature’ can become unmanageable. Within a relatively small and nascent field, it’s possible to grasp ‘the literature’ as a totality. But past a certain point, circumscribing it becomes an inevitability for purely practical reasons: focusing on this, ignoring that, excluding material from different disciplines.

At what point does it become impossible to represent ‘the literature’ as a totality? The impulse to do this doesn’t cease but with its growth these depictions are increasingly performative rather than representational. Demonstrating mastery of ‘the literature’ entails authoritatively circumscribing large chunks of the total knowledge stock within the field, naturalising these occlusion in a way liable to influence others. 

Furthermore, ‘the literature’ as a totality necessarily eludes depictions of it because each of these claimed attempts to represent the object in fact contribute  to that object’s spiralling complexity. 

The way we talk and think about ‘the literature’ is unsuited to the realities of publishing in the accelerated academy.

The notion of ‘publish or perish’ has become something of a cliché. But its reality is starkly confirmed by the sheer quantity of scholarly literature produced each year, with an estimated 28,100 active scholarly peer-reviewed journals publishing around 1.8-1.9 million articles in 2012. How much of this literature is written as a contribution to knowledge and how much of it is written to be counted? How many of these papers provoke serious engagement and how many are largely forgotten? After all, it’s estimated that 82% of papers in the humanities are never cited, 27% in the natural sciences and 32% in the social sciences.

Does keeping up with the literature remain feasible when so much is being produced? Graham Scambler suggests we are seeing a ‘compression of the past’ in which many Sociology papers increasingly make reference to “a handful of ‘reified’ classics from the past century and a flowering profusion of twenty-first century offerings”. His point is that when we have access to a “a bewildering and heterogeneous assembly of up-to-date sources” we tend to combine uncontentious canonical sources with “what we have most recently digested”. He argues that great bodies of work are lost under these conditions, contributing to a situation thatStephen Mugford describes as the eternal sunshine of the spotless sociologist: long studied topics and well developed approaches are ‘invented’ afresh, without reference to the originals, such that endless reiteration and forgetting replaces cumulative intellectual progress

This special section of The Sociological Review’s website seeks short blog posts reflecting on the challenge for scholarship under conditions of abundance. This might include topics such as the following:

  • Is it becoming more difficult to keep up with the literature within any given field?
  • What role does specialisation play in the explosion of scholarly publishing?
  • Do our reading practices need to change under these conditions?
  • Is the proliferation of journal articles simply a distraction? Do we need a renewed focus on quality rather than quantity?
  • How do the demands of career progression contribute to the proliferation of journal articles?
  • Should we place more value on review articles because of their capacity to systematise and condense sprawling literatures?
  • Do we need new practices of reflection to consolidate what has been established within a field? Could social media help to this end?

Please contact Mark Carrigan with submissions or any questions relating to the special section: mark@markcarrigan.net. The deadline for contributions is March 31st 2016.

From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:

I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

Via Nick Mahoney. How good does this event look?

Why Are We Not Boycotting Academia.edu?

Coventry University

Tuesday 8th December 2015

3:00-6:00pm

Ellen Terry Building room ET130 

With:

Janneke Adema – Chair (Coventry University, UK)

Pascal Aventurier (INRA, France)

Kathleen Fitzpatrick (MLA/Coventry University, US)

Gary Hall (Coventry University, UK)

David Parry (Saint Joseph’s University, US) 

Organised by The Centre for Disruptive Media: http://www.disruptivemedia.org 

Registration: http://why-are-we-not-boycotting-academia-edu.eventbrite.co.uk 

With over 36 million visitors each month, the San Francisco-based platform-capitalist company Academia.edu is hugely popular with researchers. Its founder and CEO Richard Price maintains it is the ‘largest social-publishing network for scientists’, and ‘larger than all its competitors put together’. Yet posting on Academia.edu is far from being ethically and politically equivalent to using an institutional open access repository, which is how it is often understood by academics. 

Academia.edu’s financial rationale rests on the ability of the venture-capital-funded professional entrepreneurs who run it to monetize the data flows generated by researchers. Academia.edu can thus be seen to have a parasitical relationship to a public education system from which state funding is steadily being withdrawn. Its business model depends on academics largely educated and researching in the latter system, labouring for Academia.edu for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value.  

To date over 15,000 researchers have taken a stand against the publisher Elsevier by adding their name to the list on the Cost of Knowledge website demanding they change how they operate. Just recently 6 editors and 31 editorial-board members of one of Elsevier’s journals, Lingua, went so far as to resign, leading to calls for a boycott and for support for Glossa, the open access journal they plan to start instead. By contrast, the business practices of Academia.edu have gone largely uncontested. 

This is all the more surprising given that when Elsevier bought the academic social network Mendeley in 2013 (it was suggested at the time that Elsevier was mainly interested in acquiring Mendeley’s user data), many academics deleted their profiles out of protest. Yet generating revenue from the exploitation of user data is exactly the business model underlying academic social networks such as Academia.edu. 

This event will address the following questions:

Why have researchers been so ready to campaign against for-profit academic publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa, but not against for-profit platforms such as Academia.edu ResearchGate and Google Scholar?

Should academics refrain from providing free labour for these publishing companies too?  

Are there non-profit alternatives to such commercial platforms academics should support instead?

Could they take inspiration from the editors of Lingua (now Glossa) and start their own scholar-owned and controlled platform cooperatives for the sharing of research?

Or are such ‘technologies of the self’ or ‘political technologies of individuals’, as we might call them following Michel Foucault, merely part of a wider process by which academics are being transformed into connected individuals who endeavour to generate social, public and professional value by acting as microentrepreneurs of their own selves and lives?  

About the speakers

Janneke Adema is Research Fellow in Digital Media at Coventry University. She has published in numerous peer-reviewed journals and edited books including New Formations; New Media & Society; The International Journal of Cultural Studies; New Review of Academic Librarianship; LOGOS: The Journal of the World Book Community; and Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy. She blogs at Open Reflections: http://www.openreflections.org/ 

Pascal Aventurier has been leading the Regional Scientific Information Team at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research’s (INRA, France) PACA Centre since 2002. He is also co-leader of the scientific information technology group. His focus is on research data, linked open data, open science, knowledge management and controlled vocabularies, as well as researching digital and social tool practices. His team is also exploring the evolution of social networks for academic use. His recent piece on ‘Academic social networks: challenges and opportunities’, is available here: http://www.unica-network.eu/sites/default/files/Academic_Social_Networks_Challenges_opportunities.pdf 

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Director of Scholarly Communication at the MLA, and visiting professor at Coventry University. The author of Planned Obsolescence (2011) she is also co-founder of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons. Her recent piece on Academia.edu, ‘Academia. Not Edu’, is available here: http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/academia-not-edu/. 

Gary Hall is Professor of Media and Performing Arts, Coventry University, UK, and co-founder of Open Humanities Press. His new monograph, Pirate Philosophy, is forthcoming from MIT Press in early 2016. His recent piece on Academia.edu, ‘What Does Academia.edu’s Success Mean for Open Access?’,is available here: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/10/22/does-academia-edu-mean-open-access-is-becoming-irrelevant/

David Parry joined Saint Joseph’s University in the Fall of 2013. His work focuses on understanding the complex social and cultural transformations brought about by the development of the digital network. He is particularly interested in understanding how the internet transforms political power and democracy. He also researches and is an advocate for Open Access Research. His work can be found at http://www.outsidethetext.com.

This is a slightly crude attempt to thematise something which I’ve been struggling to express for a while: has there been an acceleration of the rate at which bullshit emerges in the digital economy? Here’s an example of what I have in mind. I’ve been looking through Amazon for business books about the newer social media and sharing economy companies for part of my new project. This is what I find when searching for Instagram in the books section of Amazon:

1

If you can’t read the screenshot closely enough, trust me when I say they look crap. What appear to be a uniformly substitutable array of questionably written books united by the underlying motif of how to get rich from Instagram. I’ve found something similar for almost every search I’ve undertaken in the last half hour.

The presence of many crap books on Amazon might not be a revelation. But what interests me is the motivations of those writing them. The buzz around a new platform presents an opportunity to establish oneself as a guide to that platform. But the nature of this buzz means awareness of that opportunity is almost as pervasive as awareness of the platform itself. The barriers to entry are minimal and the rewards appear to be great, particularly given the tendency of those who have ‘made it’ to “publicize successful outliers to propagate the illusion”. Furthermore, there’s a broader acceleration of the rate at which people seize on opportunities against a structural background of destructured careers and a cultural background of entrepreneurial individualism.

The result: we find ourselves drowning in an ever expanding pool of bullshit. The cognitive costs entailed by sorting the wheat from the chaff become ever more onerous, our reliance upon human and algorithmic intermediaries tends to increase as a result, making a small but meaningful contribution to the upwards spiral of individual distraction and collective fragmentation that I’m increasingly convinced is perhaps the defining characteristic of digital capitalism.

 

A few weeks ago I was browsing a photography bookshop in London and came across the term ‘micro-publisher’ for the first time. The friend I was with seemed slightly bemused that I hadn’t encountered the term and explained that it just meant small publishers with tiny print runs. Here’s how Wikipedia defines micro-publishing:

  • The book publishing industry sometimes uses this term in discussing publishing companies below a certain revenue level.
  • It is also used to describe the use of efficient publishing and distribution techniques to publish a work intended for a specific micromarket. Typically, these works are not considered by larger publishers because of their low economy of scale and mass appeal and the difficulties that would arise in their marketing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micropublishing

The two meanings seem obviously connected to me, in so far as that the former will be the likely state of companies who only engage in the latter. In fact, as the Wikipedia articles goes on to make clear, it’s only with the growth of Print on Demand that the niche markets to which micro-publishers cater became financially feasible because of a radical reduction in the upfront investment that was necessary. This trend intensified with the emergence of online publishing in general and eReaders in particular. As the Wikipedia articles continues:

Before the emergence of the internet, micropublishing was considered a “microtrend” that would not play much of a role in the publishing world, because costs per copy were too high. The internet has changed this by providing authors and micropublishers with an affordable medium through which to publish and distribute their works.[citation needed]

The Internet is also evolving how the works from traditional publishing, self-publishing and micro-publishing are distributed. The long imagined dream of digital distribution for published works is quickly becoming a reality. For micro-publications, digital distribution may enable greater numbers of authors and potential authors to enter the publishing industry to access readers who prefer to receive and/or consume content in digital form.

[..]

Digital micropublishing sites like Scribd and Docstoc enable micro-publishers to easily distribute their digital works using intellectual property licenses. Licensing micro-publications simplifies protecting and tracking those works which are distributed digitally, an approached used for many years by software producers, and in the last decade by MP3 music distributors.

Micro-publishers and authors who use intellectual property licensing sites are not limited to a specific medium (like eReaders) to distribute their works. This flexibility may allow micropublishing to significantly expand readership while protecting copyrights.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micropublishing

The Subcompact Publishing manifesto thinks through the potential implications of this for the nature of the magazine. To produce a digital edition of a print publication leaves a publisher under a very particular set of constraints:

A generalized print magazine may be composed of the following qualities:

  • Each issue contains a dozen or more articles.
  • Issues operate on a monthly cycle.
  • All articles are bundled and shipped at the same time.

Almost all of these qualities are the result of responses to distribution and production constraints. Printing and binding takes a certain amount of time. Shipping the issues takes another chunk of time. In order to find a balance between timeliness of content and shelf-life, a month makes a pretty sensible — if brisk — publishing schedule.

Old into new

So why do so many of our digital magazines publish on the same schedule, with the same number of articles as their print counterparts? Using the same covers? Of course, they do because it’s easier to maintain identical schedules across mediums. To not design twice. To not test twice (or, at all).

Unfortunately — from a medium-specific user experience point of view — it’s almost impossible to produce a digitally indigenous magazine beholden to those legacy constraints. Why? Not least because we use tablets and smartphones very differently than we use printed publications.

One of the great benefits of being part of the emergent publishing world is that you don’t have multiple mediums to publish across.10 You can and probably should focus squarely on digital. Perhaps later — contingent on market demand and content quality — you can consider publishing a print anthology to give your publication a stronger literal edge.11

http://craigmod.com/journal/subcompact_publishing/

The author then outlines how ‘Subcompact Publishing’ can take advantage of freedom from these legacy constraints:

Subcompact Publishing tools are first and foremost straightforward.

They require few to no instructions.

They are easily understood on first blush.

The editorial and design decisions around them react to digital as a distribution and consumption space.

They are the result of dumping our publishing related technology on a table and asking ourselves — what are the core tools we can build with all this stuff?

They are, as it were, little N360s.

I propose Subcompact Publishing tools and editorial ethos begin (but not end) with the following qualities:

  • Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)
  • Small file sizes
  • Digital-aware subscription prices
  • Fluid publishing schedule
  • Scroll (don’t paginate)
  • Clear navigation
  • HTML(ish) based
  • Touching the open web

http://craigmod.com/journal/subcompact_publishing/

To my surprise, the author suggests that Apple’s Newstand is actually a grossly under-appreciated tool to this end. The argument seems convincing:

Apple’s Newsstand? “But isn’t that where all those horrible things live?” I hear you say. Or, “Oh? That folder I’ve never opened?”

Newsstand is perhaps the most underutilized, under-imagined distribution tool in the short history of tablet publishing. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head at just the right angle, you’ll notice something magical about Newsstand: given the proper container, it’s a background downloading, offline-friendly, cached RSS machine people can subscribe to. For money.

http://craigmod.com/journal/subcompact_publishing/

What I find interesting is how much of the innovation in this field has been driven by the facilitation of micro-publishing by others:

The Magazine is no longer alone as an enterprising app-magazine. It has been joined on the Newsstand by a host of publications put out by 29th Street Publishing, which acts as a publisher and marketer for indie editors and writers, and now a clutch of other startups have entered the fray, each toting cheap or free tools that help regular schmoes produce and sell beautiful cross-platform publications. The options available to independent publishers have never been better, but it’s also likely that this space is going to get saturated quickly. Below is a rundown of the new companies that offer digital publishing products.

http://pando.com/2013/06/03/the-micropublishing-explosion-has-begun/

Here are some of the tools listed in this article:

  1. Readymag
  2. Periodical
  3. Blookist
  4. Glossi
  5. TypeEngine
  6. Packagr

What does all this mean for scholarly publishing? Three initial thoughts occur to me. Firstly, it’s clearer to me than ever why I’m ambivalent about the growth of new journals facilitated by Open Journal Systems. If the journal is freed from the complexity of sales & licensing then why so enthusiastically reproduce the form of long established non-OA journals? Secondly, these tools could offer new opportunities for dissemination by large research projects, publishing accessible material on an ongoing basis rather than restricting dissemination to the end of the project. Thirdly, it potentially becomes feasible to run public engagement projects on an going basis without being completely reliant on grant funding and/or endless unpaid labour.

Thoughts much appreciated.

I’ve long been a little bit fascinated by Žižek. I find him utterly hypnotic to watch and have consumed countless YouTube lectures by him. I genuinely enjoy his journalistic output and have read a lot of it via the Guardian, London Review of Books and the New Statesman. I find his short books immensely readable and his longer books rather tedious. I’ve never been able to work out how seriously I take him as a philosopher. I find myself simultaneously drawn to him and repelled by him. I find his politics brave yet vacuous. I find his ideas occasionally illuminating yet more frequently elusive. He’s a strange thinker who disrupts my evaluative habits, preventing me from fitting him into the categories I use with other writers and revealing the limitations of those (overly neat) categories in the process.

However the thing that intrigues me most about Žižek is his voluminous output. He is a publishing phenomenon – something attested to by the regurgitation of blurbs about him on each new book. He transcends his work, becoming a brand in a manner so knowing that his status resists easy condemnation. In an important way he is a product of the neoliberal academy: the superstar professor who uses his global brand to float free of the scholarly and collegial ties that otherwise bind. Partly this is a contradiction that can be observed in other left wing intellectual superstars – Chomsky is the most obvious example and this is why their ‘spat’ was so fascinating to many. But Žižek seems at least quantitatively different in the sheer scale of his output.

According to the Žižek bibliography on wikipedia, he has published 55 books since 2000. 55 books in less than 15 years. I was curious about whether this amounts to the sheer weight of writing that it would superficially appear to be. In assessing this I’ve excluded papers, letters, interviews, collections of his writing, things that are co-written, his joke book (!), edited collections and what is apparently a reprint of his doctoral thesis. I’ve also excluded anything that I’m unable to categorise reliably which excludes the books published in Slovenian that haven’t been translated yet (as far as I’m aware). In other words, this is an extremely conservative figure for Žižek’s output since 2000. Not least of all because it excludes his vast journalistic writing (though obviously we know that, in an important sense, it includes this).

For purposes of an exercise in procrastination, I was content to simply add up the total pages of each book (as listed on Amazon) in order to gain an overall figure of the quantity of his writing. Obviously I realise that neither publishing or writing really works this way – there’s also the open question of how much regurgitation there is between each of these books. Here’s the full list:

Absolute Recoil: 440 pages
Trouble in Paradise: 240 pages
Event: 224 pages
Year of Dreaming Dangerously: 144 pages
Less Than Nothing: 1046 pages
Living In The End Times: 520 pages
First As Tragedy, Then As Farce: 168 pages
Violence: 224 pages
In Defence of Lost Causes: 504 pages
How To Read Lacan: 128 pages
The Parallax View: 448 pages
Iraq: 224 pages
The Puppet and the Dwarf: 190 pages
Organs Without Bodies: 232 pages
Welcome to the Desert of the Real: 160 pages
On Belief: 176 pages
The Fright of Real Tears: 144 pages
Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism: 288 pages
The Fragile Absolute: 208 page
The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: 46 pages

There are those I’ve read and enjoyed (First As Tragedy, Year of Dreaming Dangerously), those I’ve started and given up on (Less Than Nothing, Living In The End Times) and those I’ve read but cannot remember a single thing about (How To Read Lacan, In Defence of Lost Causes). There are also many I’ve never heard of. They come to a grand total of 5754 pages. That’s actually rather less than I expected. In a very rough way this quantity of output could be seen to amount to 411 pages per year since 2000. To reiterate: I do realise that neither writing nor publishing actually work this way. However it could be argued that any overestimate inherent in how crudely I’ve measured this is likely offset by the vast array of material that I’ve excluded from the count.

I don’t find anything remotely inconceivable about the idea of writing 411 pages in a year. Where it becomes surprising is when considering how consistently it would be necessary to sustain this sort of rate – I assume there’s an editorial infrastructure around Žižek which takes much of the work out of the many additional publications (edited collections, interviews etc) and also that pitches books to him at least some of the time. In this sense his commercial success likely translates into institutional scaffolding that reduce the cognitive load of writing i.e. reduces the number of things he has to think about in order to move from one project to the next. It’s also hard not to wonder if some of the contents of these books are just transcriptions of the many public talks he does (not that I think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with this) and that these invitations in turn enhance the writing process by offering a constant stream of ideational prompts and regular opportunities to refine ideas.

Even so, he still writes a hell of a lot with a remarkable consistency. In spite of his self-presentation as dishevelled and chaotic, it seems rather unlikely that he’s a binge writer and that he instead has a very regular writing routine. The more I’ve thought about this, I’ve become really intrigued by the conditions of his working life and how they facilitate his prolific output. As part of the project me and Filip Vostal are discussing at the moment, looking at the acceleration of higher education and its implications for scholarship, I’m increasingly aware that I’d like to do a case study of Žižek as representing a mode of public intellectualism facilitated by the accelerated academy. I don’t begrudge him his success but I’d like to understand it more than I do – particularly the intersection between his commercial viability and his scholarly virtues or lack thereof. I think many trends that are reshaping academic life find their expression in the figure of Žižek and writing this post has left me with a greater degree of clarity about why I find him so intriguing.

The potential role of blogs in helping disseminate working papers and other grey literature is something that has fascinated me for a long time – I’m curious about all the interesting unpublished work that is sitting in people’s filing cabinets, either to one day be worked up into a formal paper or perhaps doomed to remain there for ever. I was pleased to see Mike Savage post two fascinating articles of this sort online: sociological ruminations on piketty and cultural capital and the city: reflections on manchester. I hope other sociologists follow his lead!

The public debate concerning ‘scare stories’ about statins is an interesting case study for the politics of peer review. It’s an important reminder that these seemingly technical issues of scholarly communication can have important public consequences. The case seems to be framed in the media as calling into question the ‘gold standard’ of peer review. Is this fair? I suspect it is but that the media coverage is inevitably somewhat simplistic.

It’s interesting to hear the rhetoric deployed to defend peer review and how obscurely, if at all, the institutional context figures into this. It makes ‘peer review’ into a timeless and placeless activity, with the inherent characteristics of the practice working to ensure the promised outcome. But if the context is only invoked by those attacking peer review, sometimes convincingly but often in a way I find rather worrying, it makes the ensuing debate weirdly one sided. It’s important to be able to defend the values of peer review while recognising that a shifting context should be grounds for recalibrating an existing practice. 

The authors of two papers published by the British Medical Journal have publicly retracted statements they made about the frequency of side effects experienced by people taking statins, following a charge by an Oxford professor that the information was wrong and could endanger lives.

Prof Sir Rory Collins told the Guardian in March that a paper and a subsequent article in the BMJ were inaccurate and misleading. They had claimed that 18%-20% of people on the cholesterol-reducing drugs suffered adverse events. Collins called on the BMJ to withdraw them and complained that the authors were creating unease and uncertainty in British patients prescribed statins in large numbers to protect them against heart attacks and stroke.

“It is a serious disservice to British and international medicine,” Collins told the Guardian at the time, claiming that the alarm caused was probably killing more people than had been harmed as a result of the paper on the MMR vaccine by Andrew Wakefield. “I would think the papers on statins are far worse in terms of the harm they have done.”

The paper, by John Abramson and colleagues, questioned the decision to extend statins to thousands of people at low risk of heart attacks and strokes, saying that the drugs had not been proven to save lives in that group. They also claimed that an observational study had shown that 18%-20% suffer side effects from statins. An article by cardiologist Aseem Malhotra published the same week repeated the figure. Both authors have now withdrawn that statement.

In an editorial published in the BMJ, author Dr Fiona Godlee said the error was due to a misreading of the data from the study and was not picked up by the peer review process. “The BMJ and the authors of both these articles have now been made aware that this figure is incorrect, and corrections have been published withdrawing these statements,” she writes.

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/may/15/statins-bmj-statement-professor-collins-side-effects

How would a publish-then-filter model be treated by the media? Would it undermine the authority of scientific publication? Would this definitely be a problem given that this authority is already being undermined by cases such as the BMJ one above? This seems an obvious transition to make, albeit with great caution, under conditions of fast capitalism. Unless the over-production of academic publication goes away (it won’t) I can’t see how the current peer review system is sustainable. My suspicion is that the time spent on peer review has declined precipitously given the broader shifts in the occupational demands placed upon academics. Publish-then-filter shifts the evaluative burden to a different sector of the working lives of academics.

One of many useful discussions in Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists concerns ‘pluralistic ignorance”. He argues that this social psychological effect manifests itself in academia in relation to writing. Academic writing is a private and isolated endeavour, in which adversity (rejections by journals, lacerating criticism, endless requests for revision) are dealt with in isolation. The proliferation of journals, writes Becker in 1983, means that every point of view can ultimately find a home. So the public markers of difficult (i.e. going unpublished) diminish at the same time as private difficulties remain or may even increase, as the proliferation of journals goes hand-in-hand with a pluralisation of standards, meaning that navigating the submission process becomes a more complex and less predictable task. This results in a state of affairs where “Everyone thinks that everyone else is getting it done” and “They keep their difficulties to themselves” (pg 21). The privatised character of the process means that “sociological writers do not develop a culture, a body of shared solutions to their shared problems” because no peer group has the same problem (pg 20). In its absence, the tendency is to assume that everyone else copes with writing without problems. 

It’s in this context that I find ‘craft’ so interesting. In a descriptive sense, I think of ‘craft’ as encompassing the practical activity involved in creative production. So it’s all the practical embodied things involved in academic writing, as well as the order in which they fit together into a sequence. The concept provides a normative standard, in the substantive perspective it offers from which to critique instrumentalism, but there is also a normative dimension to the practices designated by the concept. To engage with craft involves an encounter with standards inherent to the practice, though of course our acquaintance with those standards is fallible and constrained by our circumstances. I like Richard Sennett’s account of this: 

Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labour; it serves the computer programmer, the doctor, and the artist; parenting improves when it is practiced as a skilled craft, as does citizenship. In all these domains, craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself. Social and economic conditions, however, often stand in the way of the craftsman’s discipline and commitment; schools may fail to provide the tools to do good work, and workplaces may not truly value the aspiration for quality. And though craftsmanship can reward an individual with a sense of pride in work, this reward is not simple. The craftsman often faces conflicting objective standards of excellence; the desire to do something well for its own sake can be impaired by competitive pressures, by frustration, or by obsession.

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, pg. 9

Assuming you accept the coherency of ‘academic craft’, variegated in terms of disciplines and traditions, it becomes increasingly curious that there’s no “body of shared solutions” of the form invoked by Becker. Tricks of the Trade* might be passed on by supervisors or within networks of friends and colleagues. But there’s a striking absence of a public stock of knowledge, a common culture orientated towards practical affairs that is tied in with professionalisation. I think something of this is captured in the notion of ‘professional socialisation’ but that this framing is a symptom of the problem rather than a potential solution to it. I think it also inevitably enters into training in methods and methodology, with questions of technique coming closest to the more everyday conception of ‘craft’. But it still seems there’s something rather major that is conspicuous by its absence.

The prominence of ‘craft’ in professional consciousness is inversely proportional to pluralistic ignorance of the sort Becker describes. The more people talk about the practicalities of doing writing, the less room there is for the assumption that everyone else finds it easy and one’s own difficulties are unusual. But discussions of writing will tend to be marginal in traditional modes of publication. There are only so many books about writing that social scientists are ever going to produce. There are only so many books about writing that social scientists are every going to buy. Likewise I suspect that market forces will tend to push these towards the lowest common denominator, though of course there are many exceptions to this.

However the academic blogopshere and the academic twittersphere, to use two terms I hate, seem obviously amenable to these discussions. They create a space for them that was previously absent. Furthermore, the market constraints which perhaps mitigate against discussions of craft in traditional publishing** could be said to encourage it in a way in the space of academic blogs. My experience on this site and sociologicalimagination.org has been that discussions of writing, professional practice and higher education tend to attract much more attention online and they circulate further on social media. The influence of these ‘market forces’ on academic blogging is a complex issue, representing a problem in many ways, but I think this is one way in which they can be helpful. To anyone trying to build an audience for a blog, it creates an incentive for them to reflect on scholarly practice in a way they might not otherwise. In this sense, I think that the academic blogosphere might involve a tendency to go against the grain of a broader trend within social science that C Wright Mills was fulminating against over half a century ago:

Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist: let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of craft. Stand for the primary of the individual scholar; stand opposite to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.

C Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 224

*To use another catchy term of Becker’s. He has a knack for them.

**This is a completely speculative idea that only occurred to me when writing the post.

 

As helpfully pointed out by Mark Ware (see comments) Springer actually has nothing to do with Axel Springer AG. So there’s two points here (the faux underdogs and the profits in scholarly publishing) which aren’t really connected in the way that I thought they were: 

I’ve just been reading a provocative article by Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer AG, in which he speaks of the deep fear that Google inspires in him:

Google doesn’t need us. But we need Google. We are afraid of Google. I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly. And as the biggest among the small, perhaps it is also up to us to be the first to speak out in this debate. You yourself speak of the new power of the creators, owners, and users.

In the long term I’m not so sure about the users. Power is soon followed by powerlessness. And this is precisely the reason why we now need to have this discussion in the interests of the long-term integrity of the digital economy’s ecosystem. This applies to competition – not only economic, but also political. As the situation stands, your company will play a leading role in the various areas of our professional and private lives – in the house, in the car, in healthcare, in robotronics. This is a huge opportunity and a no less serious threat. I am afraid that it is simply not enough to state, as you do, that you want to make the world a “better place”.

Google lists its own products, from e-commerce to pages from its own Google+ network, higher than those of its competitors, even if these are sometimes of less value for consumers and should not be displayed in accordance with the Google algorithm. It is not even clearly pointed out to the user that these search results are the result of self-advertising. Even when a Google service has fewer visitors than that of a competitor, it appears higher up the page until it eventually also receives more visitors.

You know very well that this would result in long-term discrimination against, and weakening of, any competition, meaning that Google would be able to develop its superior market position still further. And that this would further weaken the European digital economy in particular

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/18/google-alarming-no-conspiracy-theorist

I find myself nodding along, being drawn into the logic of his argument as his concerns resonate with my own. But then my critical faculties reassert themselves and I remember that Springer science publishers (i.e. the branch of Axel Springer likely to be encountered by those who are academics and do not live in Germany) made an operating profit of 33.9% annually in 2010 (up from 2009). This went up to 35.2% in 2012. While the environment of the broader media group is certainly different to that inhabited by the science publishing group, it nonetheless shows why we should resist the efforts of those like Döpfner to cast their corporations as underdogs. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be critical of Google. But it does mean we should resist allowing ourselves to be drawn into dichotomising this complex situation in a way that serves the interests of not particularly likeable corporations. 

This thought has been on my mind recently because I started to wonder whether I’ve been taken in by Waterstones. I feel a genuine affection for Waterstones. But the shop is a cypher for book shops as such for me and I’m aware of this as a deliberate aim of their corporate branding. Are they an underdog? It’s easy to slip into feeling, if not thinking, this when considering their position in relation to Amazon. But surely the same points apply as with Springer. It’s just that I like Waterstones a lot more.

I’ve spent the last couple of hours compiling a reading list for the book project about public sociology I’m planning. I’ve been using Albert Tzeng’s invaluable resource on Sociological Imagination as a starting point, extending it through google scholar and supplemented by the notes I’ve been intermittently taking over the last year. It’s astonishing quite how much of this literature I’m unable to access. Obviously this just reflects the broader landscape of scholarly publishing but there’s still something which seems off about this given the subject matter.

Or so I find myself writing, indignantly and righteously, seemingly oblivious to the fact that if and when the book I’m proposing sees the light of day, it too will be inaccessible to many. Perhaps I should write it and release it on my website? But as much as I’m loathe to admit it, I both need and (more unsettlingly) want the credentialization this planned monograph would confer. Some variation upon this dilemma probably explains much of the placement of these pieces behind paywalls. So who am I to criticise? Instead, I’ll record these anxieties and move on, acquiescing to and arguably entrenching the very structures which my planned book both directly and indirectly critiques. Sociology helps me understand this ‘trap’, as Mills would put it, but it doesn’t help me negotiate it or even to live with it. It does however give me a lead in to an awesomely naval gazing introduction to the book if the proposal gets accepted.


It’s also striking quite how voluminous this literature has become. It’s hard not to see this as symptomatic of pretty much everything that’s wrong with contemporary sociology. I say while nonetheless continuing to plan my own contribution to this literature. Hmm.


One final thought: how long will it be until one of the publishers sues google over scholar automatically offering PDF links where these are available? This hasn’t been very helpful for the public sociology literature up until 2008 on Albert’s bibliography but a substantial quantity of the papers I wanted to read but couldn’t get access to have been offered to me by google scholar. Thanks google.