Monday, October 27, 2014

Invested in a system that renders us irrelevant

Perhaps you have seen this bit of academic click bait: 10 Reasons Professors Should Start Writing BuzzFeed Articles by Mark Marino. There isn't anything there really (and that is kind of the point), just a listicle with a few poorly-chosen memes with some halfway funny headings: "No one Believes that “The Next 450 Pages will Blow Your Mind!" and "The RT is the purest form of peer-review." This Chronicle of Higher Education article unpacks Marino's listicle with more gravity than perhaps is warranted, and includes a link to a meritorious example of an academic using social media, Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards: Part 1, by Chris Rodley. Now that is some worthy link bait.

The idea of academics publishing on Buzzfeed is both a great idea and nothing new. The calls for academics to engage the public with shorter, more accessible writing in different venues have been around for decades. With new platforms the old arguments get rehashed--often by people who seem perfectly unaware of how unoriginal they are being. Hell, tens of thousands of us have been doing exactly this sort of writing with academic blogging.

The argument also misses the essential truth--it assumes that the irrelevance of academics is because of the way we write. You know--bloated, impenetrable, designed for an audience of 40 people (and finding an audience of ten). This argument is wrong. The irrelevance of academic writing is not because of the way we write, it is because of the way we publish.

The illustration for this piece at the CHE--the Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka "tell me more" meme where he is saying "And I can read more about this in your 30 page article in JSTOR?" points at the real problem that prevents academics from finding a public audience. It isn't just the poor quality of so much of our prose, plenty of poor-quality prose sells like hotcakes. It is that there is NO FVCKING WAY for most human beings to get to our academic articles on JSTOR. Most people are not a currently enrolled student or a university employee, and are not willing to pay $20 to read a 30 page article. And even if you are one of the tiny portion of humanity that theoretically has access to JSTOR article, clicking on a link on a blog will still most likely take you to a pay wall. And you will back up, then go the website of your university, and use the godawful search engine there to find the article, and click through a half-dozen screens to get to the full text. Or not.

I think that actually a lot of people would be willing to wade through academic prose to learn more about topics that interest them if they would get to the damn prose in the first place. We could seed social media with abstracts of what we are doing--in the form of BuzzFeed listicles or whatever--and some people would follow the crumbs back to our academic writing. It would not take a lot of readers to double the readership of most academic article in the humanities, after all. But we cannot do it, because you can't provide an open, public link to most academic articles.

The problem is not how we write but where we publish. We are invested in a system of publication and copyright that renders us irrelevant.


James Stripes said...

After finding the article on JSTOR, I commonly find that it is in a journal not accessible through my university's account because we lack a subscription.

michael regoli said...

Spot on post about the frustrations of paywalls, insufficient library services, and the conundrums of discovery. To continue the conversation, pop over to the Scholarly Kitchen where this issue was front and center earlier in the month, in a piece by Jill O'Neill, Finding Stuff: Discovery and Data Quality." Link:

We are now facing larger demands for open access to scholarship, support for institutional repositories, and libraries have an important role to play.

Larry Cebula said...

Thank you for the link, Michael.