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As Books Go the Way of The Buggy Whip

SHOULD PhD Theses be Embargoed?

There is a lot of angst about open access among  young PhDs.  Traditionally newly minted scholars have made their way financially through getting their theses published.  This led to a few dollars from the publishers and to job offers from universities.

That situation is threatened by open access.  If theses are published to the web, then there is no incentive to publishers.  As a result, the humanities and social sciences are suggesting embargoes of web publication until the PhD has a chance to get her work published.

I suggest that the debate about open access vs. paper publishing is another case of Pogo’s “I have seen they enemy and they is us!”   I think the “enemy” is the fixed library contracts.  Frankly, I think  fixed library contracts should end.

The concern for the careers of young PhDs is valid.   Academics are placed in a difficult position because of open access.  The problem that I see is not open access,  the problem is the idea that publication by an academically subsidized press is a reasonable criterion for academic appointment or a rational means of providing economic support for academics.

Why should our system subsidize (paper) academic publishing?

I gave up writing books several years ago after detailed discussions with several publishers.  They wanted me to do a major book.  I wanted to know the finances, especially what resources the publishers would provide in terms of editorial support and marketing.

We sat down.  What I learned was that almost all of the income from my book would come from mandatory purchases and contract from libraries.  The publisher was able and willing to provide some support but it was within a rather fixed budget.  To get greater support I would have to show the publisher a market beyond the usual academic sales.

While I would have made a few dollars, I decided not to do the book because I realized that the cost in terms of my own effort and in terms of secretarial support from my secretary was unreasonable.

In other words these book publishers were only viable because the publisher knew she could make money from these fixed contracts.  Prior to the Web one could justify such contracts as a means of preserving the work of researchers.  That justification is now gone.

Are  theses published as books ever read by enough people to justify the costs of a paper press?  I suspect  we are  very inefficiently subsidizing scholars through fixed library contracts.  While this may provide a pittance of support for recent PhD’s the bulk of the cost is wasted in supporting the publishers.

If I am correct, the meager funds PhD’s get from publication are a thing of the past.

While I do not have any real answers to the problem facing the newly minted PhD, I can suggest one changes that could help  the hiring process.  It seems to me that publication of a book that is stored in university libraries is a poor criterion for hiring new faculty.  My … hopefully not revolutionary idea .. is that the faculty doing the hiring evaluate the work itself.

I also believe that some fields, including my own, may be finding economically valid tools to replace paper publication as a way of promoting scholarship.  As a biologist, I was selected as a member of the “Faculty of 1000”   FO1 is a profit making company that uses brief , signed reviews  by folks like me (we get no pay other than ego points).  They have excellent software that uses these reviews to focus attention on important work …. independent of the impact factor of the journal where the work is published.  FO1 makes money by selling this service (again to libraries) and because  prominence on the FO1 recommended-reading site is becoming valuable to authors.


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