Re: Chron. High. Ed. 18 September on Cal Tech & Copyright

From: ransdell, joseph m. <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Thu, 17 Sep 1998 19:55:18 -0500

(NOTE: This is a greatly elaborated version of a further response of
mine to Stevan's post to the Colloquy on the Chronicle website. I see
no need to print the brief version separately here.)

Stevan Harnad says:

>It is hard to envision the potential conflict of interest between
>author and university that appears to be worrying Professor Ransdell

And subsequently remarks:

>Do I need to remind Professor Ransdell that this is that self-same
>publish-or-perish literature that promotion and tenure committees are
>pressuring us all to swell with our work? Now why on earth, once
>access to that work can no longer be blocked by publisher tolls, would
>our promotion and tenure committees suddenly become interested in the
>suppression of free access to it? For surely free (as opposed to paid)
>access is inherent in the very motivation for the PUBLICation of the
>fruits of our research in the first place, is it not?

The proposal in question concerns conjoint holding of copyright by the
university and the professor, not by the faculty tenure and promotion
committee and the professor. Stevan's mistaken conflation suggests,
though, that he finds no problem in simply equating the typical
interests of the faculty as such and the typical interests of the
university administration as such, and this suggests further that his
academic experience in this country has been a remarkably fortunate one,
bringing him into contact only with administrators of extraordinarily
high quality at institutions which suffer little or not at all from
tensions that can arise between the differing interests and motivations
of these two classes of persons. This speaks well for Princeton -- and
for Stevan himself who deserves such a happy fate for his academic
contributions if anybody ever did! -- and I am pleased to learn that
there do indeed exist at least two universities that are like that.
Perhaps there are more.

But I suggest that -- with an occasional exception, perhaps -- whenever
such an agreement exists, it is because the faculty is either bringing
in grant money in great quantity from sources such as the National
Science Foundation and the Department of Energy or because their
academic prestige is so exceptionally high that it is believed that this
prestige translates into an equivalence in monetary worth in the many
ways in which prestige can be and is exchanged for money. When this is
the case administrative officers are indeed likely to be in agreement
with and in the service of faculty, accepting faculty interests and
motives as their own, and this for obvious reasons.

But that is not because of any narural harmony between administration
and faculty as such but because of very special circumstances at this
and that time and place. And how many such places could there possibly
be? Most academic institutions in this country -- including many in the
Research I category and, I would guess, all or nearly all in the
Research II category and all of those that drop off of that ledge into
the category below that (which I forget the label for) -- are not much
like that at all. Mostly, the administrators are in the business of
mediating between the half-ignorant and half-informed demands and
policies of boards of regents or trustees or governors which are
composed mostly of people for whom the standard of value is money,
sometimes as admixed with a dollop of bourgeouis morality, and, on the
other hand, the sensibilities and aspirations of the faculty, whose
working values range from the values held by those who find their
satisfaction in life in finding things out and conveying their findings
to others, through those who don't really understand what THAT is all
about but who are kept alive academically by the promise of more money
or more prestige or more institutional power, to those who can't think
of anything else to do with their lives and are just trying to make the
best of a career mistake.

Being an administrator is a tough job, often requiring decisions harsh
in their consequences for individuals and also requiring a great deal of
tolerance for behavior the administrators can only regard as childish,
whether stemming from the powers-that-be that are always hovering above
them in the system, like stormclouds on the verge of precipitating, or
from professors, typically regarded as below them since the move from a
professorial position to a career administrator position in American
academia typically means an instant doubling in salary, which is a way
of underscoring what is important in an institution. Few administrators
have the kind of respect for the motivations of the research and
scholarly faculty that Stevan seems to assume when he speaks as if there
is some natural harmony in this respect which we can take for granted.

Moreover, it is a mistake to think that administrative officers
typically act in the best interests of their institution or what they
might think to be its best interests, anyway. Like anybody else in a
top down hierarchical system they act in accordance not only with their
office but also with what they perceive to be their own interests as
career administrators. Personal survival is important for them and is
kept uttermost in their thinking as new Presidents with their typical
entourage of special accountants, secretaries, gophers, and PR experts
come and go every few years -- five or six years is fairly typical --
each with a somewhat different way of trying to shape the career
administrators into useful tools for their particular purposes while
they are there, so that when they move on to their next job they will
have accomplished something which will look good on their records.
Career administrators who are not careful about who they pacify can find
themselves shunted into functionless offices if they are not agile in
this respect. Thus there is little reason to credit them with some
general propensity to agree with the interests of the faculty, though
such congruence might occasionally occur, I will grant.

Now, I could go on with this sort of thing, but surely I have said
enough to remind anyone who has ever had occasion to think much about
how universities in general actually work these days that the congruence
of interest and motivation between administration and faculty which
Stevan is taking for granted simply is not there except in some very
special cases. Regents or trustees or governors of these institutions
typically have no notion of the value involved in making things public
except insofar as this means advertising it, and they are not going to
be persuaded to an understanding of the scholar's and the scientist's
motives in this because there is nothing in their lives that corresponds
to such a motive. The more you insist on the value of publication the
more they will be inclined to say "Well, if it is all that valuable then
why are you so foolish as to be giving it away? It's our property,
isn't it, as Trustees or Regents or Governors? If you eggheads ever
held a real job you would know that you don't just give the store away,
for God's sake! No, you are not going to be giving OUR goods away!"
Now, is it plausible to suppose that administrators can be persuaded to
spend their time trying to explain the difference between intellectual
and monetary value to business tycoons? I don't think so.

Then, too, Stevan may be forgetting that once you get outside of the
hard sciences and into anything having to do with human life, you are
going to have scholarly material that is open to objections as being
offensive morally or politically or religiously, regardless of how
well-grounded it is as research, and not even Princeton or Southhampton
is likely to be all that reliable in defending research values once the
witchhunts start.

And then there is the further fact that professors and universities
often come to a parting of the ways as the one moves on to a post at
another. Is it plausible to suppose that the concern for the
professor's wishes about his or her intellectual property will be shared
by its co-owner when the co-owner has become a competitive university?

Just one more remark in this connection. Problems have been arising at
various universities around the country about the administrative
takeover of professorial websites on the grounds that whatever is there
is the university's property. These takeovers are probably motivated
variously. It is hard to say from the reports I have seen just what is
happening. Sometimes, I suspect, it is simply because of fear that
something will be mounted on the site that will make the university
legally liable in some unanticipated way, and the takeover is just a
defensive move. Sometimes it is because the material there is thought
to be valuable enough for the university to exploit monetarily, as when
a website set up for teaching is taken over with the ulterior aim of
selling the course in a distance ed schedule, with no expense involved
other than low level wages paid to someone on the part time adjunct
faculty acting mainly as reader. The point is that this is indicative
of instability of the sort that makes it unrealistic to count on
something as important as the ownership of one's work.

In sum, there are many reasons why administrative officers of
universities might come to believe that it is best if access to a given
professor's work not be encouraged, including -- though by no means
limited to -- cases of their disapproval of its contents, regardless of
whether it has been accepted for refereed publication or not. As
conjoint holders of copyright they need only refuse permission to
accomplish that. Thus it is prima facie undesirable to accept this way
of handling copyright if the aim is to promote on-line access to
scholarly and scientific research, and Stevan's appeal to the supposed
congeniality of interests of university and individual professor seems
to me to have little plausibility in it if we are talking about academia
in general in this country.

I don't understand why Stevan thinks it important to urge such a
copyright strategy, anyway. I am all in favor of persuading
universities to back profs in insisting on the retention of copyright.
That is not at issue. It seems that some of them, at least, are willing
to help out in this without asking in return that they get copyright
control. Or at least that seems to be the import of the Yale policy,
unless I am misunderstanding it, and I suppose it might be Princeton's
policy, too. Why then does it seem important to him to take this really
extraordinary FURTHER step and turn control of one's work over to the
university by sharing copyright with them? When I point out to him
that it is just another Faustian pact, thoiugh, he says:

>You are right that a pact is a pact, but what makes it Faustian is
>conflict of interest and risk of losing one's soul. Perhaps I would
>understand better if you gave a plausible hypothetical scenario
>in which publication suppression would be the University's goal,
>contrary to the author's wishes. But remember to keep it in the
>refereed-journal domain otherwise it is moot insofar as this
>discussion is concerned.

Well, as i said before, it applies to the refereed journal domain, if
that must be insisted upon as the sole topic. Since I have made no
reference to trade literature and the Los Alamos archive has nothing to
do with trade literature, I should hope it is clear enough by now that
we are not concerned with that here. I hope I have mentioned enough
possible motives for repression to satisfy Stevan and others that this
sort of copyright giveaway would almost certainly be most unwise.

The misidentification of this copyright prooposal with the spirit of the
Ginsparg archives can be discussed further in another message, if that
is thought important enough to pursue further.

Joseph Ransdell

 Joseph Ransdell <> or <>
 Department of Philosophy, Texas Tech University, Lubbock TX 79409
 Area Code 806: 742-3158 office 797-2592 home 742-0730 fax
 ARISBE: Peirce Telecommunity website -
Received on Tue Aug 25 1998 - 19:17:43 BST

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