Re: Serials Review Interview

From: ransdell, joseph m. <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Fri, 16 Oct 1998 21:35:42 -0500

In response to Stevan:

I am not talking about "conspiracies" but about the realities of vested
interests and of professional habits and practices in the humanities and
some of the social sciences, at least. They are different and
importantly so and if we attempt to extrapolate from what is successful
in some of the hardest of the hard sciences to literature and social
science and history and so forth we are just spinning out a dream if we
don't take due account of those differences.

I could of course be exaggerating them, and I wouldn't be surprised if I
give that impression because it is difficult to convey a just sense for
these things in a short space: qualifications and provisos can't be
elaborated adequately. But any excess on my side is surely being met
with excess on yours when you talk as if there is really nothing to
concern ourselves about when it comes to thinking it through further,
and it is just a matter of tediously repeating the same well-known
considerations again and again until people finally get it:

>I hope I can be forgiven if I find all this rather difficult to take
>seriously! "Obstacles" like these put one more in mind of Zeno's
>Paradox (or perhaps Buridan's Donkey or even the Wizard Oz) than of
>anything that should give a reflective mind pause, particularly after
>the prima facie responses to such prima facie worries have once been
>But one does learn a good deal about human nature from transitional
>periods like this, and apparently those prima facie responses must be
>repeated many times before they are sufficient to persuade the
>thirsty cavalry to drink...
>Well, that's what we're here for...

I can certainly forgive you because you have done more than any other
individual to promote the larger cause, which is simply the kind of
reform of disciplinary intellectual life that is appropriate to the
advent of digitally-based network communication. I know what your vision
is and I share it, but if all we are here for is to repeat the litanies
already composed, Stevan, then that kind of reform is already dead on
its feet and the vision is just an hallucination. So I can't take THAT

But let me get serious for a moment. I have been caught up in this
vision for about the same length of time you have, I think, but I've
been coming at it from a quite different perspective of personal and
professional interest and academic background and have spent my time
largely in just trying to find out what in the hell IS going on in
academia that accounts for how glacially slow it is in responding to the
rapidly changing realities of communication when our lives as academics
are built wholly around communicational arrangements. Now, there are
many handles one can grab that problem by, all of which can reveal
something of importance if one is diligent in inquiring into it, but the
one that is most important for purposes of active reform is motivation.
We have to understand why it is that the right motivations have yet to
be tapped in the faculty generally. You address this yourself when you
go on to say:

>What is a matter of historical fact so far is that (except in Physics,
>Mathematics and some associated fields) it has not proven sufficient
>simply to open a public author archive and invite submissions. It is
>not that the cavalry are not thirsty; it is that they are so
>unaccustomed to unrestricted access to water that they need constant

Yes, but encouragement of whom, exactly, and how?

>That is why CogPrints [] will be actively
>soliciting submissions, with Calls and periodic indices of the
>Archive's growing contents as incentives, rather than passively waiting
>and hoping for the best.
>The appeal is quite simple, and also quite irresistible once anyone
>reflects on it: One already has one's papers in one's word-processor;
>depositing them once in the Archive takes a moment and the effect is
>equivalent to mailing limitless numbers of preprints and reprints to
>all possible interested parties. The only rationales against that are
>those against publishing at all.

 Yes, one has to get active, but your idea of the appeal takes no
account of the realities of the lives of academics in the humanities.
These can be divided into two major categories (leaving aside some who
don't quite fit into this simple scheme): (1) those who are tenured and
ensconced in an academic position which they regard as satisfying their
basic need to become established permanently in academic life and with
some minimal sense that they are professionally respected and with some
minimal opportunity for betterment of their position if all goes well,
and (2) those who are untenured, including those on the tenure track,
also that ever increasing number of "adjunct" faculty who are paid
disgracefully low wages and have no realistic prospects of doing
anything more than surviving at a poverty level into the indefinite
future, if they are lucky, year by year, and graduate students, usually
working as TAs.

Taking class (2) first, who are the vast majority: they certainly have a
real interest in making their work publicly available, not simply out of
sheer desire to communicate with others about common topics of inquiry,
but also in hopes that their futures will be affected for the better by
doing so. But their futures depend upon the opinion of those in class
(1), and they know quite well that displeasing anybody in class (1) who
is in position to decide their future can wipe their future out or
degrade it seriously: they can be washed out of grad school, they can be
trashed on the tenure track, and for more and more all the time, they
can be trashed any time the faculty meets and makes decisions about
which of the adjuncts or TA's is going to teach this or that. Now, very
few of this large class of people who might have papers to make
available on the internet are in fact going to run the risk of making
them available except in the somewhat unusual case where the paper has
already been published, in which case the publisher may just say no,
anyway, and even with permission there is little incentive for them to
stick their neck out by putting something out that is likely to be
intensely disliked by somebody somewhere who is highly partisan about
the issue in question and who might turn out to be a part of the local
tenured establishment or be tenured at the place where he or she will be
applying for a job.

Now, there has been for many years now such a huge surplus of talented
people in the humanities who have been unable to find a job but have
hung in academia desperately as a part of this labor pool that you can
be sure that there is some good work out there that nobody will ever
read because the authors of it are afraid to make it public. Why?
Because they understand quite well that doing so could wipe out their
careers definitively, and what could they have to gain that would
balance that? Are they paranoid in thinking this ? Most assuredly not.
The way people's careers are handled routinely in the humanities is as
if designed to encourage the worst in the people making decisions in
connection with them, and the paranoid is more likely to survive than
the person who retains a naive belief in elementary justice. Is this
because people in the humanities are just rotten? Of course not. This
is a systems problem -- people will behave rottenly when there is no way
to behave decently, in which case they just won't even think about what
they are doing any more -- and the fact is that the system for handling
people coming into the disciplines in the humanities has become so
brutal and exploitative that nobody even wants to think about it or hear
about it any more.

Turning to class (1), those that are comfortably tenured, they are such
because they have developed procedures and strategies that are a part of
the traditional modus operandi of the tenured academician, which does
not include making their work available on the internet. The
traditional practices have gotten them where they are and they are not
going to re-tool and learn new tricks just because the internet is out
there. They are told constantly that it is mostly just trash out
there -- even by people who think of themselves as promoting
networking -- and simply putting their paper out there on line appears
to many of them first of all as a decision to put their work out in a
trash medium. I could elaborate on this extensively but the point is
that for many tenured humanists the making of their work available to
all and sundry in that way is something that carries with it a certain
sense of shame, the shamefulness associated with the idea of the vanity
press and, more than that, with the idea of making a mass appeal, and
although this can be overcome it is not even touched by what you take to
be the appeal:

>The appeal is quite simple, and also quite irresistible once anyone
>reflects on it: One already has one's papers in one's word-processor;
>depositing them once in the Archive takes a moment and the effect is
>equivalent to mailing limitless numbers of preprints and reprints to
>all possible interested parties. The only rationales against that are
>those against publishing at all.

It is not a question of rationales but of motives. You cannot simply
open an archive and say "Here it is! Your opportunity to make your work
available to all and sundry!" The motive is not there regardless of the
rationale. The time may come when these inhibiting attitudes will be of
little significance and all that is needed is to set the archive up and
announce it, but it is not that way now and it will require some real
thinking and talking about these things to figure out how to make such
an appeal effective, and it has to take just such things as I am
mentioning now seriously as problems because they ARE problems
regardless of how silly they seem to be from the perspective of the

I won't go into that further now but move now to the people -- and they
most assuredly exist -- who do not want anything of anybody's that is
unfiltered by referees to be made available because they regard
refereeing as the elimination of trash, and they do not believe that
people in academia should be polluting the international networks with
trash. They certainly don't want junior faculty, or untenured profs or
grad students from their own departments to be polluting the nets with
what may well be trash since nobody has filtered it. They are
encouraged in this view by people who stress constantly the importance
of refereeing and peer review as something whose chief function it is to
identify trash and eliminate trash (and, by implication, intended or
unintended, to eliminate trashy people from the academic scene). Not
only is this systematically denigrative of the value of the net as
intellectually open, but it is highly questionable as a proper
description of the purpose of refereeing to begin with.

I find it difficult to believe that refereeing was established
historically to trap and dispose of trash, and that has not in fact been
the usual function of much of it even in recent years, when the constant
harping on the dangers of the barbarians at the gates has moved
academics more and more into thinking of themselves as thought police
and garbage experts. Refereeing has often served the function simply of
organizing the secondary literature within the appropriate journals,
each of which has some more or less well-defined niche within a larger
informal librarial scheme. Yes, some filtering is happening there, of
course, but the imposition on this of the scheme of hierarchical grading
of the value of a contribution by authorities in intellectual grading
who have been appointed to the task by . . . whom? is an addition to
the organizational function of refereeing which is by no means
necessarily implicit in it, and it is questionable in its own right in
the sense that the time has surely come to question it in order to find
out precisely what IS going on in all of this grading and sorting and

I take that to be one of the most important questions that the success
of the Ginsparg archives has forced upon us. If refereeing is not
needed at the point where the research reports flow back into the
inquiry process and the process itself enriched and developed by those
results insofar as they are actually accepted by inquirers by being used
by them in inquiry -- not graded by "authorities" but accepted (or not
accepted) by inquirers -- then when and why, precisely, IS refereeing
required for inquiry? This is a real question now, and we need a good
answer for it, but I haven't seen any such answer thus far, perhaps
because nobody wants to ask it for fear of being thought guilty of
"having no standards" or being a proponent of unrestricted trash

In any case, Steven, I do not see why you should find it so difficult to
believe that there are people who want nothing to be made available that
is not refereed when you have yourself argued again and again that the
reason there has been no migration to the net in the way one might
expect is that the right sort of people aren't going on-line because
they can't live intellectually without their trash filters and having
somebody doing their assessing and ranking and sorting for them so they
don't have to waste their time reading anything except what is stamped
"This is the Very Best" on the front of it. I would have thought those
are the very people who would not want to see people from their own
departments polluting the nets with trash or material that might well be
trash since it has never been okayed by the experts. So, no, I don't
see the extended application of the xxx paradigm as a routine task,
requiring nothing more than a recitation of what is already known, but
as something that is likely to turn out to have many surprises in store
for all of us.

 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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