Roberto Casati (in "What the Internet tells us about the Real Nature of the Book" http://www.text-e.org/ ) asks:
<< What is a book? >>
It is the external encoding of thoughts, usually in digital symbols, usually in a natural language, and formerly on-paper in the Gutenberg Age, but increasingly on-line PostGutenberg. In speech we transmit thoughts orally. In writing we do so graphically. Until audio recording, speech left no physical record except in the brain of listeners (the Oral Tradition); writing left an external physical record, and print multiplied it indefinitely. There are other possibilities too. Let us not confuse the message with the medium, the mental content with the peripheral means of making it accessible to other minds.
<< When I say that I have read a book or remember it by heart, I am
talking about the immaterial content. But if I say that I burned
it, it is the physical support that I am referring to. If, on the
other hand, I say that I have sold the book, I leave open the two
Correct. The mental content is not the same as the physical vehicle that happens to convey it. But just as important in this context is another mental distinction, namely, whether or not the author of the mental contents wishes to give them away (the give-away/non-give-away distinction). Copyright law also reflects this distinction, as it clearly makes provisions for protecting against either theft-of-text (piracy) or theft-of-text-authorship (plagiarism), or both, depending on what authors want.
But give-away authors want protection only from the second, not the first.
And these two PostGutenberg distinctions are critical to many of the points Casati makes (and misses):
<< take the case of a producer of cultural contents, a research
I don't understand the category "cultural contents." I think it is too general and heterogeneous to be useful in bringing PostGutenberg reality into focus. But I do understand the work and motivations of research scientists. And when they publish their research in refereed journal articles it is very different from when they (or anyone else) publish anything in books, for the simple reason that refereed research reports are and always have been author give-aways, whereas scientists, like everyone else, usually publish books with the possibility of royalty revenue in mind. Indeed, if that possibility (of revenue from sale-of-text) were eliminated, it is quite possible that some or many non-give-away texts would never get written at all, human nature and its underlying selfish genes being what they are.
So no solution or synthesis that treats the two kinds of author-motivation and text in the same way will be able to make sense of PostGutenberg reality.
Note that scientists are not saints either. Their rewards are simply more subtle and indirect. They do not profit from the sales revenue for their refereed research reports, but from the uptake and impact of their research findings. On the contrary, they LOSE a great deal from the fact that tolls (subscriptions, site-license, pay-per-view) block access to their give-away research, thereby blocking its potential impact and the indirect rewards that brings in the form of salary, tenure, research grants, prestige and prizes.
There is one thing, however, that is presupposed in all this author largesse with refereed research, namely, the refereeing itself: peer review. This is the critical factor separating this anomalous form of publication from a vanity press: The quality of scientific research is controlled by qualified experts (who also donate their expertise and time for free, by the way) and then certified as such by the journal's imprimatur.
And this is the third conflation implicit in Casati's essay (along with give-away/non-give-away and text-theft/authorship-theft), namely, the conflation of refereed/unrefereed publication.
Some speculative alternatives to refereeing are mentioned in the essay that have been proposed elsewhere too: Perhaps various measures such as "hits," links, or comments could guide readers. That is all well and good for the literature in general, but as an alternative to peer review in the special (refereed) corpus which is my only concern here, the alternative is entirely untested and, in my opinion, highly unlikely either to produce or to signpost a literature of the quality that peer review produces currently. So until these speculative alternatives are actually tested and their effects known, it would not be rational to abandon or modify classical peer review pre-emptively. As regards opinion polls as barometers for the unrefereed literature, nolo contendere.
<< [publishing] the text with a publisher... [depends on satisfying
the] scrutiny of a reading committee... publish[ing] a specialized
research article on [the] Web... [provides] non-restricted access >>
Apples and oranges. First of all, publisher-review for books is not generally regarded as peer review (for one thing, it involves a potential-sales reckoning that is irrelevant to refereed journal articles); but even if we treat it as such, this is orthogonal to the give-away/non-give-away dimension. Giving away unrefereed papers on the web is not a solution for either author/researchers or reader/user/researchers in science and scholarship because the quality of the papers needs to be constrained and confirmed by peer review (which, by the way, is not just a red-light/green-light, publish/reject matter, but a series of active interactions between the author and qualified expert referees, chosen and mediated by a qualified expert editor, and potentially involving several rounds of revision and re-refereeing).
So vanity-press "self-publishing" on the Web is not a viable alternative for scientists (although self-archiving pre-refereeing preprints can be a useful supplement), and it is not the solution to the problem of freeing the give-away research from access/impact-blocking tolls (whereas the self-archiving of refereed -- i.e., published -- research is).
<< Authors of scientific papers are tired of private and institutional
filters to their work, and so they inevitably tend to publish
straight on the Web. >>
Incorrect. They (or rather, the physicists among them, for most other sciences are still completely confused on the matter) self-archive their pre-refereeing preprints in order to make their research findings available as soon as possible, but they also continue to submit all those preprints for refereeing and publication; and then they self-archive their post-refereeing (published, refereed) postprints.
What researchers are tired of is not quality-control filters for their give-away research, but access/impact-blocking tolls.
<< Here, on the Web, it is possible to assess the work in a real
sense; and indeed, a constant assessment is what takes place, not
by private or institutional mediators but by consumers, who effect
it in a similar, but also significantly different way from the
price system. >>
Yes there can be constant assessment and feedback along the unending continuum of scientific research, before as well as after refereed publication.
But the peer review is an essential component of this continuous self-corrective process, and the refereed publication is a critical landmark. The consumer/market model may be appropriate for the rest of the literature, but not for this special subset, written by and for fellow-experts.
And even for the refereed literature, citation-counts, hits and comments have their place -- but not as substitutes for the all-important peer review itself.
<< The number of hits gives the measure of the extent to which the
page is appreciated. >>
Appreciated by whom, and for what? Can I treat cancer, build a space-station, perform a follow-up experiment, or even devote an hour of scarce research time to reading a paper on the basis of such market-guides alone?
<< on-line magazines (such as salon.com) fired those journalists whose
articles did not get enough hits. >>
But I will not fire the scientist whose expert contribution, understood by only a few fellow-experts, did not manage to make the hit-parade. (I only want to make sure that low hits are not because of a needless price-tag blocking the access to potential users, and hence the impact, of the scientists's give-away research.)`
<< Is it desirable to entrust assessment directly to readers? >>
Certainly not for serious scientific and scholarly work. Assessment there has to be done by qualified experts, selected by and answerable to, a qualified expert, the editor, who is in turn answerable for the quality of the work appearing in his journal. Popularity contests and opinion polls are for magazines and TV, not for refereed research.
<< [hits] are the currency which allows demand to be measured in the
realm of cultural products >>
But what do hits [downloads] mean or matter when it comes to esoteric work written for qualified specialists?
It is not that there is no room for hits as one of [many] measures of impact even for refereed research -- but the hit-rates are supplements to, not substitutes for, the all-important refereeing itself:
<< charging for on-line contents... Journalists would then be paid
directly by the readers >>
This is a regression into another domain -- pay-per-view -- which is no doubt pertinent to the non-give-away literature, whether books or magazines, but utterly irrelevant (and no longer justified PostGutenberg) for the refereed research literature.
<< voted for...By the creation of a link... We are all mini-experts.
Google envisions the Web as one great system of votes. >>
The mother of all links was discovered by and in use among scholars and scientists long before the Web. It is called reference citation, and it has long been used as a form of "voting" too (in the form of the Institution for Scientific Information's "impact factor").
But again, there's a lot more to assessing scientific or scholarly quality than that; and again, it is merely a supplement, but certainly no substitute, for peer review.
<< If publishers do not take on the risk of making the texts of their
authors available on the Web, free of cost and unabridged, they
will end up in a marginal economic niche. >>
I profoundly doubt this, insofar as the non-give-away literature-at-large is concerned. If it were to become a forced give-away, much of it could end up still-born, as unexpressed or even unformulated thoughts in the mind of the no longer motivated author.
And even for the give-away referee-research literature, it is not for the publisher to give away his contents if he does not wish to; it is for the author to do so, if wishes:
<< [re: "expert opinion-filters"] Various experts, including Umberto
Eco, have been defending the expert's role as a guide through the
mass of information on the Web. >>
I don't know about the Web as a whole, or the literature as a whole. I merely wish to suggest that the scientific literature already has, and is satisfied with, its "expert opinion-filter," thank you, and it hardly needs defenders...
And I think it is again mixing apples and oranges to try to provide solutions for the literature as a whole. What fits the nonrefereed sector won't fit the refereed sector, and vice versa.
<< How does one get to a credible site?... officially certified
sites[?] ... think of what the governmental approval of officially
certified publishers would mean in the context of the book trade. >>
Again, when it comes to the non-give-away literature and the unrefereed literature, nolo contendere. But it occurs to me that the very same questions (about how to know what's worth reading) could just as well have been asked about the on-paper literature. I expect many of the same answers (journal's established peer-reviewing standards standards and publisher's imprimatur, author's name and reputation, reviews and critiques, together with the critic/reviewer's reputation) will continue to be the answers on-line too, supplemented by the on-line equivalent of market success (as in best-seller lists).
So what is so new, and why the ominous talk of government censorship (always possible, in any medium)?
<< Google... comes close to the perfect librarian described by
Musil... should know next to nothing. >>
I am a devoted admirer and user of google, but remember that a google search depends as much on the boolean terms in the search as on the power of link-counting to sort the results, and that part rather pre-dates google. The rest of the magic comes from the growing online corpus of inverted full-text itself (and it really is magical!). May it keep growing!
But for the refereed research subset of the corpus, google will have to be supplemented with metadata tagging standards that will allow the kind of searching we expect from today's indexing services. Fortunately, the tagging standards are being provided by the Open Archives Initiative http://www.openarchives.org and the advanced search engines (e.g., http://arc.cs.odu.edu/ ) are being designed, including citation-based links and navigation (http://arabica.ecs.soton.ac.uk/ ) and google-style citation- and hit-based ranking (http://cite-base.ecs.soton.ac.uk/help/index.php3 ).
But the key to it all is getting the full-text refereed journal literature -- all 20,000 journals' worth worldwide http://www.ulrichsweb.com/ulrichsweb/ -- on-line and free.
<< link-vote system can be distorted just like the price system >>
Indeed it can, but for every potential abuse the on-line-medium breeds, it usually also breeds an antidote. Besides, whereas hits are anonymous, links are not. So both linking and citation patterns can be readily analyzed in a fully interconnected online literature, to develop indices of solipsism (of which I am myself guilty below!), narcissism, mutual back-scratching, parochialism, etc.
<< boring objections to the possibility of transferring print
production to eBooks >>
The medium-based objections are indeed boring (and their ultimate reductio ad absurdum is the "virtual book," which mimics every feature of a book we desire -- look, feel, smell, taste -- so that we can discover from experience which features were really functional, which merely decorative, and which merely habitual).
The nontrivial transformation, however, is not merely on-paper to on-line, but passive to active to interactive:
Hence the real question about Ebooks is not whether they are on-paper or on-line, but what essential use they make of the on-line medium, qua book -- and of course which of them will be for-free and which for-fee.
I personally think that the reward system for books will not change significantly from medium to medium, so that's boring too. The exciting developments will be for what is and always was the give-away literature of refereed research.
What about other give-away literature? I think the oral tradition (and impulsion) launched by language in our species -- and including much more of idle chatter, Hyde-park posturing and frank crack-pottery than art or science -- always yearned for digital immortality in some form, especially in our exhibitionistic/voyeuristic age. So most of what there is to give away, on the global graffiti board, will not be worth getting. So let us not worry too much about how to sort and navigate it all. Let us instead focus on less exoteric sectors of cyberspace -- such as refereed research...
<< [if an] author [must] defend himself with software...
he thinks of me as a potential pirate. >>
Indeed, and chances are that we are not dealing with give-away literature in such cases.
<< thought experiment... Millions of people simply want to publish, or
to make public their own cultural products... Payable contents
should be protected. Free contents cannot be pirated. >>
This is tautological, and medium-independent: Let give-ways be give-aways, and let non-give-aways be paid for, amen. But what it misses is that most of the give-aways on the Net will not be worth getting.
<< in the electronic world, free contents do not have competitors.
Which means that contents must be free if they are not to
disappear. Which means that paying contents disappear, and with
them, publishers, agents and authors who live off royalties.
Moreover, the figure of the author living off his royalties is a
recent phenomenon and there is no reason to believe that it is an
everlasting institution. >>
I doubt all this very much; but if it were true that in this medium people cannot be rewarded for their efforts, then they will simply cease to make efforts (or redirect their efforts toward a medium where they can be rewarded). Except of course for the exhibitionists for whom visibility is its own reward.
<< Copyright? It will continue to exist, in a "lighter" version,
because an author may well be glad that people are reading his or
her book for free, but not that someone else is profiting from it
on the author's back. >>
I think this is incorrect too. Apart from the pure exhibitionists, there will no doubt be some writers and thinkers for whom thinking it and writing it will be enough, an end in itself. But surely there will also be those for whom the incentive was more extrinsic. Not to mention that even in the PostGutenberg Galaxy writers and thinkers will have to make a living. And no one knows the proportions, or the options. I rather hope it will not all be parasitic on the garish and invasive cyber-adverts that are beginning to become more and more like viruses.
<< petition... for the State to find a way of making sure a fee
was paid to authors and their publishers every time a book found
its way off the library shelf. >>
This tendency, though rather extreme and probably minoritarian, does suggest that the wish to be rewarded for one's efforts is not likely to vanish with paper.
I think the metaphysics of thought is such that it wants to materialize and transmit itself, regardless of medium. And that transmitting thoughts can be both an end in itself and a means to an end. For most members of our species, transmitting thoughts, whether orally, on-paper, or on-line, is an end in itself. For some it is also a way to make a living, and will continue to be so in the PostGutenberg Galaxy. Those who want to give away their thoughts will continue to do so on-line; and those who want to sell them will likewise continue on-line, or they will find another way to make a living.
But the real revolution will be for those who had wanted to give them away, but had instead had to make the Faustian Bargain of allowing access to be blocked by a price-tag, because of the economics of the Gutenberg medium. For them, the on-line age may prove to be a golden one.
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