Publish or Be Published: Beyond the TED Problem

April 22nd, 2012 | Category: Essays

Publishing has its problems. Academic publishing has its as well, and in turn public intellectualism has problems. With the rise of ebooks, self-publishing, blogging (oh, how I loathe that term), and the like, all of this seems to be coming to a head. I have chosen a path that attempts to eschew these issues. This is not to say that I am above academic publishing, but to say that I am not interested in being read by such a small audience. I am also not necessarily interested in scientific rigor as such. Interesting ideas to me come from many sources, and those are rarely academic journals (I’m more of a Feyerabendian than a Popperian). No offense to those who pursue that path, but it’s not mine. Today, Cory Doctorow posted a piece to bOING bOING about the problem, and The Guardian chimed in as well. Steven Shaviro has been very vocal about the issue, having run into it specifically with Oxford University Press, writing,

I was asked to sign a contract for an essay I have written, which is scheduled to appear in an edited collection. Let’s leave aside the fact that I wrote the essay — it was solicited for this collection — in summer 2010, and yet it will not appear in print until 2013. I think that the glacial pace of academic publishing is a real problem. But that is not what is bothering me at the moment…

What’s bothering him is that the piece would have been “work-for-hire.” That the contract stipulated terms as follows:

WORK-FOR-HIRE. The Contributor acknowledges that the Publisher has commissioned the Contribution as a work-for-hire, that the Publisher will be deemed the author of the Contributior as employer-for-hire, and that the copyright in the Contribution will belong to the Publisher during the initial and any renewal or extended period(s) of copyright. To the extent, for any reason, that the Contribution or any portion thereof does not qualify or otherwise fails to be a work-for-hire, theContributor hereby assigns to the Publisher whatever right, title and interest the Contributor would otherwise have in the Contribution throughout the world.

Shaviro continues,

I found this entirely unbelievable, and unacceptable. Since when has original academic writing been classified as “work-for-hire”? It is possible, I suppose, that things like writing encyclopedia essays might be so categorized; but I have never, in my 30 years in academia, encountered a case in which primary scholarship or criticism was so classified. Is this something widespread, but which I simply haven’t heard about? I’d welcome information on this score from people who know more about the academic publishing situation than I do. But it seems to me, at first glance, that the Press is upping the ante in terms of trying to monopolize “intellectual property,” by setting up an arrangement that both cuts off the public from access and denies any rights to the henceforth-proletarianized “knowledge worker” or producer. I am unwilling to countenance such an abridgment of my ability to make the words that I have written more freely available.

In an update on the situation, Shaviro adds,

 I don’t think I have permission to actually reproduce the words of the editor from OUP, so I will paraphrase. What he basically said was that traditional publication agreements are insufficient because they only give presses “limited sets of rights.” In other words, he was openly confessing that OUP seeks complete and unlimited control over the material that they publish. The justification he gave for this was that old neoliberal standby, “flexibility” — OUP is seeking to do all sorts of digital distribution, and if rights are limited then they may not be able to control new forms of distribution that arise due to technological changes. Of course, the mendaciousness of this claim can be seen by the fact that, as was confirmed to me by one of the people involved in putting together the volume, the “work-for-hire” provision was in place long before the Press even got the idea of supplementing physical publication of the volume with a (no doubt password-protected and expensive-to-access) website.

I have exactly one piece “published” in an academic journal. It was a book review. It was due on November 15, 2008, and appeared in the September, 2010 issue of the journal — two years later. As much as I am thankful for the opportunity (my master’s thesis advisor Brian H. Spitzberg had passed the chance on to me), and I know that’s a normal publication period, it was a freaking book review. Why would I ever pursue that avenue again? My friend Alex Burns has a great post on how academia kills writing, which is a great fear of mine: I want to write books, and I want to write books that people actually want to read.

Alex Reid has an excellent post about why academics keep writing books that no one wants to read, which is because academics largely write books in the pursuit of tenure, not in the pursuit of an audience. Ian Bogost calls this “vampire publishing.” Their shared concern draws an important distinction between writing to be read and writing to have written (a distinction my professor at UT, Katie Arens, has drawn as well). In academia, there’s a strong push toward the latter. Bogost writes,

The reason there is no irony in my simultaneous support of Alex’s position and my continued participation in scholarly publishing is quite simple: people actually want to read my books. They buy them, both in print and electronic format. And I’ve tried very hard as an author to learn how to write better and better books, books that speak to a broader audience without compromising my scholarly connections, books that really ought to exist as books. Imagine that!

The problem doesn’t stop there though. As a scholar who pursues nonacademic or para-academic routes to publication, I am appalled at how insanely bad some of the channels outside of academia have gotten. Case in point: TED. TED, the “Technology, Entertainment, Design” conference originally envisioned by Richard Saul Wurman, has been watered down to the point of self-parody. If they hadn’t once done great things, this wouldn’t matter, but a once visionary site of Big-Idea exchange has become the Starbucksification of public intellectualism, what Benjamin Bratton calls, “the Thomas Friedman of Megachurch Infotainment.” If the following doesn’t make you lose your shit, then you should probably stop reading this post-haste [runtime: 3:47]:

“John Boswell, of the ‘Symphony of Science’, came to TED2012 and made this remix of the speakers onstage.” It’s a TED-sponsored promotional video! It’s not a parody, it’s a self-parody! (Have you ever seen the Bank of America “One Bank” video?) TED, once the bastion of non-academic public intellectualism, is now this. SMFH.

The problem — the real problem —  is that there should be a gate-keeping function to scholarship, but that the ones in place are currently failing us. TED’s former elitism wasn’t necessarily the answer, but their new openness is total, indisputable crap. Couple that with the aforementioned problems of academic publishing, and you’ve got yourself a crisis — a big one.

My main gripe with all of this is that Big Name people basically copyright ideas via TED (Bogost calls it, “American Idol for non-fiction trade books”). I’m all for openness, and I pretty well only synthesize the ideas of others (and I do my damnedest to cite and give credit where its due; I am self-conscious about it to a fault), but I’ve seen this happen so many times: One person spends years developing idea X and then one of The Chosen mentions X in a TED Talk™, and then it’s their idea. That is a problem.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution. If I did, this would be a very different piece. I have chosen to do what I do and hope for the best. I know many others who’ve resolved to do the same. None of this is to shit on those who do academic publishing or hope to do so, but we need to realize that the system is broken and that the alternatives are not much better. Here’s hoping we all find ways to get our ideas out there.


Apologies to Doug Rushkoff for my bastardization of his book title for the name of this piece, and many thanks to Steven Shaviro, Alex Burns, Ian Bogost, and Alex Reid for sharing their thoughts.

Further Posting: