Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Manifesto: Against the Death of the Public Intellectual

The SSCI (Social Science Citation Index) appeared in 1973 and provided the basis for rankings of publications by citation counts – the number of citations that linked to a particular publication. America’s Best Colleges Rankings on US News and World Report began to be published in 1983, and it too compiled statistics on publications, broken by department and university. As quantitative citation became the measure of success, minority professional publications that did the citing were prioritized over mainstream, public journals. The academic’s relevance was defined in terms of his footnoting colleagues, not in terms of an unknown public of New Yorker readers. Through an insistence on the metrics of the superscript, “publish or perish” effectively eliminated appeal to the public as an item of academic concern.

The proliferation of abstruse publications was hastened by one last new trend, electronic publication. Expensive institutional subscriptions funded by university libraries still float the expensive print journals, with little if any profit going to staff and publisher. They were labors of constant cost-cutting. Online publication drove down the cost of publishing, encouraging new journals to spread like the wildfires of Los Angeles. In 1994 the four-year-old Postmodern Culture went electronic, the first peer-reviewed publication to do so. In 1996, First Monday, the child of radical information scientist Edward Valauskas, was launched as an exclusively internet publication. More than half the existent journals on disability arose after 1996, and almost all of these were exclusively published as online journals.

Ironically, electronic publication was initially expected to reinstate the public venue for academics, rather than to abstract journals further from the public realm. The pioneers of electronic journals like First Monday saw electronic publication as an opportunity to liberate discourse from academic constraints, and so reach a broader public. This trend remained particularly true for publications on the study of technology, where an ideologues looked to the internet as a new commons. Yet freedom and publicity were not the trend. Electronic publication soon became another cash cow for the great university presses, which sold packages around the electronic subscription to traditional disciplinary landmarks like Past and Present.

Charging for the electronic version of the publishers’ great mainstays established a precedent for charging for the new ranks of exclusively electronic journals as well, grounding visions of an internet commons. Electronic journals became the private demesne of university publishers who reap between $4 and $200 an article that costs them nothing to buy or to publish. Taylor & Francis, a British publisher, charges between $131 and $2973 for the electronic subscription to a year of quarterlies and monthlies (an individual print subscription is a bargain in comparison, at rates between $42 and $911). Imagine the parent of the disabled child reading across a range of years and journals. The journals and their publishers are not intended highwaymen, of course; they prohibit access knowing that the articles are written by academics, for academics; that university libraries subsidize the fees of their only readers, and that the public cares not a fig for what academic journals have to say in the first place.

Read the rest of my essay, The Surprising Death of the Public Intellectual and a Manifesto for its Restoration, in the latest issue of Absent Magazine.


Blogger IUSB said...

Hi - I know this post/article is a year-and-a-half old now, but I just came across it in Absent and thought it was (is) brilliant. And helpful - I really appreciated how you put the shift away from the public intellectual into context. I wrote about and linked to it on my blog - hope you don't mind.

Kelcey Parker


7:20 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home