Scaleability and the knowledge economy: or the micro-economics of hyper-bullshit

Image result for academic publishing racketsOne of the central contemporary critiques of the industrial revolution was its undermining of crafts and craftsmanship. Today this is happening within the world of ideas. And at least right now, it’s looking like this is not a very happy development. This was brought home to me viscerally recently as I went through the hoops of publishing my first article in an academic journal in a few years. It takes me about five years to forget how agonising the academic publishing is, and then I agree to do it again. (In case you’re interested, the article, which summarises a substantial chunk of my work on the lamentable history of Australian automotive industry policy is here.)

As you’re no doubt aware, over the last few decades a few dominant academic publishers have bought up most of the high-status academic journals. The business model is simple.

  • Freeload off the expertise of academics and those institutions that were built to solve the many free-riding problems of information, knowledge and know-how. Academics are overwhelmingly funded by the state and philanthropy but are now benchmarked like lab-rats in a Skinner box against their publication record in academic journals.
  • Automate by providing an IT platform on which this can be arranged.
  • Gouge, gouge, gouge. Just let yourself go. Charge many hundreds of dollars for a few editions a year and many, many thousands for libraries to purchase (Don’t worry, we’ve signed international ‘free trade’ agreements to prevent them from purchasing the journals at the price individuals can).
  • Offshore lower-skill labour requirements.
  • Fund ‘public relations’ and ‘stakeholder relations’ to obfuscate and delay sensible reform of the various dysfunctionalities of this model.

Not surprisingly, the IT platforms the publishers build for this job are the very model of modern user-unfriendliness. After all, as Microsoft and other serious software companies realised long ago, one of the biggest contributions IT can make to editing is to track changes in revision marks. No such luck on the platform I had. But that’s really the key – the authors of the IP being marketed through these platforms are the least of the publishers’ worries. They’re a captive audience – just like the libraries. Within wide bounds of tolerance, they have to grin and bear it.

At one stage I gave up on the platform and, to my surprise, the person dealing with me from the publisher said this happened a bit and she’d be happy to receive any further changes via a Word document with changes in revision marks. But when I thought about it, this made sense. She was in India and, as competent as she was, she’d have been very cost effective for the publisher.

I was constantly asked to proof read the results of the latest editing process. I had paid my own person in India to proof-read the paper at the outset and I then vetted her changes and any other changes that were ever documented, but I wasn’t prepared to endlessly proof read versions of the same article. When I spotted an obvious and ugly error in the very head quote of the piece, I drew my case-manager’s attention to this.

Then she sent me another version without this fixed asking for me to go through it carefully again. I didn’t bother. Because the software wouldn’t identify what changes had been made since the last version, it seemed a Sisyphean task which I declined euphemistically.

I’ve indicated the problem with the quote at the head of the paper, which I think you may wish to revise. Otherwise I have no further proposals. Should you be able to provide me with any documentation of any changes that have been made, I’d be happy to check them for you.

She replied, “It is not encouraged to correct the article after publication. However, as an exceptional case, I will correct and resupply the article online.”

So what’s going on here is almost comically explicable through the micro-economics of the situation. The platform is scaled and the ‘craft’ of publishing is outsourced to people who are paid too little and managed according to KPIs that don’t support any of that kind of malarky.

And as that occurs at the commanding heights of our knowledge economy, you may have noticed it’s also happening within the information arteries of our public life. As Jay Rosen’s puts it

Facebook, a creature of the tech industry that feels no native commitment to journalism… that wants to avoid responsibility for editing because editing does not scale.

As few people have failed to note, the election of Donald Trump marks the new age in which ordinary grade bullshit is now complemented by weapons-grade or cyber-grade bullshit in which simulated truth diverges further and further from actuality.

We haven’t heard the last of this development.

This entry was posted in Bullshit, Economics and public policy, Information, Innovation, IT and Internet. Bookmark the permalink.
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Tony Tea
Tony Tea
7 years ago

The link to your car policy piece is dead.

7 years ago

It may be starting to come to an end — I have noticed more grants and performance evaluation schemes simply asking for “best 10” publications or similar, which means the use of a manager-style approach to science where people think of countless projects (many of which are repetitive and slight permutations of other ones), and then get as many PhD students to run them may be over. This is in part due to the influx of pay-to-publish journals, many of which will accept more or less anything, which means it becomes very easy to have vast numbers of publications. It is also in part due to groups like physicists and economists simple starting their own archiving services (I recently saw people trying to start one of these in psychology). Unfortunately, in Aus, the churn-it-out no matter what type of “science” is still that which is rewarded but the end seems inevitable in the longer term.

john Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  conrad

‘my what a huge publication list you have, big boy’ – Rather reminds me of the Irish elk ( deer).

7 years ago

The Irish elk myth was debunked by Stephen Jay Gould in 1974: the current picture is summarised here;

John Walker
John Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  ChrisB

Sexual selection seems a quite apt metaphor for the way academic publishing has evolved.


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