Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Blog LXXXI (81): A Ponzi Scheme

Today the blog will take advantage of the multi-media nature of the World Wide Web and presents an interview of Dr. Monica Harris, a social psychologist from the University of Kentucky, on WNYC Radio 93.9 FM in New York City. She calls the academic job market a "Ponzi scheme." Harris was mentioned in The Economist article that formed the basis of Blog LXXIII. She is now refusing to take on new graduate students given how bad the job market is these days.
View Full Audio on WNYC

Friday, May 20, 2011

Blog LXXX (80): RIP Rice U. Press

With today's blog we return to the issue of electronic publishing.  Below is a news article, "Rice University Press Dies Despite All-Digital Approach School Pulls Plug as Budget Pressures Climb" that appeared in the August 21, 2010 issue of the The Houston Chronicle.  The author is Jeannie Kever, a reporter for the Chonicle:

Rice University is ending its attempt to change the world of academic publishing.

University officials said this week they will close Rice University Press next month, pulling the plug on an experiment aimed at making it less expensive to publish scholarly works.

But even as an all-digital operation, the press proved too expensive to sustain, former Provost Eugene Levy said in a statement released by the school.

Rice closed the press once before, in 1996. Levy, now a professor of astrophysics at Rice, provided funding for it to resume operations in 2006, when he served as the school's chief academic officer.

Every book accepted for publication was made available online for free, but none was printed until they had been ordered and paid for.

Subsidy had to end
The print-on-demand format was intended to make the project self-sustaining--there was just one full-time employee, no sales staff and no warehouse space needed to store the books. University spokesman B.J. Almond said Friday that the university subsidy was between $150,000 and $200,000 a year.

"Combined with pressures on the university budget from the broad fiscal crisis of recent years, the university concluded that it could not continue indefinite subsidy of the RUP experiment, as painful budget reductions were being absorbed across the entire university, including in the core of Rice's educational and research mission," Levy said.

Earlier this week, Rice said it had agreed to sell the student-run radio station, KTRU, to the University of Houston for $9.5 million.

Academic publishing operations have been under financial pressure for years, and a number have closed. Others have been saved only after the public - or at least the academic community - rallied to their defense.

And most are subsidized by the universities whose names they bear, said Richard Brown, director of the Georgetown University Press and president of the Association of American University Presses.The markets are, in most cases, not big enough to sustain the publishing presses," he said.

But Brown said he doesn't think the closing of the Rice University Press offers much insight into the future.

"It was a unique experiment," he said. "Universities, for the most part, are very supportive of scholarly publishing. Rice, for various reasons, decided not to continue the program."

Lacking printed products
Most academic presses have some digital operations, including making books available for electronic readers. But their revenue still comes mostly from printed books, Brown said.

"We have to strike some sort of balance," he said. "What was going on at Rice was unique and novel and new and different and interesting, but ... in terms of producing revenue, there's still a reliance on print."

Fred Moody, editor-in-chief of the Rice press, declined to comment on the decision.

Levy said books already published by Rice University Press will remain available through Connexions, an electronic publishing platform developed by Rice faculty.

Almond said no decisions have been made on what will happen to books that have been accepted by the press but not yet completed.
The reason for posting this article is simple but important questions: What if you had published a book with Rice? How long would it be available and accessible to other scholars? In 10 years will Connexions have updated;the formats in which these books are stored so that future versions of current operating systems can open them, much less new ones that have not been invented yet.  What if only 15 copies of your book had been purchased through the print-on-demand format? What kind of influence is that study going to have? Friends don't let friends do e-books.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Blog LXXIX (79): Hail to the Victor

In April 2011 Education-Portal.com an independent, online resource web site, ranked the twenty best Ph.D. programs in history in the United States. Education-Portal.com did not list its criteria or giving rankings to the schools, I think (it is a very confusing website); so I simply repeat the list as provided. While we can all quibble with the list, I am going to push that inclination aside for the moment.

All of the schools on this list have good academic reputations and there is some nice diversity. They are spread all over the country. California has four schools. Texas, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all have two. Some of them are well-established programs and others have been making strong concerted efforts over the past few years to improve their professional standing. There are also some interesting omissions: three Ivy League schools are absent. There are also no schools from the Southeast.

In Blog IV, I recommend against anyone starting a Ph.D. in history. I still stick to that advice, but if you are going to ignore me, I cannot think of a better list of schools to consider. (Maybe because I am an alumnus of two of these institutions).

In the meantime, allow me to say congratulation to the faculty staff, students, alumni, and administrators that built these programs into impressive institutions. The top twenty history departments are:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Blog LXXVIII (78): E-books: Just Say No

I am no modern day Luddite afraid of technological change, but e-books are a bad idea that the publishing industry seems more than ever determined to embrace even though it is bad for them and the scholars that they produce.

In January Oxford University Press announced that it is creating Oxford Scholarship Online, which will publish book-length studies in electronic format. JSTOR already has a similar project under way. Project MUSE has plans with New York University Press to create the University Press eBook Consortium, which will apparently have more than 60 university presses as members.

What are we to make of these developments? Joseph Esposito, an independent consultant who advises scholarly publishers, told Inside Higher Ed that they are attempting to challenge Google. “These publications are now trying to take control of these markets, find revenue streams there, and trying to keep Google from being the vendor of choice,” Esposito explained.

This development might seem like a good one at first glance. “Preservation is essential in the academic community and an important distinction between what we are doing and Google Books,” Heidi McGregor of JSTOR told Inside Higher Ed. “Working with publishers and libraries, we will ensure the long-term archiving of these works for use by future students and scholars.”

Not really. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Electronics are no substitute for the printed page. Consider the fate of the music industry. Until the 1980s, music was recorded on analog tapes that were easy to retrieve. When the industry moved to the digital medium things changed. In only a half dozen years the formats of the machines changed dramatically. Modern computers are often not compatible with older formats. “Say you have a Word file on an old Mac OS and you want to retrieve it,” says Paul West, a former archivist at Universal Music. “Look at the hoops you have to go through for that. Multiply that by an incredible factor to try to retrieve music.”

Here is one example. The band Smash Mouth had to rerecord chunks of their song “All Star” for a television ad. Why? Well, the digital master was missing tracks. Keep in mind that the song is not that old; it was recorded in 1999. That was a mere 12 years ago. Sound engineers at the EMI music label discovered that drums and percussion effects on many songs from the 1980s are missing. “You open a session even from 10 years ago, and it might have a plug-in that's not supported, so you don't have that effect anymore,” Greg Parkin, the vice president of archives at EMI, explained.

The Library of Congress issued a recent report noting that digital formats are “not inherently safe harbors of preservation.” Sam Brylawski, a former Library of Congress archivist, explained, “There's a paradox. We can record so easily now with digital recorders. But at the same time, the stuff is at greater risk than it used to be.” The Grammy and Oscar winning music producer T Bone Burnett, agreed: “Digital is a feeble storage medium.”

But books, publishers tell us, will be “different.” And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I would like to sell to you.

There are several problems in going to the electronic format. First, is the ever changing nature of the electronic media. Let me give you an example for my own career. I wrote my first scholarly paper in 1989 and stored it on a floppy disk—a real floppy disk. I still own the disk. It is sitting on a book shelf in my office, but I have no way of accessing the file. I wrote my doctoral dissertation/first book on an Apple Macintosh in 1996. I still own the computer, but it the printer died years ago and the computer screen no longer works.

I am not the only person facing this problem. “The first files I produced on a computer, in the 1970s, were stored on Radio Shack audiotape cassettes,” James Fallows of The Atlantic observed several years ago. “After that, I used a computer with eight-inch floppy disks. The book I wrote twenty-five years ago using that computer still looks fine—but the interview notes for it, which I “saved” on those big old disks, I might just as well have burned. For all practical purposes, there is no way for me to get at them anymore—nor at other information that over the years I’ve lodged on 5.25-inch disks, small archival high-density tapes, some varieties of Zip drives, and other media that my current computers can’t handle.” Fortunately, for me my research is all on paper.

Printed books might be old school media, but they do last for decades. That is something worth considering. Do you really want to spend seven years on a book length project and have it published electronically, only to see it disappear in eleven years? Probably not.

Second, there is a real question about the long-term durability of electronic publishing. Even if formats survive and remain accessible, the question is how long will the machinery remain operational. In 1859, English astronomer Richard Carrington observed a solar storm that produced huge flares and massive amounts of radiation. Eighteen hours later, the “Carrington event” shut down telegraph systems, and produced power surges that started fires at a number of telegraph stations. The event brought global communication to a halt for days. When telegraphs began operating again, there was so much electromagnetic energy in the air, that there was no need for the cables to be plugged into their power sources. The event also incapacitated international travel and trade. With all that radiation in the air, compasses pointed everywhere but north. For a brief period, sailors at sea returned to celestial navigation. That was the limit, though. Power grids, satellites, computers, the internet, television, radio, and microprocessors had not been developed, so many other parts of society never felt the impact of this storm.

The thing to note is that solar weather is cyclical. Over the course of the next century, there is no question that there will be another storm along the lines of the Carrington event. In 2003 the “Halloween Space Weather Storms,” a series of storms that equaled only twenty percent of the Carrington event, caused power surges and blackouts in northern Europe, shut down global positioning satellites, forced the rerouting of commercial air traffic, and blocked radio communication. The real issue is what will stronger storms due to electronic information storage systems. I do not know, but it will be probably be bad. What I can say with a lot more assurance is that it will do little to a printed book.

Even if I am wrong about the environmental challenge, there is still the problem about the format itself. Despite what people think digital information fades. The data is stored with tiny magnetic charges, and sooner or later those charges weaken and corrupt which eliminates the data stored on discs and hard drives.

Fallows interviewed Librarian of Congress James Billington on this topic and asked if there was a historical precedent for this type of loss. “Of course!” Billington replied. “The library at Alexandria.” He is referring to the burning of the Royal Library in Alexandria, Egypt, sometime after the Roman conquest of Egypt. The library operated under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Greek royal family that ruled Egypt for roughly 300 years, and turned the library into the major source of knowledge in the ancient Mediterranean world. The librarian added: “I’ll be frank, that is a major haunting thing for me about our library.” Sarantakes worries as well. So should you.

A third reason to stay away from e-books as a primary medium for publication is criminal activity. Right now it looks like iPads, Nooks, Kindles, etcetera are the next major “in thing” in electronic media. The criminal element has found ways to manipulate other electronic media such as the internet and e-mail. They use worms, Trojan horses, and botnets (a zombie army of computers controlled by others without their owners’ knowledge). With free downloadable applications for smart phones and public wi-fi hotspots it is only a matter of time before inventive criminals take advantage of these devices. While these attacks are going to be a problem for individual users, they will eventually infect databases. I have every expectation that users with these new electronic devices will put pressure on the database operators to make their products available to iPads, Nooks, and/or Kindles users and that will eventually lead to the infection of these electronic archives with some type of malware or virus. What kind of damage could hackers do our record of information, if they manage to degrade accessibility to electronically published books. Think I am exaggerating; think no one would attack something as benign as a depository of electronic books. Well, I am sure Sony thought that way until a week ago before its computer game network got attacked. The fact that people will be charged something to download electronic information makes these databases useful targets, and I am sure the criminal element can find other usages for them, even if I cannot.

If electronic publishing is so bad, why are people moving in this direction? The answer: short term thinking. Electronic publishing has been good for academic journals. It has made it possible for readers to buy copies of individual articles and smaller journals are more accessible as part of database bundles. Librarians for all the rhetoric we hear about having the coursework and training on budgeting issues make some fairly predictable decisions. They try to stretch their money and acquire as much as possible even if it is not what they need. For example, there is a journal that focuses on math history. I taught at school where the library subscribed to the journal as part of a package even though no one at the school in either the history or math departments worked in that field. Electronic publishing is cheaper than print since there is no need for ink or paper, and the price makes electronic books more attractive to librarians than traditional ones on paper.

Don’t get me wrong, electronic publishing is a great supplement to traditional print, but not as a replacement. For all the talk of going to a paperless society, electrons seem to be producing more paper rather than less. A perfect example is that there is more paper in the Reagan Presidential Library for 1988 than there is for 1981. The reason: computers were more available in 1988 than they were in 1981, making it easier for the White House staff to generate written records. All they had to do was hit the print button.

So, what is a scholar to do? The easiest thing to do is to refuse to publish in the electronic format. That, though, is easier said than done. I have four books in print and three are available electronically. I made mistakes in signing publishing contracts, but the book that has sold the best is the one that is not available in electronic format. I am currently looking to place three more manuscripts and am going to hold fast on the electronic issue. Go figure. At this point in my career, I am in a position where I can walk away from a situation. That is easy to say, but difficult to do. Scholars trying to publish their first book, might feel more pressure to compromise, but it is incumbent on you to take these stands. It is in your long term interests.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Administrative Note 14

The blog will return on May 5 as promised with all new entries. Sorry for the vacation, but it was simply unavoidable. Small changes have taken place during this holiday, though. Some typos have been fixed and a new search engine was added along with an index feature at the bottom of each essay.