Thursday, April 25, 2013

It's My Fault (At Least Partially)

I want to talk game theory. Specifically, coordination games. Carl T. and Theodore C. Bergstrom (2006) identify the scholarly publication business as a coordination game. In such a game, there is an existing convention, a way of doing things, that is practiced by a large group. While that convention may no longer be the ideal way of doing things, no one individual can move away from the convention and benefit, because unless everyone else does. So, to steal their example, suppose we have three scholars in a field. There is the legacy journal, with publishing practices no one likes, and a new journal appears. The new journal is cheaper and it has the potential for more circulation, so one author considers publishing in it. However, if the other two stick with the legacy, the legacy will still be preferred by most readers, academic libraries will only buy the legacy if they have to make a choice, and that first scholar's work will actually receive less attention. All three would have to jump ship. Now change 3 to however many scholars there are in a given field, and you see how difficult this can be.

So, I bring all that up to give some context to my interpretation of this blog post, detailing how Keven Smith accidentally published an article at a Taylor & Francis journal, whose author's rights policies he disapproves of.  Smith, as the Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke, is exactly the sort of person you expect to be making careful, informed decisions on what publishers he chooses to publish with, and no doubt he usually does. The story he spins on how this publication came to be is not, I think, the standard method one usually goes about getting something published. Still, he draws many good lessons from this experience, one that really stuck out to me: "authors choose journals, not publishers."

Scholars, when determining where to publish, don't think about who the publisher is but whether the topic they are writing about fits the journal they are writing for, and this is what Smith considered when he signed. He thought his work would be a good fit for the journal. He's almost certainly right, as well: Serials Librarian, T&F journal in question, probably is "a proper venue" for a write-up of the talk he gave. Why? It's where there are readers interested in these topics. Which makes me think, why do authors choose journals, not publishers? Probably because readers choose journals, not publishers. Bergstrom and Bergstrom stated that readers choose journals because quality scholars publish there, but I think it's also true that quality scholars choose journals because there are many readers. It's mutually reinforcing.

If I am honest about my own inchoate practices as a scholar, as I determine what I should be reading to keep track of my interests I don't consider who is actually publishing these journals. I care about what is in them. I am an OA advocate and talk a big game about it, but it in no way changes my research practice. I don't prioritize finding information in an OA journal. I prioritize finding information in the best journal, and OA doesn't factor into my definition of "best." As a budding librarian I care about publishing practice, but as a budding scholar I really only care about best information,* and sometimes (often) that information is in journals with publishing practices I don't approve of. In thinking this way, I'm helping to keep the convention of the coordination game stable. As long as I, and my fellow readers, keep reading journals without interest in how they publish, what incentive is there for authors to try to disrupt the convention?

* Actually, as a librarian I only care about publishing practice when advocating for new publishing practices. When doing reference or information literacy instruction, I don't care about publishing practice when I guide patrons and students towards resources. I don't think I'm unusual in this. The only one of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards that could be used for considering publication practices is Standard Five, maybe, if you squint at it and turn your head sideways a little bit.

Bergstrom, C. T., & Bergstron, T. C. (2006). The economics of ecology journals. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4(9), 488-495. Retrieved from

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