The Legitimizing Power of Markets: Why paying for paper serves as a proxy for ascertaining truths

It seems that the pot is starting (or have already started) to boil over.

The role of academic publishing houses in the dissemination of knowledge has attracted the attention of people outside academia.  And, certainly, it has attracted the attention of our blog.  Mary GrayChris Boulton, and Zachary McDowell have chimed in with some important ideas about the philosophical underpinnings behind why academics are so discontented.  But, this current Elsevier case, it seems to me, is merely an example of the discontentment against which many academics (and their students, in a way) feel towards the academic publishing industry.

Industry– Now that’s what I want this post to be about.  And, I think that’s what the problem really is: Industry and the legitimizing glow of money.

But, first let’s set the stage:

I won’t go into the particulars.  Many other blog posts such as those by my colleagues here at Culture Digitally do a much better job at explaining the particulars of the current row with Elsevier.  Here’s a short description: Academics are angry because we write/edit/referee academic journals/content which the publishers publish, take the copyright, and sell back to our academic institutions and our students.  Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of the whole system and the current debate.  Please, see the posts I referenced above for more detail; I want to get back to the topic at hand: Industry.

If we as academics are so dissatisfied with the academic publishing industry (which it seems we are, and I certainly am), why is it that we have turned to the academic publishing industry for so long?  Moreover, why in the era of digital culture and the Internet do we not move towards open access journals?  With all of this access to new ways of communicating do we not, say, set up a blog, invite/solicit academics to write for the blog, referee the content, and publish for all the world to read?

If you think about it, it wouldn’t be that big of a leap for academics to do this.  If you think about it, there would not be that much more work for blogs to retool themselves into online academic journals.  Most of the work would happen outside the actual blog itself.  That is, there would have to be an editors, referees, and so forth.  Technologically speaking, academic publishing houses could easily be replaced by existing technology.  In fact, styles guides, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th Edition, already outline ways that we can cite blogs or online sources.  Granted, we tend to write more casually on blogs than we would in academic journals, but that’s just a mindset thing.

Granted, there are several outstanding online journals and open access journals (again see my colleagues’ posts above).  Furthermore, I expect more reputable online journals to pop-up in the future.  But, for now at least, there is still some strange allure that printed journals have.  Perhaps there is a suspicion with online content– but there is certainly a lot of offline garbage as well.

Veridiction/Truthiness and how paying for paper legitimizes what we do:

Let me start this section by defining two terms: truthiness and veridiction.  The first word comes from comedian Stephen Colbert (~14:00 into the video), who speaking about truthiness, defines it as “what you feel in your gut, (as I said in the first Wørd we did, which was sort of a thesis statement of the whole show – however long it lasts – is that sentence, that one word), that’s more important to, I think, the public at large, and not just the people who provide it in prime-time cable, than information.”  By this, Colbert points to a form of discursive truth– a truth that relies more on conventional beliefs than ontical truths.  In regards to our discussion: It is a belief that there is more truth and knowledge in content from academic publishers.

The second word, veridiction, comes from philosopher Michel Foucault.  Foucault, speaking about “regimes of veridiction”, defines veridiction as the act of truth setting.  Specifically, Foucault argues that markets constitute a “regime of veridiction” in that markets take over the power of sovereigns to set the truth value of statements/ideas/facts/objects.  (Sovereigns, at this time in modern history, were generally replaced by states with a governmental polity that is more representational.)  Indeed, Foucault argues that representational governments needed markets to determine what was “natural” and thus to legitimate what the state was doing.  Likewise, markets needed states to protect their existence and legitimate their primary function — trade.

I bring up these two concepts, truthiness and veridiction, to show that they are quite similar.  Except on one hand, Colbert meant it as a joke.  Foucault, on the other hand, meant it quite seriously.  In regards to our discussion on academic publishing, there is a truthiness in the whole act of buying/subscribing to academic articles that publishers depend on.  That is, there is a belief that something for free isn’t worth as much as something that you have to pay for.  (I’m speaking of truth value here, not price.  Of course something that is “free” costs less than something that costs money.  But it does not follow that because we pay for something that it has more truth value or utility than something that is free.)  This is, I believe, the source of their hold over academia for so long.

How can we know what knowledge is worth reading, what debates are worth engaging in, and who deserves tenure if not for some “regime of truth”?  And, what better regime than the market place of academic publishing?  Professor So and So has something better to say because she is published in this journal which costs more than Professor Such and Such’s article in the free online Journal of This and That.

Thus, we pay for paper because in the act of “paying for paper” we look to markets to tell us that this article/concept/software/thing is more valuable because it costs more than this other thing.  Logically that’s not the case.  The price of selling academic content only tells us how much someone or something was willing to pay for it.  It tells us nothing about the truth value of that content.

Again, that’s precisely the problem.  Paying for paper serves as a proxy for ascertaining what is true and valuable.

Of course, times are a-changing.  I suspect that at some level, the current row with Elsevier is a slow realization by the academic community and society at large that the “regime of veridiction” is just that– a regime of control that depends on the truthiness of academic publishers.

Of course this is a deep issue, and no blog posts of about 1000 words can do it justice.  But let me close by saying, I believe (at least, I hope) that there will come a time where the need to pay for paper, and knowledge by extension, becomes an antiquated norm.

In my past career, I worked as a technology consultant specializing in open source software and platforms.  During the late 1990s, I remember the resistance and skepticism from my clients as I suggested free and open source software for their organization– even from organizations that really could not afford anything else.  Slowly, that norm has been changing.  Now it is not such a strange concept for people to see open source software as valuable.  Likewise, I hope/believe that there will be a time where free knowledge won’t be so strange of a concept for people.

But again, that depends on how willing and successful we are in abandoning academic publishers’ “regime of veridiction.”