McKenzie Wark on Tue, 6 Jan 1998 00:07:45 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Academic Paper Sloth

Academic Paper Sloth
McKenzie Wark

Frank Hartmann's essay on 'academic paper tigers' makes the key point 
that this is a period of transition from the world of paper to something
else, as yet perhaps unknowable. The academic world is a case in point, where
as Frank says, electronic distribution is still used as a supplement to 
the printed word. But there are a few assumptions kicking around in 
Frank's piece that I think need attention. One is that the net equals a 
more universal mode of distribution to print, which appears as a world of 
limitation. This needs to be broken down into two separate issues, access 
and quality. On the access front, electronic distribution is catching up 
fast to print, but we still can't assume that the access problems have 
been solved. But the real issue I think is quality control. Print 
publication used to mean that the text had been passed through the 
filtering process of refereeing, editing, subediting and design. A lot of 
publishers have economised on some of these parts of the discursive 
quality control process, but still, one expects a printed book or journal 
to have been passed through some kind of editorial process. This isn't 
true of electronic publishing, or rather, there ins't yet an agreed map 
of the electronic publishing world so that scholars can know which 
journals or publishers can be considered relaible and which -- not.

Basically, its a question of noise. The whole point of academic publishing
is to try and filter out certain obvious kinds of noise -- bogus data,
bad prose, pointless theories. Electornic publishing does not yet have
the kind of practices in place that can deliver that kind of lowering of
the noise threshhold. Sure, there are great new tools -- hypertext could
be a great way of reinventing the referencing system for the first time 
this millenia. But the whole idea of academic publishing is to *restrict*
publication to texts that have been through several kinds of scrutiny.
The net is actually the worst thing that ever happened to academic
publishing, given that it bypasses all of the quality maintainance practices.

Fortunately for the net, paper publishing has been doing a good job of 
digging its own grave as far as academic texts are concerned. Firstly 
through the insane proliferation of 'scientific' journals. I saw some 
projections once according to which scientific journals, at present rate 
of growth, would swallow the whole budget of my university library within 
5 years. While some growth in output is to be expected, this rapid rise 
bespeaks more a slackening of the management of quality more than 
anything else. 

As a way of controlling costs, academic publishers seem to want to reduce 
the depth of textual management involved in each particular book or 
journal and spread it over an ever expanding range of output. More books, 
more journals -- less quality control. To the point where there one might 
as well just trawl the net rather than rely on paper publishing. At some 
point I expect the opposite strategy might dawn on the print world. That 
print only has a future if it respects the range of speeds that now 
pertain in the circulation of texts. The net is still going to be the 
quick and dirty means of distribution, until particular outlets build 
their reputations for quality. So print publishing has to adapt to that 
reality and become the slow but portable vector. 

Academic publishers have spend decades, in some cases hundreds of years 
building a reputation, so its not to be expected that electronic 
publishing will replace it overnight. The whole point of the academy is 
that it moves slowly. If you want speed, the trade media markets are 
there to deliver it. There's no shortage of brightly packaged cybershit 
to fill the desire for instant media. But as anyone who has trawled 
through the archive knows, there is wave after wave of instant shit, a 
lot of it well forgotten. The whole idea of the academy is to be 
untimely, to ride out market trends, to make decisions about what matters 
on more slow moving criteria. (And also more fast moving ones -- the 
academy ideally outflanks the market at both ends of the temporal 
spectrum, but that's another story...). 


"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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