The crisis of academic publishing and the uncertain future of the humanities.
Image by Flickr user Mark Zastrow
By Jonathan Basile
After my first year of graduate school, I developed a chronic illness and had to withdraw from my program. For the next two years, I was homebound and cut off from the communities of intellectual exchange I had been part of, as well as the resources (the libraries, the online databases) they provided. Access to academic materials is notoriously expensive: a single journal article may cost thirty-five dollars for someone without institutional support, and the average price of an academic monograph is approaching eighty dollars. My research would have stagnated were it not for an open-access database that remains available to the ever-growing ranks of scholars who, by choice or necessity, make their home outside the university. AAARG, a straightforward file-sharing platform, advanced my studies and rescued me from three years of indolence. And so, when I see it come under attack from publishers and authors who consider it a platform for piracy, I always wonder: who would it have benefited to prevent me from reading?
AAARG developed its focus on academic work in the humanities organically, as a response to the inaccessibility of those texts. The primary means of communicating humanities research is the book-length monograph, which has traditionally been published by university presses and purchased by university libraries. While individuals have always been priced out of this market, libraries are increasingly unable to afford these texts as well. The culprits in this story are not the university presses, but rather scientific journal aggregators like Elsevier, which owns thousands of academic journals and sells subscriptions to university libraries at prices that keep their profit margin close to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the budgets of these libraries have stagnated due to government spending cuts and questionable priorities at some universities. In the 2017-2018 year, UC Santa Barbara, for example, will have its entire library acquisitions budget exhausted by these digital subscriptions; it anticipates being unable to purchase a single book. In response to dwindling demand, publishers of academic monographs are selling fewer and fewer copies of books for more and more money. Even the richest institutions in the world say this system is no longer affordable
As humanities research becomes expendable, so do those who would teach these undervalued subjects.
As humanities research becomes expendable, so do those who would teach these undervalued subjects. Like university libraries, many professors exist in a state of constant budgetary instability: more than half of faculty in the US are contingent, meaning they have no guarantee of continued employment. Many scholars who have spoken out in AAARG’s defense have held such positions, and depend on the website to continue their research through periods of unemployment. Advancing their career beyond a contingent role (such as adjunct professor, postdoc, or visiting lecturer) depends more than anything on their ability to produce a monograph, and thus depends on completing research during periods of instability. The many discontents of the academy, those who would be students or professors but cannot afford to live in either role, now form a vast para-academic horde that organizes and supports itself, among other ways, through AAARG. The platform remains controversial, however, and often faces moral or legal opposition from those who feel it exacerbates the financial untenability of humanities publishing.
AAARG was created in the early 2000s by Sean Dockray, an American who is currently doing a practice-led Ph.D. in Visual Art at the University of Melbourne. At the time, he was an artist who had just moved to LA, hoping to form an intellectual community of para-academic practitioners in fields with shared theoretical underpinnings. His projects display a beautiful interplay of the universal and the particular, creating globally accessible or reproducible platforms for local and peculiar interventions. In 2007, he founded The Public School for Architecture in Los Angeles, now known simply as The Public School. It describes itself as a “school with no curriculum,” a free education collective that helps interested students propose and organize classes. It began as a way for members of Dockray’s community to share and develop their thought outside the confines of the academy, and has since grown into a global network of local collectives. Branches have formed in fourteen cities around the world, including Berlin, Helsinki, Buenos Aires, and New York, where I was involved for a few years as an organizer.
This type of local, para-institutional learning is what he hopes to foster with AAARG as well. For example, Public School classes depend on AAARG’s resources to create syllabi and share reading materials. In a conversation we had by e-mail, Dockray described in vivid terms the role the website has come to play as a counterbalance to the neoliberal university’s role as gatekeeper of academic research:
The humanities are being decimated, largely through capitalist restructuring of universities and knowledge, but also through the humanities’ incapability or unwillingness to articulate a role for itself within the financialized university. AAARG plays a role inasmuch as this restructuring creates uneven distribution of access to knowledge and resources—as libraries are shut in austerity governments or books are destroyed in dictatorships, but hopefully it also plays a role in providing writers, artists, designers, philosophers, and organizers with some theoretical tools for producing the humanities that we need to confront what is to come (conceptually, ecologically, politically, etc.).
Dockray is no longer wedded to the acronym, and says the name more resembles a cry of frustration at this point: aaaaargh!
The name AAARG was originally an acronym that spoke to its founder’s intentions, Artists, Architects, and Activists Reading Group. The site’s eventual legal troubles forced it to change domains frequently, usually adding or subtracting a single letter (Dockray is no longer wedded to the acronym, and says the name more resembles a cry of frustration at this point: aaaaargh! At the time of writing, its domain is aaaaarg.fail.).
The conflict surrounding AAARG’s existence, though similar to the battle between copyright holders and other file-sharing sites, bears some traits unique to the economics of academic publishing. While AAARG plays a relatively uncontroversial role in the sharing of out-of-print or unpublished work, there are some authors who object to their copyrighted work appearing on the site. The debate is less straightforward than it might be for the music or film industries, however. The economics of academic publishing are such that copyright is often more of a deprivation of the author than a protection. Most academics have to sign away their copyright and accept little or no royalties to get their work accepted by a university press. To justify this practice, presses cite the narrow profit margins of academic publishing, and scholars have no choice but to agree—they are dependent on the prestige and possibility of professional advancement which is their only compensation. Of course, the impact of their work (another important factor for an academic career) depends on how widely it is read and cited, which produces the odd situation that authors, in many cases, are the ones posting their own published work on AAARG, in violation of a university press’s copyright.
The site’s perennial legal troubles stem from those authors or publishers who consider AAARG’s dissemination of their work to be piracy. Dockray says that he did not create the site for that purpose and respects the wishes of authors and publishers who serve the site with takedown notices. His most recent legal battle has come from a translator of André Bazin’s What Is Cinema?, who has sued Dockray and the site’s registrant for 500,000 dollars. In response to the lawsuit, a campaign to support AAARG and raise funds for its legal defense has sprouted. The site’s users have submitted testimonials to the court that offer an at times quite touching glimpse of the community dependent on the site. In addition to academics in wealthy countries who rely on it for research needs their libraries can’t meet, there are scholars from countries whose university libraries can’t maintain an up-to-date collection of academic research; scholars who would be unable to purchase these books even if they had the resources, as they live in countries unserved by Amazon or eBay; an academic who lost their personal library in a fire; and one person who lives on a boat. One of the more poignant letters had the plot of a Harold Ramis movie: a high school debate team from a poorer district had trouble competing against teams from schools with access to resources like JSTOR, until they found AAARG, set district records, and made it to several national competitions. Reading these testimonials emphasizes the diversity of needs that AAARG can meet: translators who need to look up quotations from works cited in their source text, researchers who want a searchable copy of a work they already own in print, publishers who upload their own work because they find the discoverability boosts sales, and communities that would like to organize educational reading groups.
At present, the lawsuit is ongoing, and the fate of AAARG remains uncertain. Dockray’s success in court will depend on proving that his primary motivation in creating AAARG was not copyright infringement. As his ever-lengthening cry of frustration has shown in the past, however, the principle of the site will not perish even if its name does. Regardless of this lawsuit’s outcome, like-minded readers will always find a forum to share information when official channels fail them.
The ironies and injustices of academic publishing, as focused through the lens of AAARG, mirror those in other aspects of our society. Dwindling public funds are supporting the bottom line of major corporations like Elsevier instead of our public institutions, while a profit-driven management model forces the majority of its participants into debt, precarity, or unemployment. In this case, the public good, both in the sense of what we consume and what benefits us, is knowledge. Who deserves knowledge? What should it cost? What is it worth to a society (or to globalized humanity) to make it available to its members?
In the sciences, whose funding is better but still threatened under current models, the inaccessibility of knowledge could lead to slower development of treatments for diseases, for example, and to the desultory global dissemination of important clinical information. We should keep in mind that without open access archives like AAARG (or Sci-Hub and LibGen in the sciences), this information is inaccessible to most people around the world. The universities of poorer nations cannot afford to develop a collection akin to those of research libraries in the world’s richest countries.
The humanities threaten to disrupt the very logic and smooth functioning of a neoliberal state whose only measure of value is GDP.
The humanities possess no less social value, even if it is not always measurable in economic terms. If we feel otherwise, that sense may come from right-wing austerity governments, who have a vested interest in disparaging the work of the humanities. Marco Rubio gave us the most salient example from the recent election cycle, making the dubious and beside-the-point claim that welders earn more than philosophers. This rhetoric of fiscal conservatism cloaks an assault on the public assembly and free expression of liberals: a political witch hunt is disguised as a budgetary issue, a situation similar to Wisconsin’s 2011 fight against public sector unions (who traditionally endorse Democratic candidates) or congressional Republicans’ repeated efforts to defund NPR. The humanities threaten to disrupt the very logic and smooth functioning of a neoliberal state whose only measure of value is GDP. Perhaps the humanities’ most important offering is the ability to transform the frame of reference, to recast economic issues in moral terms, for example. The humanities are the locus, among other things, of the questions of justice or ethics—the very questions we are posing here—on which our public institutions must be founded lest we accept arbitrary authority.
The future of the humanities depends on the sort of local and fragmentary proliferation that AAARG makes possible. The site’s success offers an antidote to the prevalent narrative of a decline of the humanities—clearly this work is not undesired, merely inaccessible. Similarly, AAARG disturbs the myth that culture and history are monolithic, that art and literature form a single lineage to which each new work adds itself, and that a single audience receives them univocally. Such reasoning is often implicit in the arguments made against the humanities, which assert that its lack of universal appeal is a sign of its being out of touch.
This or that work of art or criticism may not interest everyone, but it does not thereby become useless and expendable. A study of Nubian linguistics, for example, will not interest everyone, but it will interest someone who studies Nubian linguistics. So long as such researchers can find each other and share their work, the humanities will continue to teach respect for all that resides at the margins. As long as the academic publishing industry remains in opposition to the goals of the authors and readers it is meant to bring together, those interested in learning will continue to congregate outside its confines, by means of a platform like AAARG or one still to come.
I’ve often considered it a strange, capitalist perversion of the will that artists and authors fight to prevent people from viewing their work. Of course, the present organization of our economy is such that there may be authors who are poorly served by AAARG’s distribution of their texts (though research suggests that open access availability boosts a text’s citations without harming sales). I only wish that we would frame our thinking in terms of how we could transform our economy to better serve accessibility, rather than how we can shutter our commons to better serve our economy.
We don’t have to live in a world where our economic and academic interests are in direct contradiction. If public funds spent on education and research could pay for non-profit open access publishing rather than padding the bottom line of major corporations, a platform like AAARG wouldn’t need to exist, or would play an uncontroversial role collecting and organizing open access work. For this shift to take place, we would have to reach a consensus on the value of humanities education that seems today like an ever more distant fantasy. But if we’re to imagine a more rational and just organization of our economy, as well as the rhetoric and activism necessary to bring it about, where else will we do so but the humanities?
Jonathan Basile is the creator of an online universal library, libraryofbabel.info. His non-fiction has been published in The Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, and Nexos, and his fiction has appeared in minor literature[s] and Litro. He is currently a PhD student in Emory’s Comparative Literature department.