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Quantifying the value of peer review

David Shulenburger's talk yesterday left me thinking again about the conundrum that seems to me to still be at the heart of the dispute between some publishers and the NIH over the public access policy.  Despite all of the blather and charges and countercharges we still haven't really sorted out the relationship between the value of peer review, the role of the publishers, and the impact on the public good.

Explicit in the NIH policy is that peer review has substantial value -- so much so, that NIH does not want any manuscripts deposited that have not gone through a rigorous peer review process and gotten the stamp of approval from a recognized peer review authority -- i.e., a publisher.  In developing the policy, NIH could have come up with their own vetting mechanism, but instead they quite sensibly chose to rely on the experts in managing peer review.  (And don't be fooled by the oft repeated truism that "peer review is all done by volunteers anyway."  If it were that simple, why wouldn't NIH just set up their own peer review system?)

But here's where it gets sticky.  In "the old days" (when everybody understood what the rules were), publishers gained control of copyright in exchange for managing the peer review process.   They were then entitled to use that control to develop revenue streams that would compensate them for the value that they were adding to the system.  Copyright gave them control of the distribution of the work to which they had added value.   Under the terms of the NIH policy publishers are expected to give up that control.  And it irks them.

Publishers add value in many ways.  The editing, layout, design of graphs and figures and supplementary material, the context that can be provided through editorials and relationships to other articles in a journal -- all of the elements that visually distinguish the final published article from the author's manuscript version can be useful and worthwhile.   The public access policy says that the publisher is still free to get compensated for all of those things, as if they were the totality of the value that the publisher adds.

But the publisher has already lost control of what is most important -- the imprimatur that says that this article has gone through the peer review process and has been accepted as worthy.    Since that process doesn't necessarily result in significant changes of expression, it's not part of the copyrightable package, but it adheres to the author's manuscript version every bit as much as it does to the final published version.

It is argued that this is not an unfair "taking" since the publisher has the right to refuse to grant the license that allows the author to deposit with Pubmed Central.  Puh-leeze!  This is, no doubt, technically and legalistically true.   But since when is a choice between complying with a policy and going out of business a real choice?  "Dear publisher -- we respectfully ask that, for the benefit of the common good, you give up control of the most significant element of value that you add to the scholarly communication process.  We don't actually have any way of compensating you for that, so you are perfectly free to refuse to do so -- in which case, you will, of course, be put out of business since you will no longer receive the manuscripts that are your bread and butter, but them's the breaks.  Good luck."

Shulenburger's been on campus doing some consulting for the university on matters not directly related to scholarly publishing, but we were fortunate that he was willing to take some time to do a public lecture on the topic.   The substance of his talk was drawn from a document that has received wide distribution since it's release last February:  The University's Role in the Dissemination of Research and Scholarship.  It makes a compelling case for the necessity for universities to take a very active role in disseminating, via institutional repositories, the scholarly output that they produce.  Peer-reviewed journal literature is only a part of that, but it's a critical part.  Shulenburger encouraged us to consider developing a policy similar to the Harvard and MIT mandates.  There were several Deans in the audience and I could see a lot of heads nodding.

While everyone involved in the debate agrees on the fundamental importance of peer review, and everyone seems to agree that it ought to be managed by the traditional peer review authorities, the pro-policy advocates have not directly confronted the fact that the policy does require publishers to give up control of something of great value without providing anything in return.   Wouldn't it be more constructive to acknowledge this fact and try to develop policies that account for it in some way, rather than dodging behind legalisms and hyperbolic rhetoric? 

Really, I'm just lookin' for a little intellectual good faith here.

Deep Reading Dylan

The alarm woke me from a dream where I was playing at an outdoor festival.  I was sitting in with a couple of people that I didn't know well.  It was just past dusk, and the stage lights were coming on.  Naturally, I was strumming a Dylan song.  ("Tangled Up In Blue," in fact, which I haven't played in quite awhile.)

No doubt this comes from having finished Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin last night.  I'd started it on the plane back from Honolulu and have been reading a bit every evening since.  I had a great time, but I have to think that the audience for it is pretty limited.  And that it is likely one of those books that far more people acquired than actually read.

No matter.  Ricks was clearly writing for the love of it, and it's a tour-de-force of close reading.  He uses the trope of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Heavenly Graces as an organizing principle.   But his interest is not so much what Dylan has to say about each of these, but to examine, in detail, how he achieves the poetic effects he does, particularly with his use of rhyme.  Ricks loves the mysteries of rhyme.

He sees things that I never would have noticed -- how, for example, the mix of masculine and feminine rhymes in a song can intensify the impact, and how different that impact would be if the mix were different.  Or, in noting the difference between a poem (meant to be read from the page), and a song (meant to be heard), how the singer's drawing a syllable across several beats can create an entirely different effect from what the words on the page alone would achieve.

Ricks takes pains throughout the book to make it clear that he is not suggesting that Dylan was consciously creating these effects -- at least not always.   Right at the beginning he addresses the question of intention:

...I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious.  Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual.  So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn't.

Ricks reveals himself to be a fine artist as well, dancing across the service of Dylan's lyrics with a light touch, throwing out a bouquet of allusions, puns, and startling correspondences with T.S. Eliot, Keats, and, of course, the Bible.  He liberally quotes the critic William Empson, the novelist Samuel Butler, and the dyspeptic poet Philip Larkin.

In the 40 years that separate his first book, Milton's Grand Style, from Dylan's Visions of Sin, Ricks has established himself as one of the premier British literary critics of the second half of the 20th century (and into the 21st, as he is still going strong, having just recently finished a term as Oxford's Professor of Poetry).   But here, he writes as a fan -- a fan who just happens to know more about the ways that poetry actually works than just about anybody else who might be inclined to try to write about Dylan. 

So what's the point of reading a book like that?  Did I come away from it with an enhanced appreciation for Dylan's prosody?  Will it increase my appreciation for his songs?  Probably not, actually.  It'll make me listen a little differently, I suppose.  Mostly, it was just great fun.

Thanks be for Jay Daly

Medical libraryland is mourning the loss of Jay Daly, who passed away last week.  Can there be a medical librarian who hasn't heard his name?  And can there be anyone who managed to spend some time with him who wasn't better off for the experience?  I didn't know him at all well -- only chatted on a couple of occasions -- but just that much improved my life.  And, he was a member of the Thicket Society.

I can scarcely imagine what the loss must be like for those who were close to him.

Marc Laroque does a fine job with the obit in today's Globe.  Read it, and pledge to Jay's memory that you're going to be a better, kinder person from now on.

Open forum on the ethics task force at the MLA annual meeting

I volunteered to be the note taker for the open forum on ethics that was held at the MLA annual meeting in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago.  Those notes are now up on the MLA Connections blog.  Rachel's notes, which include tweets from the session, can be found on the Official MLA meeting blog.

Earlier today I spoke with Lucretia about how we're going to proceed.  There are four broad areas:

  • Potential revisions to the MLA Code of Ethics itself
  • Potential revisions to MLA Disclosure of Conflicts of Interest policy
  • Review of MLA Business Practices pertaining to relationships with vendors
  • Draft of "preferred practices" for vendors in their marketing & advertising efforts, particularly in relation to activities at the annual meeting

We hope to have a final set of recommendations ready to go to the Board of Directors by mid-August so that they can be considered at the Board's September meeting.

I thought the discussion at the open forum was very good, and we will be incorporating many of the ideas that came up as we prepare our final report.  We would still like to get additional ideas and feedback, however, so I'd welcome any additional comments or questions here, or on the posts at the Connections blog or the MLA meeting blog.