Embargoes, BrouhAHAs, and the rhetoric of scale
I am not an historian, nor a member of AHA, nor an early-stage scholar, nor a publisher, nor am I responsible for library acquisitions. But then, the same can be said of plenty of folk who have weighed in on the decision by the American Historical Association to release a statement allowing for (and by implication, perhaps, endorsing) the “embargo” of history dissertations. As Rick Anderson notes (in a Scholarly Kitchen post that provides a pretty strong overview), the AHA “smack[ed] the hornet’s nest.” I follow enough Digital Humanities and Open Access inclined historians on Twitter that this statement, and the furor that ensued, registered substantially throughout my feed. And over the past week or so, the discussion has trickled upwards to the usual suspects (and beyond!) and sideways to other disciplines. At least it has to my own, based on listserv discussions and retweets.
And it should spread, because it’s not just an issue for historians. Times for university presses and for academic libraries are tough all over, and that affects every discipline. As someone who routinely advises late-stage graduate students and untenured faculty, I think that the questions raised by the AHA statement are ones that everyone in the humanities should be thinking about, not just members of that particular organization. For a good cross-section of the various positions and issues, my best recommendation is Open History, a project that began as part of the backlash against the AHA statement, but one that I’ll be watching with interest. They’ve got a pretty thorough collection of the responses to date, and a mechanism for adding others (addressing a weakness of the link round-up posts I’ve seen). I’m thinking about using that “issue” in my DH course for next spring, incidentally.
I have a couple of thoughts, neither of which necessarily addresses the core issues at play in the Statement or the responses to it. The first is that, put simply, I think discussions like these reveal their scale-free status, or at least raise the question of scale. As I’ve been sorting through what I want to do with my network rhetorics project, I’ve been returning to some of the terms and ideas that I’ve been taking for granted, and one of those is this idea of scale. We describe random networks as having scale when you can select any of the nodes and treat them as roughly representative of each of the nodes in the network; in other words, the behavior of a given node “scales up” as typical to the network itself. In a scale-free network, however, you can’t generalize from the behavior of a single node to the network. Easy enough, right?
Whether we treat the system addressed by the AHA Statement as a single network, or see it as a set of overlapping networks of various stakeholders (graduate students, faculty, universities, publishers, libraries, et al.), those networks are scale-free, which makes framing any discussion problematic. Insofar as we can speak of a system here, it’s difficult for me to see any particular node or group of nodes as typical. I don’t think there are many among us in the academy who would be arrogant enough to describe their own writing process, hiring process(es), job histories, departmental and college relationships, publication records as typical of all of their colleagues, not in academia, their own field, nor even their own department. Part of how scale-free networks function is iterative–the status of a given network affects its future development. So, for example, highly trafficked websites are more likely to attract additional traffic–our experience of the web isn’t random (or scaled). Each stakeholder in this conversation has a variety of factors to balance, and the ratio among them is a decision that happens locally, based on circumstance, and that ratio necessarily shifts over time.
I know that this sounds painfully self-evident (different Xs behave differently!), but you can see a certain amount of incommensurability that creeps into the discussion. We can’t speak in generalized terms about the policies of academic presses, so we push for specific evidence. But because those specifics don’t scale, they can never function beyond the level of anecdote, and ultimately make it more difficult to speak in generalized terms. I work in a field where perhaps the best-selling book of all time (Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, now in its 3rd edition) is not published by a university press but a professional organization, 95% of which appeared in print prior to its inclusion in that volume, and is almost entirely available to anyone for free provided they have access to JSTOR. And that tells you exactly nothing about NCTE’s own editorial policies, much less the other presses in our field, much less academic presses in general.
In the absence of representative anecdotes, what can be done? Do arguments like this get to a point where we should just throw up our hands? Not really. I do think, though, that at a certain point, networks of arguments hit a threshold where incommensurability sets in. When that happens, a different kind of argument takes place. And maybe this is my second point: lemons are to lemonade as scale-free arguments are to scale (as in “when life gives you X, you make Y”). While a number of people have responded to the AHA Statement as a particular kind of intervention (endorsing a rapidly deteriorating and increasingly obsolete model of scholarly communication), I wonder if it’s more appropriate to think of it as an attempt to introduce scale into the discussion, to establish some kind of baseline that allows us to say certain things about the typical behavior of that system. Bear with me.
It’s an imperfect analogy, to be sure, but think about professional sports, and the effects achieved through salary caps. It’s still hard to speak of the typical franchise in, say, the NBA (the Celtics and Lakers are not representative, e.g.), but a salary cap mitigates the scale-free quality of the network of franchises, allowing Oklahoma City to compete with Los Angeles, even if the two take very different approaches to team development, talent acquisition, etc. Even though teams may appear to ignore the cap (hello, Brooklyn!), the penalties for doing so are not insubstantial (increased luxury taxes, the inability to sign players for more than the league minimum, etc.), and can’t be maintained indefinitely. The salary cap doesn’t homogenize the league nor guarantee any sort of sustained success for a franchise, but it does level the field in terms of opportunity. There are still strategies and tactics involved, but there’s sufficient scale in the network (we might argue) to allow every team to compete.
Part of the AHA Statement, then, is about scale: all graduates should be able to choose what to do with their dissertations. In this sense, the AHA Statement isn’t so far away from guidelines offered by the MLA regarding the value of digital work:
Institutions and departments should develop written guidelines so that faculty members who create, study, and teach with digital objects; engage in collaborative work; or use technology for pedagogy can be adequately and fairly evaluated and rewarded. The written guidelines should provide clear directions for appointment, reappointment, merit increases, tenure, and promotion and should take into consideration the growing number of resources for evaluating digital scholarship and the creation of born-digital objects.
If your department or discipline falls under the MLA umbrella, then this provides a pretty clear statement about the importance and value of digital work–whether or not every single department follows this Statement to the letter, MLA provides a baseline for the responsible evaluation of tenure/promotion cases that include such work. It doesn’t say, however, that you should not be tenured unless you do such work, or that folks who don’t work digitally are less likely to be tenured. If I were forced to name the difference between these two sets of claims, perhaps I’d call them policy statements and position statements. The MLA here is setting policy, or at least offering a Statement that itself can be adopted and adapted to policy on the local level.
Where the hornet’s nest gets smacked with the AHA Statement, I think, is precisely those moments when it drifts away from policy towards position:
an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources….online dissertations that are free and immediately accessible make possible a form of distribution that publishers consider too widespread to make revised publication in book form viable…
I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to note that, if your interest is in crafting policy, the phrase “tangible threat” is not the best choice. If nothing else, that phrase alone functions deictically, calling attention to the specific circumstances surrounding the Statement and inviting the polarization that occurred in response. It treats those circumstances not as variable or conditional (which they surely are, if others’ responses are to be trusted), but as given. And it turns the policy into an outgrowth of a position that is conjectural (and which proved to be controversial). I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that it’s simply a matter of tone, but it’s hard for me to imagine that there would have been nearly as much outcry, if the Statement had presented the policy as a necessary update given the shifts in scholarly communication/technology. I think that the case (and the policy) could have been made without implying that OA advocates’ beliefs constitute a (tangible!) threat to their newer colleagues.
If I were to put a bow on this, I think I’m slowly articulating an idea for myself about network rhetorics: this notion of making an argument to scale is something that I find coming up again and again, one that only really emerges with clarity when you think about arguments ecologically or as networked. I still don’t quite have the vocabulary for it yet, but most networks don’t occupy either the random or the scale-free end of the spectrum; they’re semi-scaled, maybe, and maybe I’m thinking about scale as a consequence of rhetoric. That may be the next puzzle piece for me as I work on my next book. I wish I had a witty remark to insert here about my failure to embargo this post, but let your imagination run wild…