Why not syndicate with ACI?

Some time ago now, I got an e-mail from someone offering to publicise this blog for me. This happens now and then, and is usually either search engine optimisation or someone trying to launch some kind of aggregator platform that they want me reciprocally to advertise. In all these cases I decline; the blog already ranks high enough in web searches and, if it doesn’t rank as high as it used to, that’s actually good in some ways. Quite apart from the sometimes inexplicable nature of some of that traffic, it’s a pain searching for images for your teaching or blog posts and finding that the best, but still wrong, hits for what you want are things you already put on the web yourself. Anyway, this is a post about such an offer which I also declined, back in 2019, but which I had to think harder about, because it may not have been a scam as such, but I thought at the time that it was still doing things wrong in some ways, and I think I still do. But it deserves thought.

The company in question was called ACI Information Group, though it began and now still exists as Newstex, and what they offered was not being on a page of links with a hundred competitors, but something more curated, which was firstly, syndication, so that anything I posted would be passed to databases of scholarly blogging apparently being maintained by several providers, including LexisNexis and (at that time, but no longer) ProQuest, against each of whom I have slightly irrational animus. Secondly, however, and more powerfully, they would register each of my posts with a DOI (digital object identifier) so that it could more easily be cited. It was actually the second of these that deterred me. As I say, the blog is pretty findable anyway and although I have a fraction of the page-views here I once had (approximately a hundredth of the glory days of 2009-11), I have close to 800 subscribers, some whom I suspect of actually reading the thing, so my publicity machinery probably works about as well as anyone’s can who stays off Twitter, Facebook or Instagram (to name the platforms of the moment; come back in twelve years and see which of these names needs changing…) So the syndication probably wouldn’t have got me much. But they obviously thought that the treatment of my blogging as if it were a scholarly resource would attract me and it had the opposite effect, so, why?

Well, two things. Firstly there’s the economics of it, and secondly there’s the question of blogging as scholarship. Economics is easier to explain, as it’s basically the great Internet maxim, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Registering DOIs costs a lot of money, so the only reason it makes sense for someone to do that for me is because it makes it easier for them to sell my content to LexisNexis and ProQuest. Likewise, it only makes sense for those concerns to buy that content if they are themselves then selling subscriptions to the databases. Now, electronic subscription costs are the biggest millstone around the neck of academic information; they rise every year and if you cut them, you lose the lot, nothing on the shelf to keep, nothing except spare budget from the vanishment of information you used to have. But this case would have been especially annoying, as the content these people would have been paying for was on the web for free in the first place; all ACI and then their patrons were charging for was putting it in front of people so that those people didn’t have to find it themselves. Firstly, I’m not sure that actually would have got me any new readers; but secondly, it puts me in the position of the authors whose ancient books go onto the web for free and then wind up for sale on Amazon and so on as print-on-demand copies made from the free PDFs their printers hope people won’t find. I didn’t want to endorse that economy.

But as I say, that wasn’t actually my big objection, and the second one takes more explaining because it involves the question of whether blogging counts as scholarship.1 Now, you might argue that anyone who will cheerfully perpetrate multi-thousand-word blog posts with twenty-plus footnotes each is in a bad place to argue that it’s not; and certainly I hope that my blogging is at least scholarly. But really, unless I’m actually writing about stuff I was researching for some other purpose, I don’t have time to research stuff that goes up here very deeply, and long-term readers will know that this sometimes catches me and I have to make corrections. But those updates and corrections never go out to susbcribed readers, who just get the initial, faulty version dropped into their feeds or INBOXes. I have occasionally done library work to substantiate a blog post, but I do try not to have to. I link to sources I would not cite in fully academic writing, and I check fewer things in general. It’s not done to the same standard.2

You might say in response to that that some of the things I’ve posted here have actually become scholarly publications, so must have been pretty like scholarship and may even have been it. But let’s look at that more closely. In 2007 I had a short conversation with Jinty Nelson about crop yields and she repeated to me something from her excellent book Charles the Bald that set me onto the question of how far I believed Georges Duby’s old story that early medieval crop yields were really poor.3 I wrote something about that here in 2010 which was the germ of the argument which became my 2019 article on the subject.4 But the 9-year gestation time was really important. In the course of it, I got a small grant to support presenting the research at Kalamazoo; I got important feedback there; I then read a lot more and in 2013, I think, I sent a draft off to Chris Wickham (whom I had by then met and indeed worked with), who told me other things I needed to read, which not only provided vital missing data but also led me massively to shrink a whole section of the argument about experimental archaeology. And then, of course, I actually submitted the thing and it went past expert reviewers who also made suggestions about further reading and changes. The eventual 2019 version, therefore, had had masses more packed into it, some other stuff dropped or shrunk, and had been past numerous different experts all of whom knew stuff I didn’t. It was better, it was different and I still think it’s right and one of the most important things I’ve written. And yes, it started here, but that really was only the start. The central idea is the same but the explanation of it changed hugely. I wouldn’t now want anyone citing the old blog post when they could be citing, you know, the good version. I’m not averse to having the blog in general cited, at all, but only when there’s nothing better; the main reason I footnote is so that you, the reader, might know what there is that’s better.

So what I’m essentially saying, I suppose, is that real scholarship, the stuff you can hopefully rely on, comes from possibly-years of work and emerges in conversation with others; you can’t just blag it. I’m not necessarily singing out for the efficacy of the peer review system here, about which I (like everyone who’s been through it, probably) have my doubts; but something like it needs to happen. If a writer of a scholarly proposition isn’t willing to listen to other people’s doubts and suggestions, there really isn’t any mechanism by which everyone else, or even the writer themselves, can differentiate that proposition from personal delusion. Some would doubtles argue that the academy just reinforces the delusions it likes to maintain collectively that way; but there’s got to be some checking process before something can proceed to acceptance. And when this offer was made to me, I just felt that sticking a DOI on anything I might have come up with an afternoon was cutting that pathway to acceptance too short, even if it hadn’t also meant someone else getting to charge money for work out of which I got nothing.

Furthermore, one might also want to consider what else would be in those databases that would have been the end product of all of this. My blogposts probably imitate the scholarly form too much, but others might do so too little. I’ve read some actually really good analyses on blogs I still can’t cite, because as they themselves don’t make it clear where their information comes from, I can’t be sure it’s not just repeated from somewhere else without attribution. If a huge pile of those became a searchable resource being sold to academic libraries as credible scholarship, well, anyone could be in there repeating stuff from anywhere. Curation might obviate this, but you’d never be sure without resorting to outside checks (though ordinary academic publication is getting pretty hard to filter like this anyway).5 Who are an electronic information company to judge whether I know what I’m talking about? Or anyone else? Of course, there is definitely still a problem, despite open access, in making the knowledge of tested and acknowledged experts available to everyone who wants it, even other experts—and companies like ProQuest have their share of blame to bear for that—but since this would be a subscription resource, it isn’t solving that problem.6 It’s all a bit of a threat to the idea of expertise to entertain this devil’s bargain. And without the idea of expertise, to be honest, the academy is sunk anyway; it is one of the many planks without which our ship will not sail. So when I saw someone trying to cut that plank short on my own ship, I told them no. I hope that still makes sense.

1. Of course, I have pedigree disagreeing with others on this: see Alex Sayf Cummings and Jomathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy” in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (edd.), Writing History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor MI 2013), pp. 246–258, online here.

2. I should say that the exception to almost everything I say here about my blog is my ancient piece “Material Motivations for Participation in the First Crusade” in A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, 13th January 2007, online here, which isn’t actually a blog post but an article I could never find a home for and put here instead. It wasn’t peer-reviewed in any sense when I posted it except that I’d asked one senior Crusaderist to look over it and he’d called it OK; but since then I’ve, rather flatteringly, had colleagues want to cite it because no-one else quite says what it says. And also, it’s open to comment, the comments are part of the 15-year record it has and I don’t intend to do anything else with it, so you may as well cite it if you want to. But for the rest of the blog, it’s either not worth citing or I’m working on a better version…

3. Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald (London 1992), p. 27; Georges Duby, “Le problème des techniques agricoles” in Agricoltura e mondo rurale in Occidente nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di studio del Centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo 13 (Spoleto 1966), pp. 267–284; Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’occident médiéval (France, Angleterre, Empire, IX–XV siècles) (Paris 1964), transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (London 1968), pp. 25–27 of the translation; Duby, Guerriers et paysans, VII–XIIe siècle: premier essor de l’économie européenne (Paris 1973), transl. Howard B. Clarke as Duby, The early growth of the European economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century (London 1974), pp. 25–29 of the translation.

4. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

5. Jeffrey Beall, “What I learned from predatory publishers” in Biochemia medica Vol. 27 (Zagreb 2017), pp. 273–278.

6. Nigel Vincent & Chris Wickham (edd.), Debating Open Access (London 2013), online here; Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds & Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science: a British Academy research project (London 2014); Plan S and the History Journal Landscape, by Margot Finn, Guidance Paper (London 2019), online here.

2 responses to “Why not syndicate with ACI?

  1. Back when academic blogs were more common, I found them useful as a way of learning about recent work and approaches outside my little niche. Because of the convention that conference audiences are already familiar with the topic, they are not always as helpful to newcomers as blog posts (which are conventionally aimed at the interested public, whether or not a particular blog actually reaches it). Book reviews can be useful in the same way.

    • I don’t disagree, by any means, but I do think book reviews are again different, and more like articles, just because they have been past another somewhat-expert’s eyes before publication. (Mine are more like articles in length, too, quite often, but that’s a separate issue.) Obviously one can do book reviews on a blog, and the response may constitute that kind of external review (I think here of the various flame-wars that Tim O’Neill used to put himself through at Armarium magnum) to an extent, but there is still no control over what gets published, and that’s the difference: filter-then-publish versus publish-then-filter. A while ago, in an interesting but now dated book called Hacking the Academy which is on the open web, a guy called David Parry became the most vocal exponent I’ve so far found of a view that in the digital era, where so much knowledge can now be produced outside the Academy and beyond its control, we should actually embrace a shift from the former mode to the latter and become the curators, rather than creators, of the research that’s actually worth knowing about.7 I never liked that argument. Firstly, we still have to do the research ourselves in order to be able to make those judgements; so presumably, if our judgement has special status still, so does our own writing; but secondly, we’re already doing this in a supposedly-filtering system, what hope have we got of filtering the whole darn Internet? It’s possible that even in 2013 that didn’t look as impossible as it now does.

      7. David Parry, “Burn the Boats/Books” in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the academy: new approaches to scholarship and teaching from digital humanities, Digitalculturebooks (Ann Arbor MI 2013), pp. 15–18, online here.

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