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Debunking History: book review

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Some time ago someone got me a copy of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History: 152 popular myths exploded, 2nd edn. (Stroud 2009), as a present. Their reasoning was that as a historian I ought to enjoy it, and eventually I read it and my reactions were sufficiently mixed that I thought a review might be in order. That is, after all, a form of appreciation of a gift, right? It’s made me think…

I have to make some kind of disclosure beforehand, which is that the authors tackle nothing earlier than the eighteenth century and mostly British and European episodes, with some US ones and recent global politics salted over the meat. That despite, I don’t think I’m just ragging on them here from the perspective of the ignored medievalist; they picked that period and area because it’s the one they know, they say early on (p. xv), and indeed their currency with the debates seems pretty clear (though of course, I’m a medievalist, so they could probably fool me pretty easily). And they have a reasonable preface about the different ways in which people can be wrong about history: factual error, uncritical adoption of myth or legend (the one without historical foundation, the other with) and controversy of interpretation leading to an as yet unjustified opinion. At the least, this is thinking work, and I’m not unfriendly to such books, as my occasional mentions of the key medievalist one will have shown.

One does have to wonder about the title, though. As far as I can see, the authors have chosen their particular misapprehensions to combat largely by meeting them as school or college examiners (p. xv), and fair enough, but very few of them meet their own definition of ‘myth’; indeed, ‘Popular Misunderstandings’ is only one of the thirteen chapters, while in the case of some topics like the Carbonari, the Tonypandy Massacre, the Speenhamland system, Harold Wilson’s devaluation of the pound in 1967, the origins of the word ‘dole’ (which they get wrong, because of not knowing their ancient history) or the Ems Telegram, I doubt that there is any really ‘popular’ opinion to correct; some of these things were unknown to me, and I am a historian who tries to talk to his modernist colleagues every now and then and so on. Probably only someone who has examined history A-Levels in the UK for a long time is familiar with everything in this book. Neither, often, do these ‘popular myths’ wind up ‘exploded’; some of them are sustained, most of them are conditioned or qualified and a few outright rejected, but even in those cases the reasons that people have understood incorrectly are also usually set out and seem reasonable in their own terms. So I think the publishers probably have some blame to bear for deciding what would be on the cover of this book and how little relation it might bear to the contents. This is not History debunked: this is, I think, two experienced teachers claiming a right to decide what History is.1

Despite that, the contents often seem pretty good, though not always and the bad cases are worrisome as we’ll see. The balance is about forty-sixty between cases where the authors think that the jury must remain out (so that the ‘popular’ misapprehension is that there is an accepted answer) and cases where there is an answer and it’s not the one the authors think is popularly held. Each controversy is set up with a short summary rubric then the facts as we know them are set out and the changes in historians’ interpretations or the reasons for popular misapprehension exposed. It’s usually clearly and pithily written and it sounds authoritative, though it would take a lot of work to dig up the evidence on which they base their conclusions; there is a decent-looking bibliography (pp. 437-441), thematically organised (and mostly recent) and separated into a reading list and a reference list, the latter apparently being the support for the authors’ judgements but hard to link back to them. Despite that, the book would make a good update for someone who studied modern history a generation ago, I think, though that person might then want to read more than or differently from what he or she is set here.

That reader would need to be more neutral than the authors, indeed, whose own prejudices and interests sometimes loom very large in their writing. This is in part evident in the selection: one or both of them clearly have interests in military history and there is an awful lot of ‘great men’ stuff. But again, I don’t mind that. More problematic are the judgements made in such cases. Is it really a historian’s job to answer such questions as “Talleyrand: was he guided by principle or personal advantage?” (pp. 41-43: the latter, so no explosion here), “The Last Tsar: a vicious tyrant?” (pp. 53-56: thoughtless more than vicious), “How Deserved was the Reputation of President Reagan?” (pp. 205-208: undeserved but deliberately promoted), “Edwardian England: a golden age?” (pp. 179-181: not for anyone below gentry level), “Hitler: dictator or dreamer?” (pp. 319-322: a man without workable plans or the brains to realise that but with the will and opportunity to oppress those who threatened his attempts to bring them about anyway, so, both?), “Disraeli: the father of modern Conservatism?” (pp. 376-379: no!), “The Papacy: was it soft on Fascism and Nazism?” (pp. 398-402: yes but for the sake of survival) or, most of all, “Did Tony Blair betray British Socialism?” (pp. 420-426: socialism already long dead in Britain, sez they)? I could pick many more, and they’re all matters of opinion, as if a historian’s proper job is to guide society’s moral verdict on its architects or attackers. We do, of course, exist partly to make people feel better about things, I admit that, even if another part of our point is to make people question everything, but these potted verdicts are so inherently subjective that I would expect any reader who can follow them to realise that there’s nothing authoritative about them and that one really doesn’t need a historian to reach them.

This is especially worrisome when the authors’ own prejudices come out. They are in general pro-Britain although only in the twentieth century, where all its politicians have apparently done the best they can with limited information except maybe Blair (an absurd topic to include, given that we have only heard most of the evidence while this post has been in draft, six years after the book was even revised)! One of the authors at least, however, is acutely contemptuous of the USA, and this comes out especially in another of these worrying subjective verdict cases, “‘McCarthyism’: did the end justify the means?” (pp. 66-70). Here I’ll quote the most egregious bit (p. 69):

“Could the same phenomenon recur in American affairs? There is little doubt it could. The political leadership of the USA and the bulk of the American nation remain intensely patriotic in their feelings. They are starry-eyed to the point of mawkishness in their love of their homeland, whether or not the ideal qualities for which they regularly lay their hands on their hearts are as evident in their lives as they imagine. It is their firm belief that foreign states are deplorably feeble and cynical in not sharing their shining patriotic vision. To them, a clear-sighted grasp of America’s national interests, a single-mindedness in their country’s interests and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for their country are absolute imperatives, producing the same gut impulse to ‘save America’ as it did fifty years ago against communism. In this sense the McCarthyite spirit lives on, whatever may the ‘unseen enemy’ that seems to threaten thair sanctified vision of themselves.”

Now this is not history-writing; it’s not even journalism. It’s just defamation, and directed against an individual it would be actionable. What is it doing between covers of a book written by people who believe they are correcting misapprehensions with empirical expertise, and who can write in that same book (p. xi):

“… the borderline between error and deliberate misrepresentation is uncertain and often blurred. Sometimes what originated as a simple error has achieved a certain permanence in people’s minds because it seems appropriate – a myth perhaps even more appropriate than the truth…”?

One wants to use phrases involving words like “mote” and “beam” here, but perhaps the good old Wikimedian protest is still the best one:

Randall Munroe, “Wikipedian Protestor”, XKCD, July 2007, http://xkcd.com/285/


1. The book’s cover and online blurb both say, “Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley are history professors and authors of history textbooks.” The latter is easy to substantiate, but I can’t get anything out of the web to show the former. Odd?

Quote

Ein schlechter Tag für Europa

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Leaving my own politics out of it, I wake this morning to the likelihoods that two funding bids I’m involved in will now collapse, that all our current European doctoral students are now going to have to rush to finish before the conditions of their residency in the UK change in unpredictable fashion, that working in Catalonia, Spain or France is shortly to get more expensive and hostile and that my chosen sector of employment will now see yet another shrinkage of income, with presumably resultant cuts in jobs. I am also going to have completely respin the next lecture I give on Charlemagne. The longer-term consequences… who knows?

Collecting from Cliopatria

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Long-term readers may know that I used to be a contributor to a group blog at the Humanities News Network site, which was called Cliopatria. Cliopatria was kind of a lead singer and his backing band; Ralph Luker, the editor, did most of the posting and various other people chimed in every now and then, and from 2009 to the blog’s closure in 2012 I was one of those people. I always found Cliopatria a difficult audience to pitch for; I had been asked to contribute as a medievalist, but despite my efforts and those of the two East Asian studies people also contributing the bulk of both posting and commenting was modern-US-centric. I therefore wound up focusing my activity there either on things about scholarship on the Middle Ages I thought would interest other fields or, and here I had company, on the state of the Academy. Some of that material also appeared here, and I generally mentioned here when I’d got something up there, but I did try and make sure that I was writing distinctly for each blog.

Despite that, in general my posts went uncommented and in fact, it was then usual for me to get more comments and feedback here than anyone ever got on Cliopatria, so I posted there only rarely. Then, somewhere in 2011 I think, HNN had a redesign that changed their stylesheet and effectively wrecked anything that anyone had previously done with HTML tags; quotations ceased to be distinguishable from paragraph text, for example, and hyperlinked text appeared three point sizes smaller than that around it. Much of my existing content now looked stupid or wrong and it was hard to work in the new template; links inside the blog stopped working and posting, not just mine but everybody’s but Ralph’s, dropped right off. It struggled on a little longer and then Ralph finally closed the blog in early 2012. It remains readable, but I learn in writing this that Ralph himself died in August 2015, which I am saddened by. May he rest easily.

Since then, anyway, I’ve occasionally had reason to go back to my Cliopatria posts for something, and they are really hard to find. The site has been redesigned again since Cliopatria closed and things now look better, though not as good as they did before the first redesign; but the links to individual authors’ works have gone, as have all the comments, and its internal search is lousy. My name doesn’t appear over all my posts, and neither my own list of links or Google can bring back everything I wrote there. So for some time I’ve been meaning to put together a list of my posts, for my own reference as much as anything, and this is that list. In compiling it, I’ve discovered quite a number of things I had completely forgotten writing, and I fear that there may still be more I haven’t found. What I have, I’ve broken down by categories and arranged by date within them, and if you wanted to go and read any of them that would be lovely, though I’ve also indicated where they also appear here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe because those are easier reading still. When it drops off the front page I’ll set this post up as its own page. In the meantime, this is what I did for Cliopatria.

Actual Research Posts

These were generally poorly-judged for Cliopatria and usually also appeared here. After a while I stopped doing them except out of guilt at having not posted for ages.

Medievalism in the Modern World

A long-term strand of my blogging, this, but all the more important where medievalists would not normally tread but modernists are still reading it. These are probably the posts I’m proudest of writing at Cliopatria, I think they were useful and good publicity for why having experts on this stuff is sometimes helpful.

The State of the Academy

I’m much less sure about these posts, as a rule. In particular, they mostly come from the point when the Conservative Party under David Cameron was just beginning to muck about with UK higher education funding; a lot of people were self-righteously angry and it was easy to get on that bandwagon without necessarily thinking too hard. After all, the government was directing baton charges against schoolchildren protesting about tuition fees; if you weren’t angry, you arguably weren’t paying attention. Also, though, for much of my time on Cliopatria I was at Oxford, which the more I look back on it (or read my leftover issues of The Oxford Magazine) looks like a bubble of small-c conservative privilege I wasn’t then fully able to see out of. The people writing in the Magazine clearly don’t represent their colleagues very widely—Oxford has not gone private, banned tourists from the Bodleian Library, legislated to remove authority from its own Council or cut back the university administration, or any of the other things for which they regularly campaigned, for a start—but Oxford also doesn’t represent the rest of UK HE very well, and I honestly just didn’t realise how true that was till I got out. So these posts come from an odd, and rather blinkered, place, and occasionally I got pulled up for that. Still, there are some good rants there and a few things I’d still stand by.

In Marca Hispanica XXXI: contacts, changes of plan and a main-street hermitage

I said last post but one that I would clarify my itinerary on last year’s trip to Catalonia, because it wasn’t very simple. This was so for four reasons. Firstly, we were trying to hire a car only for one part of the trip, but not all the things we wanted to drive to were close to each other. Secondly, I had made an effort on this trip actually to meet my few Catalan academic contacts, to whom I almost never give enough notice of my arrival, and that left me with many commitments. And the third and fourth reasons I’ll explain as they arise, because they were not planned. The original plan looked like this:

  1. Day 1. Arrive in Girona by air, pick up car, drive to Sacalm and then to Vic.
  2. Day 2. Three castles in a day!
  3. Day 3. Sant Pere de Casserres and the putative Castell by car, then back to Girona, return car, rail to Barcelona.
  4. Days 4 & 5. Meeting people, tourism and book-buying in Barcelona, finishing with rail back to Vic again.
  5. Day 6. Archive work in Vic and visiting one of the Museu Episcopal and cathedral.
  6. Day 7. Visit the other one, then rail to la Garriga and briefly into the bosom of my family at Palautordera.
  7. Day 8. Early lift to Girona and fly home!

This plan had already come adrift by the time we arrived, however, as my companion had been invited to a job interview on what should have been Day 3. I did my absolute best with plans, but in the end Sant Pere de Casserres had to be given up, again, and instead we decided to return the car early, get my companion to the airport and then I spend the next day or so in Barcelona myself until she could join me. A pity, but a reasonable fix, and it did not prevent us either catching up with the inestimable Professor Gaspar Feliu in Sacalm, which was a real test for my long-silent Catalan, or as you have seen doing the three castles with all the energy we could muster the next day. But the day after that was to Girona and then to Barcelona and then a lone trip back from the airport for me to our fairly dreadful accommodation.1 But the actual point of this post is what happened next, which is that, following directions very carefully, I went out to Bellvitge to meet up with Lleida doctoral student Elisabet Bonilla Sitja. I had met Elisabet when she spent a term in Oxford and we immediately bonded over the Vic charters; she is mining them for evidence on mentalities, which is actually quite possible to do, and I am looking forward to there being more of her stuff to read.2 But right at this point, she wanted to show me a church.

Side view of Santa Maria de Bellvitge

Santa Maria de Bellvitge, in its rather urban setting

This is the Ermita de Santa Maria de Bellvitge, and it is about the oldest building in the locality, by which we mean it’s thirteenth-century but in its current aspect mostly eighteenth-century restoration. Some limited reading for this post establishes that it’s hiding something, however, to wit, an eleventh-century church of a rather larger size that was knocked down to build this one. There were burials of the period found when setting up the park in which the church now sits. The whole settlement is only recorded for the first time in 995, and then only as the regario de Amalviga (I don’t have a direct reference here so the spelling may be off), the name having to go through some changes to get to where it is now. The church under this was thus probably the first one here.3 It’s completely invisible now but even this baroque one is doing a good job of looking utterly out of place in what is otherwise an extremely modern-looking area.

Portal of Santa Maria de Bellvitge

Portal of Santa Maria de Bellvitge, probably the oldest surviving bit

Bellvitge’s main claim to fame otherwise, I was told, is that the secret treaty which ended the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 was signed here, and so it was in the building below that Catalonia was delivered to the Spanish Crown after a fairly prolonged attempt to get away. This takes some particularly careful representation in the area’s promotion of its heritage…

The municipal chambers of Bellvitge

The municipal chambers of Bellvitge. Note the dog expressing the local opinion of this institution and its history…

All the other history of Bellvitge is modern, as far as I can see, which means that I must have got a wrong impression of the structure below, which I saw somewhere along the way. I can’t find it on Google Maps, didn’t think to ask Elisabet and have no idea what it is or how old. But I can end a blogpost with an enigma if I like, right? And so I shall, and in the next-but-one return us to Barcelona proper and one building I’d never before managed to get inside.

Obscure structure in the Parc de Bellvitge (I think), looking a lot older than anything else around but not yet identified by me

Obscure structure in the Parc de Bellvitge (I think), looking a lot older than anything else around but not yet identified by me


1. We do not recommend the Pensión Cortes on the Gran Via de Les Corts Catalanes, and I will not favour it with a link. It is dingy, ageing and there are no locks on the bedroom doors, and the landlady has lengthy and xenophobic directions for how to visit the city which she unloaded on us even though we didn’t need them, or even understand most of them.

2. For now I base my opinion on E. Bonilla Sitja, “Aproximación al estudio de la vida y mentalidad altomedieval: la Plana de Vic, 872-936”, unpublished Master’s thesis (Universitat de Lleida 2011), of which she was kind enough to send me a copy.

3. For detail see Albert López Mullor, “Santa Maria de Bellvitge” in Antoni Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XX: el Barcelonès, el Baix Llobregat, el Maresme, ed. María-Lluïsa Ramos i Martínez (Barcelona 1992), pp. 266-267.

Stand back, all! Something takes shape within the swirling mist!

Part of the cover of the album Ptoof! by the Deviants

The significant portion of the wraparound poster that formed the cover of the first album by The Deviants, Ptoof! (Underground Impresarios 1968). I didn’t think of this post just so as to use this image, but I could have… And of course, for those that know, it’s a memorial of sorts to yet another dead rocker, the inimitable and scurrilous Mick Farren, who preceded Lemmy (and now David Bowie, it’s like some musical plague out there) to the great rock’n’roll swindle roundup by dying on stage a couple of years ago already. That’s gone fast…

So now, after that interlude, back to the second half of that post about journals and publishing, the part to which I originally wanted to get. Geoffrey Tobin put his finger on the heart of the matter, as have so many, when he pointed out in a comment to the previous one that scholars don’t usually get paid for publishing. We do the research as part of our salaries, usually, or from whatever grant pays our salaries while we don’t do our jobs so as to get some research done; we have to publish the outcomes of it for professional recognition and advancement; we are what you’d call a captive market. At the other end, the publishers have to stay in business and ideally make a profit, and so they have the interest in capturing revenue that we don’t. But the messy bit is the middle ground, and most especially peer review, which has to be done by academics, but traditionally at least is neither recompensed or of much professional use to us. It’s good for institutional or departmental prestige if we can say that we act as referees for presses people have heard of, I imagine, but our employers would probably rather at least that we do it on our own time (in as much as academics can calculate such boundaries) or that we didn’t do it at all, so as to deliver the maximum for our institution. Nonetheless, academic publishing couldn’t go on in its current model without peer review, and we all want to get published so like to help publishers when they ask, and so it struggles on. The same kind of things can be said about actually editing journals or book series and so forth; it’s vital work, but it’s not usually for our employers so it largely goes unrewarded.

Well, in Australia at least people have started making a noise about this, demanding review work be recognised in their national research assessment, as reported by Alice Meadows on the Wiley blog (them again) here. That would be one way, and a good one I think, though it will still surprise me if it’s adopted, and still more so here in England (unless it’s review work for England-based journals; but almost all journal publishers are multinationals now…). But there has also lately emerged another way that might actually be a way forward. I think it has come out of automated journal submission systems like ScholarOne or Open Journal Systems, but we now have two organisations who are trying to actually turn academic labour like this into a marketable service. The first is ORCID, which is a service offering something like a DOI for researchers, rather than research, so that links to projects and manuscript submissions and so on can all be aggregated. They say:

“ORCID is an open, non-profit, community-driven effort to create and maintain a registry of unique researcher identifiers and a transparent method of linking research activities and outputs to these identifiers. ORCID is unique in its ability to reach across disciplines, research sectors and national boundaries. It is a hub that connects researchers and research through the embedding of ORCID identifiers in key workflows, such as research profile maintenance, manuscript submissions, grant applications, and patent applications.”

Well, I’m pretty sure our names worked for this already, but ORCID is interested in tracking things that our institutions have generally not been, and it is also tracking the work we do in the industry at large, not just our institutions.

And then, more interestingly in some ways, there is also Rubriq, a portal that manages peer review of manuscripts by maintaining as large a database of potential reviewers as possible, thus exceeding the personal networks that usually limit the effective ‘blindness’ of peer review in the humanities, and actually paying those reviewers for prompt review, even if not very much. This has caused some controversy, but apparently it does get the reviews in on time. It’s not an economically viable payment, really, for the work involved, less than we’d get for contract teaching, but it does at least signify that the work is worth something. Rubriq, in turn, then charges the journals it serves for access to their reviewing service.

Now this is an inversion of the usual revenue flow in academic publishing, which is of course all to the publishers. Instead, here while the publishers are still the point where money enters the system, there is a trickle-down to the academy. It’s tiny, of course, if ideologically significant, but together with ORCID it offers the possibility of an outside assessment of our service work, usually unrecognised, in terms of quality and value that we might present to our employers, or through them to our funders, in England of course usually somehow the state. Of course the cynical maxim, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” applies to both these models. ORCID may be a non-profit but its operating revenues are still earned by the participation of recognition-hungry academics who don’t themselves expect to get paid, and it’s those academics who give ORCID anything to offer. Rubriq likewise only has something to offer if it genuinely has lots of people on board from all over the place, and they are getting paid but without them Rubriq has no product.

But still, maybe this works? If we wind up working on a commission basis for new third-parties who enable peer review (which would become better and faster), whom the publishers pay in turn, and then subscribers continue to pay the publishers, that seems to me potentially to break the current squeeze in which the only way we can meet expectations is to do more that we don’t have time for for free. Our service work could be quantified, valued even, and counted into our assessments. It would be, after all, a form of outside consultancy. Meanwhile the publishers, whose costs would now be higher, would maybe make less per unit but might well have more units and could compete for quality in new ways. It still wouldn’t balance but it would balance better. Only thing is, I’m still not sure how we pay for open access

A way publishers might make Open Access work (but probably wouldn’t)

It is an established trope of this blog that academic publishing is in trouble because of the Internet, and much like the music industry has yet to come up with a really viable alternative to a doomed defensive protectionism. This was already true before the Open Access movement started gaining velocity and a logo and so on, but that has greatly complicated things because, like so many radical movements, its ideological position seems to involve everyone doing more for free, and you can’t run large-scale quality control and distribution on no money, it needs full-time staff. About this time last year, however, some new pieces of the puzzle fell into place that seemed then to represent a possible way forward, and I stubbed a post to speculate about it. It turns out, on writing it up, that really this is two posts, one about how publication is paid for and one about how the work academics put into publishing is compensated. You’d think these were the same issue but it is, of course, the state that we’re in that it’s not. So here’s the first post, about making open access journals (and by extension other forms of open-access publication) work.

I should say straight away, by the way, that as usual with posts about Open Access this is really only a concern for a UK audience for the moment. Those interested in such issues elsewhere may still want to know what hoops the peculiar UK situation is making us jump through, however. My thinking process this time started with a blog post by Natasha White of the publishers Wiley, addressing the particular economic flaw of gold-standard open access in which a grant or an institution (hopefully) pays for an article to be published, and then has to pay again to buy the journal in which that article actually appears, because not everything else in it will be open-access. This is far from the biggest problem with gold OA, which is in any case basically irrelevant to the humanities due to its costs and our funding, but every little step towards a new model for the Academy at large could help, right? Ms White hits the kernel of the issue here:

A number of publishers, including Wiley, have introduced policies to adjust subscription prices for any shift from subscription-funded articles to pay-to-publish open access articles. Journals publishing more open access articles will see price decreases because the publication costs for those articles have already been met. Since non-UK authors don’t have the same type and level of funding to pay open access fees, the majority continue to choose to publish under the subscription model, keeping this the predominant publishing model. This means subscription prices haven’t decreased significantly and UK institutions continue to pay for journal subscriptions to obtain international research. So the UK is seeing an increase in publishing costs as they pay for both open access and subscription fees.

In short, as long as a journal is not entirely gold-standard OA (which would involve barring contributors who can’t do that, i. e. most of the world and, once again, also of the humanities), there will be a subscription price to pay for that journal, which even those publishing under gold OA must pay. Now, however, Jisc have come up with the idea of OA contributions also buying an institution credits, with which they can offset their journal subscriptions with a given publisher according to how much of its publication costs they have already paid. It seems fair as an idea, and represents a creditable willingness on the part of the publishers to make less money for a principle. Of course, an awful lot depends on the exact pricing, not least because nothing seems to require that the compensation actually equal the cost of the subscription and there’s a whole host of issues about who gets the compensation: the author’s university’s library, the grant-making body that paid for the research… So let’s have a play with some hypothetical numbers.

The publisher’s interest seems to be the crucial one here, so I did a bit of back of the envelope maths. Springer helpfully put their journal prices online, unlike most publishers, and the median price for 2014 was €715. The journal in the list charging closest to that was Pituitary, and that year they had a €2,200 open access article processing charge and published 87 articles that year. These are maybe not typical figures (especially for the humanities!), but they are at least middling ones that a real commercial publisher is or was actually using. So, simple arithmetic: if every one of those 87 articles had been published gold OA, it would have brought Springer in €191,400, which is to say, just under 268 subscriptions. I have no idea how many places do in fact subscribe to Pituitary, but there were about 22,000 universities in the world in 2013, so you’d think that Springer could certainly hope for more than 268 of them buying in.

Going full-on gold OA could thus cost Springer a substantial sum of money in that model. Article processing charges also have to be paid on articles that get rejected, however, and I don’t know what the rejection rate is. This suddenly makes a lot of difference, and if we are setting up a model in which publishers encourage us to give them money for being considered for publication, and then only the successful get compensation, it looks rather more sinister, doesn’t it? Imagine a humanities version of this, a fictional Exclusive Journal of Medieval Studies, publishing 16 articles a year fully open access, gold all the way, and charged for that at the same rate as Pituitary, but rejecting nineteen for each one it published. This is obviously not typical for the humanities, but as we’ve already said, the humanities ecosystem can probably support very few such organisms, if any, so the extreme is where we have to start. That high level of rejection would be to the journal’s advantage in terms of reputation, but it would also be greatly to the publisher’s financial benefit, because as long as they accepted their 16 articles annually the rejected submissions would be almost pure revenue. 19 times 16 is 304; 304 Pituitary-sized APCs is €668,800, which is 935 Pituitary-sized subscriptions. Suddenly it looks a lot better than capping your revenue at €191,400, doesn’t it? This might nearly make up for the shift of publishing model, and if it didn’t, prices could presumably be changed so that it would. And the more people who wanted to get into this highly exclusive journal but failed, the better those sums would look for the publisher.

So, now consider a halfway house in which this invented journal is still publishing half its articles on a conventional subscription model and the other half on gold OA. Let’s also say that Wiley’s prediction is accurate and that their subscription price remains the same in this world, but they compensate the gold OA authors or their institutions with a pay-out equivalent to the subscription. (Multiple authors obviously makes this model a lot more complex but let’s leave that for now and assume all authors are lone scholars.) Now, the publisher’s revenue comes only from subscriptions or the charges for the OA articles that it rejects. Think about what that means for its would-be authors and the open access agenda for just a moment… To me it seems that while the publisher would have every incentive to encourage open access submissions, that incentive would also pressure them to accept as few as possible.

This would mean, of course, encouraging an awful lot of lower-quality submissions somehow while still only publishing good ones. It’s hard to see such a policy working for long—why would you bother submitting unless you were pretty sure your work was excellent?—but even if it did, good authors might come to prefer to publish somewhere less notoriously keen to gather in APCs without return, because they would probably justly fear what the effect of that on the editorial agenda would be, and then the journal would only have less good work to publish and its reputation would drop. So there is probably a long-term cost to taking this path. But all this is to assume a lot of awareness among authors, which surveys about open access in the UK and the reactions to Elsevier actually enforcing the agreements its authors had signed suggest we don’t have! Nonetheless, even this dally with made-up figures should show that it really does matter what the figures actually are, and so the news that Jisc has basically negotiated a separate (and presumably private) agreement with every one of the publishers who’s so far playing may not be as good as it initially sounds…

The other thing it implies, of course, is a huge pool of reviewers willing to read a lot of bad work, which is probably the real reason this scenario couldn’t arise. But then, technology is also offering ways around that problem, and that’s where the second part of this post was originally meant to go. But this is already long enough, and so that can wait for a couple of days. Meanwhile your thoughts or corrections would as ever be very welcome!

Video

Signs of the End Times, or, Rock’n’Roll is Dead

This was not what I had planned for this post, but as has regrettably happened often before events outstrip my backlog. The unthinkable has happened: Lemmy, founder of Motörhead and an occasional voice of popular wisdom cited on this blog, is dead, of cancer he hardly had time to know he was facing. We enter 2016 with the army of snarling rock’n’roll sadly weakened. So first and foremost, those to whom this news matters, raise a glass and turn it up.

Now keep that channel running on autoplay and consider this. As I’m sure you know, it was widely considered that Lemmy should have died of general rock’n’roll excess in the seventies or eighties so that his continuing survival could only be some peculiar expression of Providence. That this is suddenly otherwise can surely only be a sign of the encroaching End Times! At which rate, CAN IT BE COINCIDENCE that this is this blog’s 1000th post? I didn’t want to use it for this purpose, but in some ways it’s more fitting than what I had planned; a significance will now attach to it that I will remember. I was lucky enough to see Motörhead live a good few times, once even with Hawkwind supporting and Lemmy guesting on ‘Silver Machine’. An era in which that was possible is now over. I hope for nothing so monumental changing as the blog enters its eleventh century and indeed its tenth year, but these things also should be marked and if they travel only in the wake of Lemmy’s passing, well, that’s as it should be; the breaking of so great a thing should only come with a full-sized helping of what another dead rocker I once knew called The Big Noise.