Monday, May 24, 2004

Coetzee, Coase, and Kling : Finding the market of scholarly publishing

Once again I find myself having to write something. It’s not that I don’t want to write, it just seems like I have too many different things that require writing. It’s all kind of balled up in my head like a big wad of toffee in the pre-frontal cortex. There was a time when I could just hammer out an outline and the words would flow but now I need to take a more direct and aggressive approach. According to Joan Bolker—the guru of speedy dissertation delivery (Bolker, 1998)—I just have to write anything at all. With the warmth of a running start perhaps the toffee will melt and splubber and bluttle from the tip of my pencil.

After completing the stack of readings piled up around me I’m left with a distinct sense of unease. I really don’t know how to describe it but I somehow feel like the protagonist of J.M Coetzee’s classic novel Waiting for Barbarians (1999): the Magistrate. In the novel, a quiet sleepy town in the hinterland of a great empire is suddenly invaded by a goose-stepping special envoy convinced that the barbarians are about to attack. In order to prove his suspicions, the envoy goes to the wilderness and returns with “prisoners” from whom he tortures “the truth”. It seems that only the Magistrate can see who the barbarians really are.

Until reading Coetzee I had never been tempted to carve out my own eyes.

This week, I learned about the process of scholarly publishing. I learned that the number of scientific applications is rapidly increasing (Price, 1963); that the practice of citing in general is shaped by particular behaviours and can be modeled with measures (Borgman & Furner, 2002); and that the realm of scholarly publishing is rapidly changing due to the introduction of electronic journals and the re-emergence of “guild publishing models” (Kling, 2004) in the form of web accessible working and technical papers (Kling & Callahan, 2003).

Now that I have this knowledge—as most people in information science do—the whole process of publishing and academic communication seems somehow unsporting. This weekend, while talking to some academic friends of mine, I found myself quoting bits of wisdom from Meadows like “high producers start that way and attract citations to their work from the beginning. Conversely, low producers rarely become high producers later in their career and seldom attract a significant number of citations.” (Meadows, 1998 pg. 95) While my academic colleagues naively pondered the mysteries of academic publishing (the barbarians) I sat back with my newfound knowledge. I couldn’t help but wonder if academic publishing will somehow begin to resemble the interminable hands of euchre we played this past weekend around the kitchen table of a very damp cottage. Since we all knew the rules and patterns of the game, the outcome of each hand depended almost completely on the deal. The outcome was… well, academic. The sport was missing.

Having invoked Coetzee as a metaphor, it is perhaps useful to really rhetorically bludgeon him. I can, for example, play bibliographic bingo and find his computer science doppelganger—F.M. Coetzee—who acts as a convenient foil to Kling’s optimism about electronic publishing by warning about the instability of academic URLs (Lawrence et al., 2001).

Another approach is to indulge behaviour that my grade 9 English teach would surely have endorsed—the consonance between “Coetzee” and “Coase” is quite appealing. R.H. Coase is known to the academic world for his seminal 1937 article: The Nature of the Firm (Coase, 1937). In this article, Coase introduced the concept of transaction costs into the market happy lingo of neo-classical economics. According to Coase, firms emerge when the friction of markets make it more profitable for “entrepreneurs” to organize themselves as firms that aren’t driven directly by market signals. In essence, when we experience so much uncertainty about the economic barbarians we circle our wagons to reduce the effect of the barbarians should they attack us. The organizational stability of our circled wagons (or firms) greatly reduces the cost of local information acquisition. When information acquisition becomes too expensive, it makes more sense to get information from the open market in the form of price signals (see Hayek, 1945 for the seminal discussion of information and markets; and Weber, 1958 for a similar account of bureaucracies).

What is the market of academic publishing if the currency is quite clearly the journal article? It seems odd that we have such detailed explanation of the behaviour of this particular market’s actors given that the market itself seems somewhat ephemeral. Coetzee, Coase, and Kling do, however, prompt some fairly interesting questions: 1) Are the guild publishing models described by Kling an organizational response to the transaction costs inherent in peer review? 2) Is Kling’s own Centre for Social Informatics ( a way of defending his own sleepy disciplinary bailiwick in the hinterland of LIS research from the barbarian hoards?

I’m just not sure how to find the answers.

PS- Since I never found a way to work this reference into what I was writing, I should probably mention it as a postscript. Phil Agre of UCLA’s Department of Information Studies has produced a very interesting guide for PhD students in our own discipline: Networking on the network : A guide to professional skills for PhD students (


Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day : a guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis (1st ed.). New York: H. Holt.
Borgman, C. L., & Furner, J. (2002). Scholarly communication and bibliometrics. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 36, 3-72.
Coase, R. H. (1937). The nature of the firm. Economica, 4(16), 386-405.
Coetzee, J. M. (1999). Waiting for the barbarians. New York: Penguin Books.
Hayek, F. A. (1945). The use of knowledge in society. The American Economic Review, 35(4), 519-531.
Kling, R. (2004). The Internet and unrefereed scholarly publishing. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 38, 591-631.
Kling, R., & Callahan, E. (2003). Electronic journals, the Internet, and scholarly communication. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 37, 127-177.
Lawrence, S., Pennock, D. M., Flake, G. W., Krovetz, R., Coetzee, F. M., Glover, E., et al. (2001). Persistence of Web references in scientific research. Computer, 34(2), 26-31.
Meadows, A. J. (1998). Communicating research. San Diego: Academic Press.
Price, D. J. d. S. (1963). Little science, big science. New York,: Columbia University Press.
Weber, M. (1958). Bureaucracy (H. H. Gerth & C. W. Mills, Trans.). In H. H. Gerth & C. W. Mills (Eds.), From Wax Weber: Essays in sociology (pp. 196-244). New York: Galaxy / Oxford University Press.