Open-Access Scholarly E-Journals

Academic publishing is moving toward a major overhaul.

Traditionally, scholars have submitted their manuscripts to journals. Submissions are evaluated for rigor, excellence, and potential impact; only those manuscripts that pass muster are published in the journals. Universities and other institutions subscribe to the journals, thereby purchasing access to the journals’ contents for anyone affiliated with the institution.

In the paper-and-ink era the academic publishers were saddled with the expenses of printing and warehousing and distributing the journals. By now though the printed journal has been rendered all but obsolete by online publication. Distribution is now nearly free and instantaneous. Access too: instead of traipsing to the library and poring through the archives hoping to find the volume you’re looking for, now you can read articles online from anywhere, any time.

The publishers don’t create journal content: that’s the work of the scholars, who get paid by the institutions with which they’re affiliated and by the granting agencies supporting their projects. The publishers don’t vet the submitted manuscripts either: that’s done by peer reviewers, who aren’t paid for their efforts. So: if variable costs are absorbed by the scholars, and if fixed costs are eliminated by e-publishing, and if reader access is no longer constrained by physical access to the printed journal, why not just make journals open-access, free for any and all to read regardless of institutional affiliation?

The publishers still incur some costs: they have to wrangle the talent, format and copy-edit the texts, and ensure that the online interfaces are working smoothly. But why pass those costs on to the readers? Authors of published articles don’t benefit from restricting access — the wider the distribution net, the the greater the potential readership, impact, recognition, reward. Equipped with online publishing tools, the authors already shoulder most of the editing and formatting load. Open-access journals are already changing the publishing ecologies of scholarly disciplines. to varying degrees — why not fully shift to that model, cutting out the added expenses and distribution bottlenecks imposed by for-profit publishing companies? Or, even more quickly and efficiently, why not have the authors self-publish their articles, submitting them to an independent peer review board whose findings are likewise published and open to public discussion? Whatever remaining administrative expenses are incurred in publishing and distributing online open access research can be covered by the institutions financing the authors’ work, which also benefit from widespread distribution.

**Here’s an article that came out today spotlighting some of the efforts that academic institutions and scholars (collectively and individually) are taking to circumvent the access paywalls and bottlenecks imposed by the academic publishing industry.**

So that’s the trajectory in scholarly publishing. Are there implications for the publication of fictional texts? Not surprisingly, I’ve got some thoughts… next time.

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Race to the Bottom

Before launching this website I wrote five “Postcapitalist Fiction” pamphlets, establishing a framing context for what I’d hoped would become a writers’ collaborative experiment in anarcho-collectivist publishing. In November 2017, as part of this website’s second-ever post, I quoted from the first pamphlet, called “Writing Precariously”:

I read somewhere that, on average, a published novelist earns about $11 thousand per book: not enough to make a living, as everyone agrees. Again, the average is skewed sharply toward the right end of the distribution by the one percent, the heavyweight celebrity authors who bring in six or seven figures for each new release. [The median is around $6K: half the writers make less than that per published novel, half make more.]

Those findings came from a survey of writers conducted in 2009 by The Authors Guild. A new survey just came out, updating the numbers. Over that ten-year span, authors’ annual median income from book revenues has dropped from $6K to $3K. The decline is especially steep for literary fiction. Self-published revenues have doubled over the past ten years; still, the median is under $2K per year. What about other writing-related sources of revenue — teaching, editing, speaking engagements, book reviews? That revenue stream too generates around $3K per year median income — also a decline from ten years ago

“Among the factors contributing to the pressure on authorship, the Guild cited the growing dominance of Amazon over the marketplace, lower royalties and advances for mid-list books (which publishers report comes from losses they are forced to pass on), including the extremely low royalties paid on the increasing number of deeply discounted sales and the 25 percent of net ebook royalty. The blockbuster mentality of publishers who grant celebrity writers massive advances and markets them wildly at the expense of the working writers is also certainly a factor.”

The Guild’s report notes dire consequences not just for writers but for society at large. Some specific proposals for turning things around are offered, though no doubt the Guild made recommendations ten years ago when the situation, already desperate, was twice as good as it is today.

MFA as Luxury Resort

Since 2011, enrollment in US universities has dropped 10 percent, and the decline is expected to accelerate. It’s not because fewer high school graduates are attending college, or because fewer college students stick around long enough to graduate. It’s because the pool of potential applicants is slowly draining.

The overall US population continues to rise, but that’s due almost entirely to an increasing average lifespan, resulting in a decreasing death rate. The birthrate, by contrast, has been declining for a decade. The replacement fertility rate for keeping the long-term population on an even keel is 2.1 children per woman; as of 2017 the US fertility rate was 1.76, accelerating the downward trend that began ten years earlier.

Enrollment in MFA programs is also dropping. What’s the replacement fertility rate for MFA faculty, where they’re spawning new hires at a rate that equals their retirement rate? I don’t have the data, so I’ll estimate. Let’s say that on average a professor spends 30 years on the job. As long as the average MFA professor reproduces one MFA teaching candidate over the course of his or her career, staffing equilibrium is maintained.

Pretty clearly MFA programs are vastly exceeding the professorial replacement rate. Let’s guess that a typical MFA program has a faculty-student ratio of 4 to 1, which would mean that each MFA faculty member produces 4 MFA graduates per year. Over the course of a career that’s 4 x 30 = 120 MFA grads. What percentage of those graduates would want to teach in an MFA program? Practically nobody is able to make a living solely from writing or painting or acting, so teaching is a good fall-back career move. Let’s be conservative and say 20 percent of MFA grads would want to teach in an MFA program: so that’s 120 x .2 = 24 potential replacements spawned by each MFA prof over a career — 24 times the replacement fertility rate. So only 1 in 24 = 4% of MFA graduates who want to teach in an MFA program will get hired to do so. Wait till next year? Oh wait, enrollments are declining, so fewer of the retirees will need to be replaced. Teach undergrad? Same problem. High school?

While the overall US economy has been growing at around a 2 percent rate annually, the global luxury sector is growing at around 5 percent per year, as a consequence of increasing income and wealth stratification. Is the MFA a luxury spend? It’s expensive, and most graduates won’t recoup the expenditure via lifetime earnings. It’s a consumer good, like a BMW SUV. If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Or maybe enrolling in an MFA program is more like a long-term stay at a luxury resort, the guests serviced by a horde of lackeys making minimum wage or less.

This line of thinking is where I began Ficticities. And now here it comes back around, the return of the repressed, the line curving into a circle.

 

The Democratic Party’s Incredible Concern for the Future

If you’re like me, you’re incredibly concerned for the future of our nation.

That’s how Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez begins his personalized “Dear John” letter introducing the Official 2019 Democratic Party Survey. I’m not a card-carrying party member but my father John Sr. was — the Survey form even includes his DNC membership number in the upper left corner — and I still get mail meant for him even though he passed away nearly five years ago.

If you’re like me — pulling the empathy string; incredibly concerned — heightening the affect; our nation — invoking tribal identification and ownership. The future — not the present, which is already a source of concern; not the past, as in “make America great again.” The future is, presumably, a code word for progressive.

I’m not accustomed to posting on political topics here on Ficticities. But the future is fictional, a temporal vector that exists only in the imagination. Not just thinking about, worrying about, and predicting the future but actively attempting to shape an alternative future according to policy specifications — that’s a kind of Ficticity, the attempt to craft a future ecosystem whose reality depends not solely on material conditions and forces but also on collective imagining. So I’m curious about the contours of this ficticitous future that’s purportedly being shaped by DNC operatives and Party members.

The Survey consists of ten structured questionnaire items, followed by a short free-form space in which you, the respondent, are invited to share your ideas on how the DNC and Democratic candidates can win in future elections. The survey wraps up with an appeal for financial contribution — A gift of $25 would be a tremendous help!.

But back to the top. What sorts of future-oriented question are posed in this survey? Most interestingly to me, do the questions reflect the futuristic concerns and plans animating the progressive wing of the Party? I used to write questionnaires for a living so I know that, by posing questions about certain topics while simply ignoring other topics, a survey can bias the results even without cheating on data collection and analysis. Each question in the Party Survey follows a similar format: Which of the following items is most important to you, do you find most troubling, etc.? Respondents have about 10 options for each question to choose from, with the opportunity to check up to 3 or 4 options for each question. So the general impression is that it’s a fairly comprehensive and open-ended instrument for polling the Party membership. But I’m particularly interested in options that aren’t included in the checklists  — options that are either ignored or suppressed in an attempt to mold the Party platform.

First question: Which domestic issues are most important to you? Okay, without looking at the options, what are the domestic issues of particular importance to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party? Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Achieve universal healthcare via Medicare for all or some other single-payer system.
  2. Reduce climate change via rapid transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
  3. Reduce economic stratification and increase equality by raising taxes on the ultra-high income brackets and/or on the ultra-wealthy.
  4. Reduce discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.
  5. Open borders for immigrants.
  6. Make college education free.
  7. Establish guaranteed universal income.

No doubt there are more progressive planks, but that ought to do for present purposes. Also, these seven issues are merely progressive, modifying the status quo incrementally. They’re not radical agenda items in the sense of overhauling the political or economic system, not full-on socialistic or communistic or direct-democracy anarchistic.

Now let’s look at the actual response options listed in that first survey question about domestic issues. How well do the options address my sample menu of seven left-wing concerns?

Universal healthcare and single-payer. There are two relevant Survey response options. The first, Securing universal health care and reducing prescription drug costs, goes partway, but it stops short of the single-payer idea. Universal healthcare could be achieved via patchwork changes in the status quo combination of private sector employer-financed insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and out-of-pocket. It could be argued that universal health care is a concern whereas single-payer is a specific policy intervention for addressing that concern. Maybe so, but reducing prescription drug costs is a specific intervention, and it’s bundled into the Survey response. The second Survey response relevant to universal healthcare, Protecting Medicare from privatization, again reinforces the status quo rather than calling for systemic redesign.

Climate change. Relevant Survey response option: Combating climate change, building a clean energy economy, and securing environmental justice. Okay, that’s pretty good, though something like “averting imminent climate change disaster” might be more reflective of being incredibly concerned for the future. What about building a clean energy economy: does that mean creating government jobs in wind and solar, or extending subsidies and low-cost government loans to for-profit energy companies? Probably the latter. And what is environmental justice?

Redistribute wealth. The Survey item says Raising wages and restoring economic opportunity for the middle class. That’s not a progressive position.

Equal opportunity. Guaranteeing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights is okay. No mention is made of women or race.

Open borders. The offered response — Fixing our broken immigration system and ensuring families aren’t separated at the border — is decidedly middle-of-the-road.

Free college education. Relevant Survey item: making debt-free college a reality. It’s gesturing in the right direction, though debt-free isn’t the same thing as free-free

Guaranteed universal income. This is an issue that’s not addressed in the Survey responses.

What other issues are addressed in the Survey response options? Voting rights, gun laws, reproductive rights, Social Security, public schools, criminal justice and incarceration — mostly these are calls for securing prior gains while extending them incrementally. To be fair, there is room at the bottom called Other, which is fill-in-the-blank rather than checkbox. But the blank space is big enough to write in maybe half a dozen words.

I’ll not continue with the rest of the Survey questions and response items. The general tenor is clear: the Democratic Party road to the future will be built largely from middle-of-the-road planks, with limited gestures directed toward the left wing. I wish I’d kept last year’s Survey so I could compare response options to see if there’s been any discernible leftward tilt. My recollection though is that the 2018 Survey was pretty similar to the 2019 edition.

Clearly the DMC’s main agenda is getting Democratic candidates elected. The 2018 elections saw a swing to a Democratic majority in the House. While some progressives won, they did so in districts that were already strongly progressive; for the most part the shift in balance of power was achieved through nominating and electing moderates. Trump’s popularity remains strong among his core constituents, but it has declined across the board since he took office. For the most part Trump won by taking states that nearly always vote Republican in presidential elections, while taking enough swing states — WI, MI, PA — to achieve Electoral College majority. Given Trump’s declining popularity, the DNC probably figures that it can recapture those key swing states, plus a few more, merely by riding along with popular disenchantment with Trump and his cronies. There’s no need to champion a radically more progressive agenda when the moderate platform is likely to turn the trick. Trot out a few media-savvy and attractive progressives who can placate the left wing of the Party, keeping them from splintering off into third-party territory. Find at least one presidential candidate who conveys a modicum of charismatic appeal. But the Party’s tacit expectation is that the future is going to look a lot like the present and the past. Based on recent trends it’ll likely be the Dems’ turn next time around. Play it safe, hit the swing states with moderation, and start planning the inaugural gala.

Reciprocal Attention Economy

More rummaging through the attic… In a recent post I noted that my old blog Ktismatics gets about ten times as many hits per day as does Ficticities, even though I’ve not written a new Ktismatics post in nearly five years. Take yesterday for example: as of 2:30pm there had been 1 page view here at Ficticities and 31 page views at Ktismatics. Though disappointed that my new stuff hasn’t garnered much of an audience, I do find it gratifying to discover that texts I wrote years ago continue to attract readers.

What sorts of texts are they? Between October 2006 and March 2014 – the seven and a half years during which Ktismatics was an active blog – I put up 977 posts. Here are Ktismatics’s greatest hits for 2018, the top fifteen posts in terms of numbers of views so far this year.

  1. Derrida and the Metaphysics of Presence (842 views). Accumulating far more hits than any others, this post explains in layman’s terms a theory expounded by philosopher Jacques Derrida.
  2. Charolastra Manifesto (519 views). This post reproduces a document that appears in Y Tu Mamá También, a 2001 film by Cuarón.
  3. The Shining by Kubrick, 1980 (414 views). Five screengrabs from the movie, with 105 comments discussing it.
  4. Does Atonement the Movie Betray the Book? (410 views). A bit of a critique of the 2007 cinematic treatment of McEwan’s 2001 novel.
  5. The Divine Irreference of Images (293 views). This, the third post I ever wrote, refers to and expands on the first subheading in the first chapter of philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s 1994 Simulacra and Simulation.
  6. Mors Ontologica (225 views). This title refers to the chemical name of a street drug called Substance D in Philip Dick’s 1977 A Scanner Darkly.; the post compares Dick’s book favorably with the 2006 movie The Departed by Scorsese.
  7. Melancholia by Von Trier, 2011 (191 views). Three screengrabs with 187 comments discussing the movie.
  8. WR: Mysteries of the Organism by Makavejev, 1971 (182 views). Five screengrabs with 21 comments discussing the movie.
  9. The Color Purple by Spielberg, 1985 (170 views). Five annotated screengrabs with 23 comments discussing the movie.
  10. Office Space by Judge, 1999 (167 views). Five screengrabs, no comments.
  11. Mythical Truth, Mythical Reality (149 views) Here I was critiquing the possibility that a text can be true without being factually accurate.
  12. The Unconscious God of Lacan (148 views). An exploration of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s famous contention that God isn’t dead; he’s unconscious.
  13. The Science of the Concrete (144 views). Refers to and elaborates on the first chapter of Claude Levi-Strauss’s Savage Minds.
  14. Doppelgänger Theory in Colossians 3 and Romans 6 (142 views). An exegetical investigation of the Apostle Paul’s contrast between the “old man” and the “new man.”
  15. Coraline by Selleck, 2009 (142 views). Four screengrabs with 26 comments discussing the movie.

It’s notable that 9 of the 15 biggest hitters, 8 of the top 10, are about movies. Fandom. Four interact with philosophical texts — more fandom. One interprets Biblical text — still more fandom. The only post from this year’s 15 greatest hits that isn’t explicitly about a particular movie or text is number 11, the one exploring mythic truth, a concept that refers to particular kinds of text, especially religious ones.

In more than one Ktistmatics post I made reference to Jonathan Beller’s 2006 The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle. From page 181:

Increasingly, part of the value of the commodity, be it a painting or a Hollywood star, comes from the amount of (unpaid-for) visual attention it has absorbed.

When I wrote a post about Y Tu Mamá También I was doing unpaid labor, directing readers’ attention to the movie, to the director, to the producer and distributor. But the movie is also doing free work for me, drawing its fans’ attention to my post, to my blog, to me. Reciprocal attention economy.

In grad school I did some predictive statistical modeling of how often published scientific research articles are likely to be cited in subsequent years’ publications. Bottom line: if you cite a lot of studies, and a lot of other researchers also cite those same studies, then your study is likely to be cited frequently in turn. In my last post I quoted a passage from A Separation, a 2017 novel by Katie Kitamura. On the book’s back cover are four blurbs by novelists, each attributed to so-and-so, author of Such-and-Such. I’d read all four of those blurbists’ featured such-and-suches: if you like those novels, you’ll like this one, and vice versa. Reciprocal attention economy.

Site Stats for 2018

In 2018 Ficticities has had just over a thousand page views, or about 3 per day. I’ve published 94 new posts on Ficticities this year — about one every 4 days.

So far this year my old blog Ktismatics has had more than ten thousand page views, or about 31 per day. I haven’t put up a new post on Ktismatics since March 2014 — nearly 5 years ago.

Standards of Anarchy


A couple of days ago Jonathan Erdman wrote a comment on one of my posts, and my reply to his comment has extended itself so much both in time and in length that I’m putting it up as a separate post. In his comment Jonathan wrote:

Another possibility as regards anarchist-leaning writers…..Anarchistic folk tend to be difficult to herd together — for any project… The original philosophical anarchists were called “libertarians,” in truth the two terms were synonymous. In any event, anarchistic folk tend to be very independent and opinionated. Again, not easy to get them to commit to a large-scale movement… I also tend to believe that markets work, on a small scale. So, my idea of anti-capitalism would be more along the lines of Ebay: bring together the collective works of all the authors of the world and let them run their own massive publishing house, with no Jeff Bezos to skim billions of profits off the top.

There are three established mechanisms for herding individual writers together: the traditional publisher-bookstore apparatus, the edited literary magazine, and the online platform. In theory the writers could have self-organized any or all of these herding schemes; in practice it’s typically been imposed on them by managers, operations people, marketing people, investors. Amazon is like that: the writers and readers could have banded together to create a collective anarchist platform, but they didn’t. Now it’s too late: Amazon holds a monopolistic stranglehold, and it’s well-positioned either to crush alternative models, or to buy them out, or to imitate them and beat them at their own game. The writers might see themselves as anarcho-libertarian entrepreneurs as they send out inquiry letters to agents or submit short stories to magazine publishers or self-publish novels on Amazon, but they’re being herded nonetheless.

I’m picturing an Amazon-like platform for short fictions — there are some out there. Writers self-publish their own stories on the platform, readers look through the offerings to find what they like. Let’s assume that no money changes hands: it’s all open-access. Writers write from whatever passions motivate them, and they respond to the call of the audience as they see fit. No doubt an emergent order would arise from this anarchist swarm, not necessarily in the pyramid shape of commercial fictions but in a kind of N-dimensional clustering, with writers and readers who share particular interests or tastes finding one another and generating enough critical mass to form an asteroid, a planet, a solar system… But it’s a big universe, so there’s plenty of room to expand before either the singularity collapses everything back down in its black-hole gravitational field or entropy splits everything back apart into isolated atoms floating in the void.

Like you, I find that sort of emergent order idea appealing. What draws me to a more collective form of anarchism is a concern for excellence. The converging forces pulling together a totally bottom-up self-organized system would seem to involve the interplays of passion and calling, of supply and demand, unencumbered by the external constraints imposed by the owners and managers. It’s a kind of laissez-faire capitalism without the money and top-down organization, the invisible hand freed from the shackles of capital. Or maybe like democracy without political party apparatus and lobbyists and big-money campaign contributors.

It’s not certain that unfettered bottom-up democracy would turn into mob rule, nor that unfettered capitalism would generate a bunch of commodified junk. I am, however, concerned about a possible loss of excellence, overwhelmed by the mediocre tastes of the herd. Writing options would be generated as variants on what already achieves popularity, not on what ought to be or even what could be. So too with judgment: it’s a matter of deciding among the options on the table rather than comparing those options to some sort of standards.

All the same I’m skeptical of the standard-setters and the tastemakers, the elite who separate the sheep from the goats. Who anointed them; by what standards are they rendering judgment; who holds them accountable? In a republic the voters, the elected officials, and the government appointees are all held accountable by laws and the Constitution. Capitalism too is held accountable to laws and regulations. But as we well know these standards are subject to interpretation, to selective enforcement, to change. In a post from February 2018, also inspired by a comment from Jonathan Erdman, I wrote this:

So let’s say I’ve already actualized my potential to be a novelist by actually writing a novel. Am I justified now in professing myself to be a novelist? Or, in making the profession, am I offering my response to a higher calling, issued by some standard beyond myself, a standard to which I aspire, an actualization of a potential that resides not in me as writer but in the standard, in the sacred order of the True Fiction?

I agree that anarchists were originally libertarians, but typically with a collective orientation toward ownership and management, as opposed to the individualism that tends to dominate contemporary use of the term. “Anarchy” doesn’t mean lawless; it means leaderless. Laws and standards can be promulgated and enforced by collective agreement, rather than being pushed down everyone’s throats by the authorities.

I’m not advocating some sort of eternal ideal of beauty and justice against which every work is measured (and inevitably found wanting). Surely standards too can change: they can emerge bottom-up from a free democracy or a free market. They can also descend top-down from a political and economic Olympus.

In my posts on this website I’ve been reluctant to render any sort of judgment about the short stories I’ve read. It’s not that I harbor no opinions; it’s that I wanted to engage those texts on some other dimensions. My sense is that, when most people finish reading a text, they quickly arrive at an opinion as to whether they liked it or not, whether they thought it was good or bad. It’s nearly instinctive. Consciously or otherwise, people compare the new text with what they’ve read in the past, not just specifically but generally, as a sort of composite image or template. Some readers are able to make explicit the evaluation criteria they’ve abstracted from prior readings, from discussions with friends, from reviews. These templates and standards, built and refined on an ever-expanding experiential base, shape the experience of evaluating an actual text. But the standards and templates aren’t actual texts; they’re products of memory and imagination and thought. I.e., the standards and templates are fictions.

So I’m interested in exploring these fictional criteria by which people judge actual fictional texts. Readers spontaneously render judgments even if they can’t make their evaluation criteria explicit. Writers want to know what readers think of their work even if the opinions aren’t well elaborated. The Bestseller Code (2016) described a self-learning AI that was able to predict bestsellers based on variables it abstracted from data on previous bestsellers — these variables constitute a kind of bottom-up set of standards emerging from the marketplace. I’m curious also about the more top-down standards imposed by editors and publishers, the vetting process by which they decide which texts readers actually get to read. Maybe by understanding judgment — the comparison of actual fictions with fictional abstractions — from both the bottom up and the top down, some sort of meaningful convergence could result.