Monday, October 31, 2011

The High Cost of Knowledge

In the midst of a round of research this morning, I came across a number of articles in scholarly journals that I was interested in taking a peek at, but I didn't because they were locked up in pay sites for various journals or consortia of journals.  This is nothing new: since I'm not affiliated with any university, I'm used to the fact that most content published in academic journals isn't freely accessible to me.  

This morning, though, a particular irony struck me for the first time: it seems the most expensive content out on the Web is the stuff being published by non-commercial, not-for-profit educational institutions, those whose missions are all about spreading knowledge to the world. 

For example, you can go to the Cambridge Journals site and access an article in Modern Asian Studies (just to pick one at random) for the low, low price of $30.00 (yes, in case your missed it, that is more than the price of a typical hardback book) or, better yet, rent it for 24 hours for just $5.99.

And, mind you, this is not for a physical copy of a publication that must be printed and mailed . . . that would be understandable.  This is just for the information itself, delivered at virtually no marginal cost over the Interwebs.  And, there's no authors' costs to consider here, either: unlike commercial periodicals, academic journals don't pay their contributors.  And, accessing the information online would not prevent specialists in the field from subscribing to the journal itself: the article is three years old. 

It did occur to me that harping on the exorbitant single-article price might be a little unfair, since perhaps all the Cambridge University Press is doing is trying to get users to buy a subscription, which would make the content available much less expensively.  How much less?  I have no idea.  In order to even see the subscription prices, apparently, you first have to register for an online account.  When I tried to register for an account, no values were populated in the drop down list for "Country" and the site crashed when I tried to submit my registration.

It wouldn't be worth even complaining about normally: if the price of something is too high, who cares.  Don't buy it.  Nobody owes me free journal articles.  And, if they have a bad web site that prevents people from buying things . . . well, they won't be making much money off their journals. 

But what gets me is that when you visit the "About Us" page for the Cambridge Journals Online, you are presented with a bunch of self-important hooey about their commitment "to advance learning, knowledge, and research worldwide" and how "the dedication of Cambridge University Press to advancing knowledge is visible within our journals, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day" (except when the site crashes, of course.)

And how to do that?  Delivering journal content over the Internet, the "About Us" statement says, "has led to new markets opening up across the world.  These include libraries operating together as consortia, and institutions in the developing world becoming able to access journals for the first time."  [emphasis mine].    "Markets" is strangely jarring amid such high-minded prose about advancing knowledge, and I assume these libraries are forced to operate as consortia because the price of journals is too damn high for them to buy on their own.

There's something oddly Mandarin about it: the ensconcing of knowledge within the expensive, hard-to-access walls of academia, available only to those who are willing to pay an extraordinary amount for it.  Preaching a mission of spreading the noble light of knowledge to the masses while simultaneously making it as costly and difficult as possible to access it.

Here's a piece of advice from the commercial world: if you're really serious about expanding knowledge around the world, make it as cheap and easy to access as possible.  Putting academic articles behind not just pay walls but exceptionally expensive pay walls only guarantees that they will not be read and learning will not be advanced.  

So, I guess I won't be reading that article in Modern Asian Studies.  I hope it doesn't have any groundbreaking information in it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mislabled Fish

"No, really, I am tuna!"
The Boston Globe has a great but disturbing investigative piece into the seemingly growing practice of mislabeling fish.

That it occurs in not particularly surprising, especially when you consider how trendy fresh, locally-caught fish has become.  It's easy to imagine a couple of unscrupulous wholesalers out there who can't pass up the temptation to double or triple the price of the humble hake by labeling it cod or upgrading some perch filets to snapper.

What's a more unsettling is how widespread and accepted the practice seems to be among restaurateurs.  In some cases it's just a little creative substitution when the price of a menu fixture gets too high.  In others, though, it seems to almost a standard operating procedure, like serving tilapia as "red snapper" and escolar as "white tuna" in sushi restaurants.  This does little to calm my own sushi fatigue.

And, as fish supply chains grow longer and longer, it makes one wary of the whole thing.  The Globe piece is Part 1 of 2.  I'm curious now to see what the second piece reveals.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Keeping the BBQ Flames Alight

This Rick Perry Barbecue Roadkill story is turning out to have a lot more legs than I thought.  I wrote an op-ed about it last week for the Los Angeles Times, and it took almost a full week from the time I finished the piece until it ran, and I was worried that by the time it hit print the story might be on its last gasp.

Not so.  Not only did my op-ed get a nice pick up through the Times' syndication network, but there are now some new developments in the case.  The Burlington Times News now reports that not only has Wilbur King of Kings Restaurant in Kinston sent a letter to Governor Perry weighing in on the matter but now, finally, Perry's opponents are waking up to the potential landmine just waiting to go off.  From the Times News report:

“We got a call Thursday from the (Mitt) Romney people wanting to know if we would send some food to Romney,” King said. “He would like to comment on it because they heard about Perry's comment. ... They said they'd be back in touch with us.”

I'm waiting with bated breath for Romney's response.  C'mon, Mitt.  Don't let us down.
My op-ed is showing some legs, too.  I can now officially say that this turkey ran in newspapers from Bangor, Maine, to Sacramento, California. Here's a quick rundown of the papers where it appeared, in addition to the original in the L.A. Times:
Bangor Daily News
Bellingham (WA) Herald
Charlotte Observer
Kinston Free Press
Myrtle Beach Sun News
North Jersey Record
Sacramento Bee

Watch your backs, Woodward and Bernstein.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

That's My Boy

Actual transcript of a conversation between my wife and our five year old:

Charlie: What is Thanksgiving?

Wife: It's a holiday where we think about all of the happy and good things in our life.

Charlie: Like barbecue?

Exactly, son.  Like barbecue.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Roadkill BBQ Flap Continues

© Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0
The Los Angeles Times asked me to weigh in on the recent Rick Perry roadkill barbecue controversy, which I did in an op-ed that ran in the Sunday paper yesterday.  The political world is still reeling.

But not as much as if the piece had run as I originally wrote it.  My editors routinely have the most picky, trivial complaints about the drafts I submit, like "it's way, way too long", "much too dry and dull", and "not supported by facts."  While their emendations are probably to blame for my being passed over for the Pulitzer yet again this year, they do have the nice side effect of giving me a little extra material for my blog.

One of the things that wound up on the cutting room floor was my rejoinder to one of the L. A. Times's own writers.  Here are the two paragraphs from my original draft:

Apparently this dust-up baffles some folks on the West Coast.  A few days ago Los Angeles Times opinion writer Paul Thornton declared,  “This can’t be real.  Either today's political culture of umbrage-taking, and over the smallest offenses, is fed primarily by the media (thus this story is way overblown), or we snobby coastal dwellers are right to regard anything between Miami and Seattle as flyover country.  I hope (and believe) it’s the former.”
Personally, I think Thornton either has a really dry sense of humor, or he’s just another naive, earnest Berkeley grad who’s never actually been far enough away from the Left Coast to realize that sometimes folks say things with a straight face that they don’t really mean just because they think it’s funny to pretend like they’re having an argument and also if you fly too much farther east than North Carolina you’ll end up in the damn ocean.  I hope (and believe) it’s the former.

Now, the putative reasons the editor gave me for excising this passage was that a) it was too long (it's 160 words, and that is a lot for a short piece) and b) because Thornton's piece "appeared only in a blog post on a blog with very few readers." (Hey, those are your editor's words, Mr. Thorton, not mine . . . though I enjoyed adding the emphasis.)  I have no reason to question that rationale.

Perry, for his part, has responded to the controversy by ignoring it completely and, I guess, hoping it will just go away.  In fact, as of yet, there has not even been an official response from the Perry campaign, not even a denial that he has dined on gamy, well-aged dead animal carcasses that may or may not have tire tracks on them.

As every political handler knows, that's the absolutely worst way to handle a PR crisis.  Personally, I would have advised Perry to go on the offensive immediately, attack the credibility of the Reeds and their book Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, which started this whole thing.  Heck, they spent their entire careers in academia, and the book was published by a university press and has a lot of big words in it.  Surely they could spin up some pretty damaging "East Coast intelligentia" charges?

Better yet, embrace the scandal: announce publicly, "yes, I eat roadkill.  I love it and I'm proud of it!"  Think of the potential for a photo op of with old Rick Perry lifting a fork of mesquite-smoked raccoon.  Surely there are any number of barbecue joints down there in Texas that could serve it for him.  The good people of North Carolina, I dare say, would respect a man who sticks to his principles and might even forgive his lousy taste in barbecue.

But, the Perry campaign has ignored all my advice, and look what it's brought them.  Last month,  Perry was leading the field of presidential contenders in the state of North Carolina, with 35% of poll respondents saying they would vote for him.  In just a few short weeks, that number has fallen to 15%, and Perry is now in a sorry fourth place behind Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich.

Just one more politician laid low by barbecue.  A story as old as the nation itself.

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