[Book Review] John Regazzi. Scholarly Communications: A History From Content as King to Content as Kingmaker
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John Regazzi, Scholarly Communications: A History From Content as King to Content as Kingmaker. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. $75 Cloth.
In this truly wide-ranging volume, Regazzi aims to deliver a full history of the flow of scholarship—Scholarly Communications—through as many domains as he can feasibly fit between the covers. As a history, Scholarly Communications requires an interpretive frame, and Regazzi proposes to interrogate content’s place in the power dynamics of the economy of scholarship. He doesn’t quite achieve that goal, but don’t let that stop the reader from giving this title some attention. There is history in here (though somewhat less synthesized than a reader might wish), and there are rewards to be had, not least of which is the opportunity to look at the issue through the eyes of the former CEO of Elsevier, the academic publishing giant currently occupying one of the central nodes of the scholarly communications enterprise. Regazzi led Elsevier’s Electronic Publishing arm at the turn of the century, and his preoccupations—with technologies, market segments, and questions of power and position—could be characterized as the true frame for his history, and the lens by which to evaluate the work.
Technology reigns over every segment of Scholarly Communications. An entire chapter is devoted to the story of the CD-ROM, a focus I can only guess rises from Regazzi’s history as a player in the world of secondary publishers, abstracting and indexing concerns like Engineering Village and Scopus. While this medium-centric approach certainly serves as an outline for the development of scholarly communications, at times the exceedingly dry accumulation of lists of companies, product features and market shares threatens to knock the reader right out of the narrative. Really, the history of CD-ROM could have occupied a much smaller place in the history of disruptive technology, without sacrificing the idea that innovations quickly rise and fall as Moore’s law inexorably advances.
This odd overemphasis on one of the factual cul-de-sacs in the technological history of scholarly communication is a signal that what Regazzi has succeeded in writing is something more akin to a textbook. From the arrangement of the topics, and Regazzi’s treatment therein, I get the sense that this work is begging to be assigned in a graduate library science course on scholarly communications. A chapter a week for ten weeks: Week 1, ‘ScholComm: The Intersection of Research and Commerce,’ Week 2, ‘The Scientific Journal,’ Week 9, ‘Big Data, Big Science, and Social Academic Networks,’ etcetera. The end-of-chapter references and the bibliography that undergirds the work are both comprehensive; the index is a curious mix of thought-leaders in the history of ScholComm, scholarly societies and academic publishers, journal titles, acronyms, and databases and their parent companies. The chapters themselves share topics with their siblings, in greater or lesser detail depending on the chapter focus. For instance, we read passages in almost every chapter that tell us “as library budgets declined and serials subscription rates soared... fewer books were purchased” (146). The Google Book project is given a tantalizingly, comically brief treatment in the chapter on ‘The Birth of Online’ (“There was a period of litigation... and a number of issues were resolved,” 149), only to be revisited in exhaustive detail in ‘Institutional Buyers, Scholars, and Open Access: A Continuing Story’ (a valuable overview of ScholComm’s current obsessions). Each chapter can almost serve as a stand-in for the whole, reiterating themes, questions, problems and concerns from the angle of the topic at hand: perfect for the embattled professor looking for a hook to hang a course on, though I can foresee readers frustrated by brief treatments in early chapters (“Open access journals are electronic journals made available free of charge,” in Chapter 2 on ‘The Scientific Journal,’ 30) that don’t receive full attention until much later in the book.
As for Regazzi’s stated goal, the truth is that the conceit of “content as kingmaker” is difficult to parse in the actual text. From his descriptions in the preface, I believe that Regazzi intends the phrase to indicate the complication of the scholarly communications landscape initiated by disruptive tech—that we can no longer rely on the old models of research, authorship, publication and distribution to adequately support all the traditional players (scholars, publishers, libraries). These old models, the author would see as analogous to “content as king.” Many of the chapters end with evaluations that highlight the atomization of the node in question (workflows in Chapters 9 and 10, registration and certification functions in Chapter 6), in contrast to a more stable, traditional past. Equilibrium, it seems, is at risk (“There is clearly now some turmoil and turbulence...,” 2). This plays out in Regazzi’s obsession with technology and the history of developments in technology, and (appropriate for this journal) the strong sense that he sees electronic publishing as the disruptive tech on which scholarly communication’s future rests.
Perhaps my early assessment of Regazzi’s perspective is somewhat uncharitable. The story of scholarly communications can fairly be characterized as a power struggle between stakeholders who both depend upon and compete with each other, and the role of technology as a disruptive mechanism for shifting power from one player to another looms large. My pessimism derives from the fact that the very frame—looking for the kingmaker—betrays an assumption that the ecosystem of scholarly communication is a zero-sum game, that someone needs to be King, which I don’t believe is either true or necessary. New perspectives suggest a far more networked landscape, where technological innovation allows stakeholders to cooperate in ways that the previous models don’t afford. Regazzi, to his credit, gives this perspective its due consideration. His chapter on ‘The Rise of Work Flow Systems,’ perhaps the loosest of his topical organizations, treats this new reality in admirable detail (though, again, from a largely technological position), and will be valuable to readers trying to get a handle on the present moment and the possible futures for the enterprise.
But this brief synthesis—a consideration of where all this history is going—makes glaring a general absence of reflection throughout the text. Regazzi rarely pops his head up from his recitation of organizations and their initiatives to ask the kinds of questions that draw us into a work like this; when he does, it’s a breath of fresh air, though frustratingly brief. The best histories are selective, choosing judiciously the stories they tell in their domain, and employing them in the service of a larger perspective. Regazzi’s perspective, and the story he’s trying to tell, is left to the reader to determine from the steady and relentless accretion of facts. This may just be a function of academic writing—we can’t all be Goodwin or McCullough. But it’s a curious take for an author who has served on so many sides of his topic—primary and secondary publisher, academic, librarian(esque)—to have so much command of his objective material but so little subjective analysis.
To be fair, as a reader in this area, I may have been biased by some of the livelier treatments I’ve read of topics addressed here (Fitzpatrick’s history of the scientific journal and peer review in Planned Obsolescence comes to mind). The student, author or librarian new to the topic may find this book just the thing: a broad overview, as current as a monograph can be, detailing the facts in as many ways as Regazzi can thematically conceive. Whether or not the reader will be any closer to answering the central question—king or kingmaker—is still up for debate.
Joshua Neds-Fox (@jnonfiction) is a librarian at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he coordinates digital publishing initiatives for the library system.