06 June 2010

Confessions of a Recovering Musicologist: Closed Access

[Editor's note: The following post began as an introduction to my first summary post on "Closed Access," which is what I call the nearly universal practice among publishers of scientific and scholarly journals of charging prohibitively high prices for electronic access to single copies of the articles they publish. The post quickly morphed into an installment (let's call it "Part 27") of my series "Confessions of a Recovering Musicologist." Although it is Part 27 (or maybe 53), it is the first to be published...and I haven't begun to write any of the rest of the posts yet.  Welcome to the nonlinearity of the blogosphere.]


I spent a considerable fraction of my life doing serious scholarly work in music history, a field in which I eventually earned what now seems a useless Ph.D. I moved to Vienna in the fall of 1987 on a Fulbright Fellowship to undertake the research for my doctoral dissertation, which initially was devoted to the history of the concerto in Vienna from 1740 to roughly the time of the Napoleonic wars. I lived mainly in Vienna until 1993, by which time I had made several significant archival discoveries related to Mozart, and was deeply engaged with research into Mozart's Viennese music copyists, a hitherto almost entirely neglected topic, but one that turned out to be quite important (provided one cared at all about the sources of Mozart's music), and which I decided to make the new topic of my dissertation. Among my most significant discoveries were the orchestral parts from the original Viennese productions of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni; those for Figaro, in particular, showed a great deal that was unknown about the first production in 1786 and the first Viennese revival of 1789–91. By the time I finally finished my dissertation in 2001, after many twists and turns, and personal and scholarly detours, I had published more than a dozen scholarly articles, many in prominent venues, and I had given—well, not innumerable, but far more scholarly papers at international scholarly conferences than I would care to take the time to count now (the word "shitload" comes to mind, but would obviously be inappropriate for such a serious essay). Many people seemed to think (and many have told me) that they consider my work in the field to be on the highest level, and I myself think at least some of it is pretty good. I'm still proud of my dissertation, although somewhat disappointed that hardly anyone seems to understand what I was up to (yet another story for another time). None of this was enough in recent years to get me even a phone call from any of the dozens of academic jobs I applied for. That, however, is very definitely a story for another time.

A paragraph like the one I've just written is inevitably going to sound self-serving to some.  However, I mention this sorry history not in order to blow my own horn, an idea that seems faintly ludicrous to me given my present circumstances. It just happens to be the way things went.  My point here is that, at a conservative estimate, I spent 19 years as an active scholar in the field of music history, a considerable fraction of my life. Once one has been a scholar for that long, one doesn't really stop being a scholar and thinking like one, just as one doesn't stop being a musician if one doesn't have a piano (or a horn to blow).

My dissertation, "Mozart's Viennese Copyists," is absurdly long: 2416 pages, including the bibliography and appendices (but not the front matter). It honestly didn't seem that long as I was writing it:  I wrote most of it in a period of less than 18 months in the years 1999-2000. At the time it just seemed that I was saying what needed to be said (and what I knew) about the topic.  Since I was, in many respects, building a subfield of research from scratch, there was a lot of groundwork to be laid.  I joke that my dissertation is so long because it has a lot of pictures—which, in fact, it does...but then, it has a lot of everything.  (You can download a pdf of my dissertation here; it is 96 MB, so go have a cup of tea.)

The bibliography of my dissertation covers 33 pages, and doesn't include the hundreds of archival sources that formed the core of my research: it includes only printed books and periodicals from the period covered by my dissertation, and the relevant secondary literature. A spot check suggests that the average number of entries on each page of my bibliography is around 12. Thus, as a very rough estimate, it contains around 400 items, all of which I read, in whole or in part, all of which are cited in my dissertation, and many of which I engaged with quite closely and critically.  Gaining access to this material was difficult, time-consuming, and relatively expensive (in terms of photocopying). This was all in the days before electronic access to digital copies of journal articles.  It would be unwise to say more about the photocopying, but suffice it to say, one did what one had to do.

The way secondary scholarly research is done has now changed utterly, and very rapidly.  Access to the electronic resources of a first-class research library system (such as Harvard's) gives one nearly instantaneous access to practically any journal published in the last few decades, and many journals are available electronically going back much further. What is more, the search capabilities of the electronic systems are such that finding relevant material is vastly easier than it used to be.  There are, of course, limitations: articles published in books (such as Festschriften and conference reports) are generally not yet available electronically, and, depending on one's field, such articles can be crucial.  Nor are recent books generally "available" to scholars electronically in the way that one needs them to be available: that is, as they are in a library, where one can read an entire book without buying it or perhaps even check it out for a limited time in order to read it off site.

But generally, having these resources at one's computerized finger tips is a wonderful thing that enhances one's research immensely.

Unless you haven't got access to the resources.

After leaving my last scholarly job in 2005 (in private conversation I would probably say "after being booted out in a fit of pique by my employer"—but that, too, is a story for another time), I lost access to the Harvard Libraries, which had been a perk of my employment, although not one of which I was able to make as much use as I would have liked because of the circumstances of the job.  I continued to work on scholarly projects into 2007, in spite of lack of ready access (or sometimes any access) to the specialized secondary literature; I obtained what I needed mainly by cadging favors from friends and using what resources I could in lesser libraries. In 2007, I had to face the fact that it made no sense to continue to try to produce research (and it was impossible, in any case, to produce research at a high level) without access to institutional resources and an income from a job that would allow me sufficient time to produce the work.

Giving up, at least temporarily, my research work of 19 years was distressing and disorienting in many respects, but freeing in others. Perhaps most importantly, it freed me to return to a serious engagement with many of the intellectual topics and issues that I had put on the back burner for decades while pursuing my vain attempt to become institutionally established in musicology.  The topics on this blog are a reflection of my somewhat incontinent expansion into new or neglected territory.

In the fall of 2007, I began to take one or two courses per semester through the Harvard Extension School; I took these classes not only because of my inherent interest in the topics (evolutionary biology and cognitive science), but also because registering for the classes allowed me full access to Harvard's electronic resources, although not to most of its libraries.  (I stopped taking these classes in the spring of 2009 because I could no longer afford it, and because I had come to realize that the level of teaching and intellectual content in many of the classes was too low to justify the expense in any event.)

In Spring 2008, I took "Animal Cognition" with Irene Pepperberg, well known for her decades of research with Alex, the African Grey Parrot, who—as Pepperberg persuasively showed in paper after paper—could use spoken words to communicate, both referentially, to objects, and to some degree abstractly, as in counting.

Pepperberg's class consisted mainly of undergraduates, many without extensive backgrounds in college-level science. Yet assigned reading for the class consisted entirely of research articles in scientific journals. Initially, this was terrifying, even for me. Although I had read hundreds of scholarly articles in the humanities, I had attempted only a relatively small number of actual scientific articles up to that time (mainly ones having to do with ink chemistry, digital imaging, and computer science).  I had never attempted an article in psychology, animal behavior, or biology.

Yet within three weeks, I found that I was entirely comfortable with this material.  The jargon was relatively easy to master, and once I understood the basic ideas behind experimental design (something that Pepperberg was especially good at explaining), it became possible not only to understand the articles, but to read them critically, something Pepperberg explicitly required us to do (our midterm was to produce a critique of what turned out to be a really quite appallingly designed and argued paper published in one of the leading journals in the field). True, I knew practically no statistics when I began (although more than most musicologists), and nearly all of the articles contained extensive statistical analyses of data.  But I had always been good at math, so I started to study statistics on my own (an interest I've continued to pursue, especially through my enthusiasm for the free open-source statistical language R), and I rapidly learned that most of the animal behaviorists, biologists, and so on who were engaged in this work had only sketchy understanding of the statistics themselves:  they tended to plug numbers into formulas that they had learned by rote to use in particular circumstances, or to have someone more competent run the statistics for them.

And I found that this pattern repeated itself in other classes; in Evolutionary Biology, for example, where I participated in the master's-level seminar, I reported on articles concerning topics about which, prior to the class, I had had only the haziest notions: for example, the subtleties of dating 3-billion-year-old metamorphic rocks, or the seminal discoveries about gene expression in the field of Evo-Devo (evolutionary-developmental biology). And as a result, I began avidly to follow and read the scientific literature on any and all of the topics that interested me.

Until April 2009, when my access to Harvard's electronic resources ceased.

Since that time, although my intellectual interests have continued to broaden and I have continually striven to delve into current research across a number of topics, my access to this research has continually run headlong into the dreaded "paywall": that is, the screen at which one has to pay for electronic access (downloadable pdfs, or HTML versions) to articles in scientific and scholarly journals. Those whose institutions provide them with electronic access to such materials may not realize just how absurd and prohibitive the prices charged for access have become for those without an institutional affiliation, and how insulting, silly, and arbitrary the conditions of access are. In this blog, I have undertaken to cite the price of every such article I link to, and I plan to publish tabular summaries of these roughly once a week. I have just published the first of these summaries. The total price for the 10 articles to which I linked over a period of 9 days was $287.40, or an average of $28.74 per article.

My friends in the "real" world (that is, not in academia) have trouble believing these prices.  And very often, these prices come with insultingly restrictive strings attached:  for example, for that price, one may be purchasing only the privilege of downloading the pdf for a period of 24 hours from a single computer.  Some of these articles are 10 pages or less; thus they would cost around, say, $1.00 to photocopy if one had access to a paper copy of the journal.

One can hardly imagine what those who set these prices are thinking.  Does anyone actually pay for access to single copies at these prices?  What possible justification can such prices have?  Consider, for starters, that a very large proportion of the funding for the research that is reported in these articles is public, and not only in the United States, but also in Britain, Germany, and elsewhere.  The authors of the articles are by and large not paid for their articles (and yet routinely give up their copyright), and the peer reviewers upon whose expert opinion the reputation of the journals depend are generally not paid, nor are the members of the editorial boards.

So just where is this money—and the money from the extremely high subscription costs of many scientific journals—going?  Certainly not to pay for disk storage space, which has become so cheap that the cost per pdf is essentially zero.  The publishers employ copy editors, but these are (I can tell you authoritatively) underpaid, as are, very likely, those employed to do the design and layout of the print versions of the articles.  And doing the layout and design for most of these articles simply isn't that difficult or time consuming in most cases anyway. The production cost of a pdf is essentially zero.

So, again, exactly where is this money going?  Why is it that a 10-page pdf costs $32.00 rather than, say, $1.00 (a price that I, for one, would be happy to pay in most cases)?  Why do academics and academic librarians in effect collude with this system by failing to challenge it?

I'll have much more to say on this issue over the coming months.  But I'd also really like to hear from you, whatever your position on this issue may be.  Please contribute your comments.
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  1. Martin Childs6/07/2010 11:43 AM

    Having read this blog, I realise that your time spent at your last 'scholarly' job was not as delightful for you as it was for me!
    I am fortunate enough to have studied under your guidance at undergrad level and, following your influence and enthusiasm, at postgrad level. Studying one to one with you for my MA was an incredible experience for me and still motivates me today to look into things further.

    People may question the reasoning for my exclamation of praise on here, but I felt it important to explain to others who may be tempted to wander the path that you have trodden, that however difficult it can be, both professionally and personally, the lives of others you meet and guide along the way will always be better from your presence.

    Certainly looking forward to wandering through your thesis in my summer break and am positive it will inspire me to once again pick up a dusty book or two off the top shelf.

    Many thanks once again for providing the inspiration and guidance you did, even in troublesome times.

    Always my gratitude,


  2. OK, now that I have sorted out how to comment on my own blog:

    Hi Martin! Thanks so much for the very kind words. And congratulations on being the first person successfully to post a comment. Did you get the Lady Godiva impersonator I sent as your prize? You couldn't miss her: she was riding a unicorn towing a cart full of ale kegs.

    Of course, when I referred in my post to last "scholarly job," I wasn't referring to Cardiff. But Cardiff, alas, was likewise a dreadful experience for me. Not, however, on account of the teaching. The students at Cardiff and the experience of teaching all of you was the one thing that made bearable what was going on behind the scenes. My thanks to you and the rest of the students for that.

    Stay tuned to my "Confessions" series for more on that era.

  3. I share your pain: I'm an independent scholar trying to pursue research on topics in medieval history, usually without access to interlibrary loan or scholarly journals. The last is temporarily eased because I'm doing some pickup work for a major university, and thus have access to their library and online subscriptions for as long as I'm working there. (Believe me, I've been running lots of searches when I have time.)

    I too would like to know if there's any other reason for charging these absurd prices other than "because they can." Academic journal prices for print subscriptions are also going through the roof these days. I can sort of see it for limited-run paper books that are mostly only bought by libraries: there are fixed costs that don't change whether the press run is 100 or 10,000 copies. The same may be true for print journals, but I think you're right that the fixed costs for online distribution are much lower.

    I will mildly amend your statement about PDFs, though: layout and print production is my day job, and the costs of laying out and converting documents to PDF or other online formats are not zero. But you're right that they are small compared to what's being charged for them.

    The same issue also obtains for the use of images: I just got told by a major museum that I would have to pay $250 to use one of their images in my website content, even though they have a scan (it's posted on their website) and I don't need a paper copy or anything higher in resolution than what they've already put up. I'm thankful that some museums are slowly moving to make low-resolution images available free for educational and nonprofit use (with some limitations, of course) and I hope that that's the trend of the future.

  4. I enjoyed this piece a lot! It actually re inspires me to try to become a professor again even though I'll be subjected to many arbitrary set backs imposed mainly in part by the current educational system and economical situation. I hope you start making me read music history books/other books scholarly interests and make me write essays on them. Anyways your blog puts mine to shame but now it just makes want to improve myself as a writer (among other things).