Friday, August 17, 2007

More short reviews

Martin Rundkvist: Scholarly Journals between the Past and the Future

Academia is pretty big business these days. There are many more people earning their living as lecturers and professors than there ever have been before, and they all prosper according to the extent to which they publish the results of their 'original research'.

Sorry. Excuse my absence for the last five minutes, but I had to gather myself together after laughing uncontrollably. Tears dripped on to the keyboard and caused a temporary short.

Where was I? Oh yes, talking about the need to publish research. Yes, you see, academics need to write 'papers', of one sort or another, and get them published, preferably in reputable journals which are 'refereed' (as it's called) by world-class performers in that particular field of enquiry, such as physics or economics. The more papers they write, the more likely they are to get promoted, and the more likely their universities are to become prestigious, and hence rich and powerful.

You may think that's a crude overstatement but it ain't. Here in England, academics, and their departments, are actually subjected to periodic assessment, on a points-scoring basis. Money is handed out accordingly. If you haven't published much, your career withers and dies, your head of department will hate you, other departments will talk about closing you down and taking all your student places and badly used resources for their own excellent purposes.... And so forth.

What fun it all is. Hence it has been known for decades that academics need journals. Robert Maxwell was the first to recognise, at least forty years ago, that there was a market here. So he created lots of new academic journals, through his firm Pergamon Press. Academics insisted that their libraries should stock them, naturally. And then Cap'n Bob put the price up. And up. And up. And up. And sued anyone who objected for libel.

Which brings us to the collection of papers which Martin Rundkvist has edited, Scholarly Journals between the Past and the Future (ISBN 978-91-7402-368-8; and ISSN 0348-1433). This is a collection of papers delivered at a conference at the premises of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters and Antiquities in April 2006.

The main theme of this collection is the change, or potential change, from paper to online publishing. This has, as you will appreciate, substantial implications, not least for the publishers of paper journals. The publishers -- some of them -- have been making very juicy profits here for decades, and now it looks as if it might all go out of the window.

There are also massive implications for librarians. If everything, or even major chunks of it, is made available online, there will no longer be a need for miles and miles of shelving, as the years of thick, heavy volumes accumulate. Those who make a penny or two from binding 12 monthly issues into one volume will also lose out. And so on.

My guess is that we will move steadily towards the online model, and a damn good thing too. But whatever happens it will be necessary to maintain 'standards'. In other words, even an online journal will still need to be refereed by leaders in the field. Otherwise how will anyone know which journals are prestigious, and which researchers deserve to be given the most money to go on producing more and more papers, and pounding out research and...

What's that? Teaching. Oh yes. Somebody does some teaching. Somewhere. Can't immediately think who, but there must be a few grad students giving lectures. I think. Somewhere. Ask the Bursar.

Jim Kelly: The Skeleton Man

Jim Kelly first turned up about five years ago with The Water Clock, a crime novel which was reviewed here on 4 May 2004. I see that I also covered his second, The Fire Baby, on 11 January 2005. Another book, The Coldest Blood, won the CWA Bodies in the Library Dagger, and The Skeleton Man is actually Kelly's fifth. All of these books are set in the same place and feature the same detective.

The setting is the Fen country in the east of England. This is territory that I know well, but I can't say that I like it much. It is flat country, much of it reclaimed from the sea: treeless, featureless, and to my eye sinister. A ten-foot mound is a hill, and likely to be the site of a church. Houses are few, the people inbred and suspicious. Much of the land is below sea-level, and held back by inadequate defences (a bit like New Orleans); and even if you can't see it you are conscious (well I am, anyway), of the sea's presence over the horizon. As often as not the sea, when you do see it, is steely-grey and malevolent, like some cruel monster, just waiting to take back what it owns. (Last major flood: 1953).

Kelly's detective is a journalist, Philip Dryden, who comes complete with a wife in a wheelchair and a taxi driver as his Watson.

Right up my street then. In a way. But for the first 80 pages or so I wondered if Kelly was having an off day, because it was all a bit pedestrian and, frankly, dull. But then things perked up markedly, and from then on I had no complaints. The ending strains the old credulity a bit -- but hey, the main man's a journalist, right? And we all know that journalists will do anything for a story.

English crime fiction of a high order. And Kelly has some competition, because Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham set books in this sort of area.

This is a very nicely printed book, by the way. Royal octavo, 13.5/16 pt Garamond.

James Aach: Rad Decision

These are supposed to be short reviews, and we're not doing very well so far, so let's do better.

Rad Decision is a novel written by an author who worked in the US nuclear-power industry for twenty years, and it's about -- naturally -- espionage and disaster in the real world of atomic energy.

If you've got an uncle or a grandad who's a retired engineer, and doesn't read novels because they're arty-farty and time-wasting, then this might be just the thing for his birthday present. More details on the book's web site.

Rosemary Ingham: Where the Truth Lies

Hmm. Not sure that I approve of this one, in principle.

The problem is, you see, that I have always considered it bad policy to write a novel about an institution in which you have yourself spent time. Yes, yes, I know the old adage about 'Write what you know'. But I have always taken the view that it's much better -- not to mention safer -- to write pure fiction, if necessary doing lots of research.

The danger lies, you see, in our old friend the law of libel. I don't want to tempt fate, but it says on the dust jacket of this one (a Macmillan New Writing book, by the way) that Rosemary Ingham, now retired, was formerly the Head of an English comprehensive school (= high school, for Americans). And what's her novel about? It's about the head of a comprehensive school.

Isabel Lincoln, single parent of teenage children, has a tough job running a London comprehensive. Her Deputy may be plotting against her. Her Second Deputy shares her bed. And then there are problems with teenage girls...

All very skilful and interesting I dare say. An intriguing exploration of truth and falsehood, professional conflicts, and a lot more. But the modus operandi makes me nervous. No matter how carefully you avoid (you hope) describing real people, by changing their age, hair colour, gender, sexual orientation, people who knew you will still say: Oh yes, that's really a portrait of old Bloggins.

And if you make old Bloggins a villain, when in real life he was a pussy cat.... It's far worse. All one can depend upon, or hope for, is that Bloggins may not recognise himself.

The English playwright Ben Travers only once portrayed a real person in his plays -- an ex-Army man, Colonel (we'll call him) Smithers -- and it troubled his conscience. One day Travers was out walking and he saw the Colonel approaching him. His heart sank, especially when the Colonel demanded a word.

'Now look here, Travers,' spluttered the Colonel, 'I've seen that new play of yours, and I must say I take exception to it. Anyone can see that the military chappie in your play is based on Major Robertson, down the road, and I think that's going too far. Don't do it again.'

Travers promised, on his honour, that he never would.


Anonymous said...

Re: Martin Rundkvist, 'Scholarly Journals between the Past and the Future'

A very entertaining review and much of it no doubt true, but I do have a slight quibble.

You write that: "The main theme of this collection is the change, or potential change, from paper to online publishing", and that "My guess is that we will move steadily towards the online model, and a damn good thing too".

That change is not potential, nor need you guess at the move. Scholarly journals have been online (and in a big way too) for years now. For a number of reasons (but above all on account of VAT) publishers do still publish a small print-run of paper copies to accompany their online offerings.

The Royal Society of Chemistry are doing some of the most interesting things, but it might be instructive to take a look at the journals platforms of some of the larger publishers:

Taylor & Francis

There's always plenty of free content available too. And no doubt all of it's been rigorously peer-reviewed...


Thomas said...

The whole academic system is a bit farcical.

I recently did a PhD and I can honestly say it didn't really involve much original research.
And that goes for most PhD's I think.

And one of the major reasons I did it, was simply because I realised that others less intelligent than I had done one.

The best academic system would be one in which the true researchers -- those handful of geiuses who can genuinely advance the knowledge of humanity -- are given all the funding and the others are told not to publish papers because it just dilutes the overall quality.

Anonymous said...

i'd have thought your note on academia an exaggeration before i went there. i thought Literary Theory was some sort of joke when i first heard about it too. It really is like a freakshow, you want to point and shout, "But, Emperor, you've butt-naked!"

i wanted to do a PhD and was twice rejected. Then i realised it'd be next to impossible to write what i want, which would be fairly original, in an academic format: any real originality tends to be punished. The masses of tripe vomited out by academia stun the mind. It's a deluge of mediocrity. When i was used to read academic books i generally didn't touch anything published after about 1985, as it was almost certain to be worthless.

This is only relevant to the Humanities, i guess - the subjectivity of the field encourages rampant bullshit as Sciences do not, or so i speculate.

Jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

One convenient route to academic fame is to get together with a group of about 20 others, on the condition that all your names go on every paper that any one of you writes. Abracadabra! You've just boosted your productivity 2000%! Medical researchers are particularly good at this...

Roger Cornwell said...

A small correction: Jim Kelly won the Dagger in the Library in 2006 for the whole body of his work rather than for The Coldest Blood. He was judged "the author of crime fiction whose work is currently giving the greatest enjoyment to readers".

Anonymous said...

If one of these 500 million published papers with actual earth shaking content fell in the forest, would anyone hear it?

mscriver said...

What they say in Canada is "publish or prairies" -- the assumption being that if you don't get enough articles and books out there, you won't get the plum jobs which are assumed to be coastal. But I join the howl that this is a charade, a bit of mummery to guarantee that no one will come along and contradict or question those profs with those plum jobs. Many disciplines have become micro-disciplines where the idea of anonymity has evaporated. Advances in several fields are so radical -- like those affected by gene theory -- that the "experts" don't understand them and anyway find them only heresy. Much knowledge is theological with the god being one's immediate predecessor.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Lovely thoughts on academia!

On the other hand... writing articles for academic journals (which basically nobody but a handful of academics loks at - author of the article included), even if they are absolute humbug (which so often tends to be the case), actually demands time and effort. (whereas towards your students you can just parrot some encyclopaedia commonplaces for years in a row - most of them won't be listening anyway.)
Doesn't that show some dedication to the academic profession? It's a bit like being a politician (or a pop star, which ammounts to the same): you have to continually make a fool of yourself and blare out all sort of nonsense just to keep your job.

Mercy on the (pseudo-)intellectuals! Also they are just trying to get by in a meaningless universe - by making things even more confused, of course...

Thomas said...

Yeah I think that's true Clary.

Of course every Phd student is in general a cut above the average graduate, more of a researcher than most other people.

And as much as I criticize the system, you can bet your bat and balls on it that I'll go cap in hand back to it, to do some meaningless unoriginal research, simply to make a living.

Mercy on the psuedo-intellectual indeed, for just like their cousin, the literary types -- stuck miserably between commercial fiction and truly classic fiction -- there can be little real joy to be had in being a half-way man, desiring and struggling for something higher in life but unable to distinguish oneself.