This hat tip goes to Bryn Geffert, Librarian of the College at Amherst College, Massachusetts for his creative retelling of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters on today’s Inside Higher Ed site, entitled “How to Succeed in Publishing Without Really Trying.”
Lewis’ 1942 satirical novel reads as a series of letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape, who is mentoring his inexperienced nephew Wormwood in the finer points of how to secure the soul of an unsuspecting British chap—”the Patient”—into hell.
In Geffert’s retelling, Uncle Screwtape is mentoring Wormwood as an aspiring academic publishing magnate.
My Dear Wormwood,
So you aspire to become an academic publishing magnate. You noble devil.
Supporting the life of the mind. Disseminating research conducted in the public interest. Sharing the output of the academy with those beyond our ivy-encrusted walls. Making information universally accessible. Enlightening the world. Concerned only for the common good, with no thought of profit. Such care for the scholarship, the academy, the developed world, the developing world.
Such altruism. Such nobility of soul.
Your mother raised you right, young man. I am prouder than I can say.
Your Admiring Uncle,
But in true demonic fashion, it turns out Screwtape’s tongue was deeply lodged in his cheek. His second letter begins:
My Dear Wormwood,
For Hades’ sake, you dolt! You wouldn’t recognize sarcasm if it bit you in the nose.
Of course I was joking….
Uncle Screwtape reserves special distain for open access. He encourages his nephew Wormwood to play-off the fears of his scholarly captives, who might deeply suspect their work will not be taken seriously if they publish in an open access venue. Picking up mid-way into this letter, Screwtape writes:
[W]ill any scholar sully her name by allowing a press—no matter how reputable, how long a track record, how committed to quality editing and peer review—to distribute her work for free? Of course not.
Granted, she will receive no compensation for publishing her article with you. But the impressive price tag you put on her book provides an imprimatur of importance, solidity, and worth. A free publication? Your gut and my gut know that gratuitous goods have no value. Free = worthless. Ask any marketing specialist.
Fourth, nobody need remind the professoriate just how many open-access publications are, shall we say, rather sketchy. Consult the Directory of Open Access Journals to peruse a stunning variety of semi-reputable and dodgy titles sprinkled among the worthies that demand rigorous peer review and scrupulous editing.
If we play this right, we can easily tarnish the very notion of open-access by pointing to some embarrassing examples. You know the argument: Toyota once produced a lemon, ergo all Japanese cars are lemons.
Fifth, faculty don’t care whether anybody reads their work. Research indicating that articles in open-access journals enjoy many more readers than articles behind paywalls: couldn’t be more irrelevant. Of absolutely no consequence to academic authors.
And sixth, fear works to our advantage. Gently cultivate the gut-wrenching anxiety of young faculty facing tenure and promotion. Nobody is more uncertain and skittish than an assistant professor planning for D-Day. Milk this for all it’s worth. Remind young faculty how deeply you care about them: your sole concern is their welfare and success, and thus you would be heartbroken if they elected to publish in any journal or with any monograph press that exudes even the faintest odor of novelty. Too great a risk. Anything the least bit unfamiliar is uncertain, and uncertainty is to be avoided like the plague.
Thanks for this great read, Bryn! It nicely captures the spirit of C.S.