Monday, 18 November 2013

Doris Lessing - pricker of pricks

Doris Lessing struck out last night after a long innings having been born in 1919.  Along with a lot of women of her generation, Lessing was a favorite author of The Beloved.  I didn't devour the whole opus by any means but I read the first two of books in her Canopus in Argos series, as well as a couple of others.  When the first CinA book Shikasta came out she attracted several disapproving reviews from the Pundits of Literatureland.  They had her comfortably binned in leftist-feminist-lit, where she had been a luminary because she wrote so well that she was easy to read. She was also so open in her exposure of her own struggles for identity and a true life under her own terms that she elicited admiration, empathy and probably a little uneasiness in her readers.  Much later when she was asked which of her books should be saved from the fire, she claimed that CinA was her most significant work.  The response of The Critics was all too similar to celebrity wine-tasters who can identify, describe and critique the difference between Chateau Mouton Richfocker and LIDL Old Red Biddy when they have the bottles in front of them but are shown up as mere boozers when put to a blind tasting without the labels.

As a feminist and lefty Lessing deplored the cult of celebrity and the fact that unknown (women) writers, no matter how brilliant, were going to have a hard time getting their work out in the public domain because of the patriarchal complacency that pervaded English-language publishing. In 1982, to expose the hollow men she wrote a compelling new novel called The Good Neighbour and submitted it to her own publisher under the name Jane Somers.  He turned it down so her agent hawked it round a number of other publishers until Philippa Harrison at Michael Joseph said ''I read it and loved it, and rang him [the agent] up and said it reminded me of Doris Lessing. It has a lot in it that's consistent with Doris's ''Golden Notebook.''.  This is not anywhere near as bad as Robert Pirsig having ZAMM rejected by ten dozen publishers before becoming a best-selling cult classic; but it's not a great record for the publishing industry either. The facts of the matter were summed up recently by data culled from Amazon: "Diary of a Good Neighbor" by Jane Somers (sales rank 2,434,345) and "The Diaries of Jane Somers" by Doris Lessing (sales rank 23,323.).

Does it remind you of the review process in scientific publishing?  The referees are anonymous but the authors are not.  If you get a manuscript to review from the Top Gun in your field and you're really busy that week, there must be an awful temptation to give it a once over, jot down a few comments to show that you've done something and give it your imprimatur.  OTOH, if you get a manuscript from Ravishankar Nobodi from Bangalore Technical University, you might find in yourself a tendency to lean the other way.

A couple of months ago John Bohannon of Harvard, Science, Discover etc. published the results of his Lessing-like exposure of scientific publishers.  Being a scientist he would have regarded the trials of Jane Somers as almost an anecdote.  He wrote a little computer programme that generated dozens of more or less similar marginally interesting cure-cancer papers and submitted each one from a fictitious institution to 300 different on-line open-access journals.  He had read enough crap papers in his time that he was able to include such obvious flaws in the data presentation and reasoning of each manuscript that any competent reviewer would reject it.  The papers were, on the contrary, accepted by about 60% of the editors that were able to make a decision informed by peer-review.  But it's a little bit worse than just exposing incompetents.

Open-access was born as an antidote to a business model that existed through most of the 20th century: authors submit their manuscripts to journals which charge a subscription for access to the information.  (Over)-specialisation in science meant that there was a rather limited demand for the "Journal of Narrow Field Studies", so the fixed costs (the editor's limousine, the champagne-fuelled editorial meetings, the printer's set-up) were spread over a short print run.  Accordingly the subscriptions tended to the astronomical, and researchers at smaller under-endowed colleges were unable to access key findings in their field. The Institute where I work for example cannot afford Nature On-line. Open-access publishers aspired to make all the material available for free to everyone.  This policy is clearly only feasible since electrons have replaced paper as the publishing medium.  Even with electronic publishing, however, running a journal costs money and OA raised this by charging authors (or their grant-giving bodies or their institutions) for the privilege of getting their material into 'print'.  Bohannon's clever project has exposed the gross concordance of interest in this idea - everyone benefits if a paper is published, nobody benefits from its rejection.

Doris Lessing had been ill for a long time since suffering a stroke, but I feel sure she would have enjoyed and approved of Bohannon's cunning plan.

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