About Author: Stephen Sturgeon

Posts by Stephen Sturgeon


Open Access Becomes California Law

On September 29th, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed into law the California Taxpayer Access to Publicly Funded Research Act. The law mandates that the public be given free access to the results of research conducted with funds provided by the California Department of Public Health. Inspiring news, and timely — the University of Iowa Libraries’ “Open Access and the Public Good” panel discussion last week largely focused on the question of who should be the beneficiaries of research conducted with taxpayer dollars.

The office of Assemblyman Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert) issued a press release announcing the signing of the act into law. Also, have a look at the SPARC blog post about this, which does a good job of emphasizing the importance of this progress while noting that the law is “narrow in the scope of content it covers”: much work remains to be done but the framework for doing it is growing stronger.


Two Articles on Laboratory Fraud and Government-funded Research

First, from the New York Times, an opinion piece titled Crack Down on Scientific Fraudsters that hits particularly close to home: a researcher at Iowa State University faked lab results to make it seem that he had created a new and effective vaccine for the AIDS virus. The topic of federally funding scientific research amid widespread laboratory fraud, as well as the issue of whether and how the government should be reimbursed for grant money used to fake results, is a focus.

And, from BMJ.com, a more wide-ranging look at the same topic, titled Should Research Fraud be a Crime?

Particularly unfortunate events considering the recent acknowledgement by the federal government that free, public, open access to scientific research conducted with government grants is important, as it may be access to an indefinite amount of criminal fantasy.


On the Permanence of Open Access, by Ed Folsom

Today’s Open Access Week guest post comes from Ed Folsom, Professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. He is the co-Editor of the Walt Whitman Archive, “an electronic research and teaching tool that sets out to make Whitman’s vast work, for the first time, easily and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers.” It is published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln under a Creative Commons License. Learn more here about open access and Open Access Week at the University of Iowa.

On the Permanence of Open Access

Ed Folsom

Why even talk about Open Access at this point? It is here to stay, has grown tenfold in the past decade, and is so obviously the way scholarship will be distributed and read in the future that all the reservations about it simply continue to dissolve as the months roll by. Journals that remain print only are becoming among the least read, and journals that are Open Access watch their readership increase exponentially. The concerns that continue to get expressed are almost all financial in nature, but online finances are changing as quickly as the technology: things have had a way of sorting themselves out remarkably well in a very short period of time. What seemed like major drawbacks five years ago are almost forgotten today. Whatever vestiges remain of the valuing of print and paper over online publication are quickly disappearing, too, as more and more universities are rewriting tenure and promotion guidelines to reward online scholarship. As fewer and fewer of us pick up print copies of journals and turn instead to the electronic copies of journals, we are producing a scholarly world only dimly anticipated a decade ago, a world where particular articles become the product sought (rather than complete issues of journals). Open Access allows articles in different journals to promptly engage each other, as social networks become scholarly networks, passing the most exciting new scholarship on via email, Twitter, Facebook. It may not be a great time to be looking for a job in the humanities, but it’s an amazing time to be a scholar of the humanities


Ed Folsom is Roy J. Carver Professor of English at the University of Iowa. His teaching and research have focused on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American poetry and culture, and he is particularly interested in the ways American poets have talked back to Walt Whitman over the years, and how Whitman tapped into American culture in surprising ways to construct a radical new kind of writing. In addition to running the Walt Whitman Archive, he has published many articles and books on Whitman’s relationship to art, culture, and technology. These include Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song (Holy Cow! Press), Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Wiley-Blackwell), and Walt Whitman’s Native Representations (Cambridge University Press).


Defending the Cultural Commons: the Avant-Garde and Information Activism, by Stephen Voyce

Today’s Open Access Week guest post comes from Stephen Voyce, Assistant Professor in the University of Iowa’s English department. It is an excerpt from an essay titled “Toward an Open-Source Poetics: Appropriation, Collaboration, and the Public Domain”, originally published in the journal Criticism (53.3 [Fall 2011]: 407-38). Professor Voyce will be participating in today’s panel discussion on academic publishing and open access. It will be held at 3 pm in room 1117 of the University Capitol Centre, and refreshments will be served. Find more details here about this event and Open Access Week at the University of Iowa. We hope you’ll join us.

Defending the Cultural Commons: the Avant-Garde and Information Activism

Stephen Voyce

In many ways the practices of appropriation and distributed creativity in recent poetry are part of a broader movement to enlarge and protect a public cultural commons. The term commons can refer to natural resources, public spaces, transportation, social institutions, information and research, government infrastructure, and network technologies. Thus, the commons contains material assets (e.g., parks, forests, water), intangible resources (e.g., the public domain, government research), and virtual environments (e.g., public radio, the Internet). A motley array of resources and public spheres converge within its signifying power and receive its protection from collective, democratic control. The radical market exploitation of the commons in recent decades has muddled distinctions between private and public realms of ownership (and since so many of the spaces in which subjects interact are now devoted to consumer practices, there is also a comparable muddling of our roles as citizens and consumers). Moreover, there has been little discussion of the public domain outside the disciplines of law and economics. Jessica Litman observes that, in the legal field, public domain works are often referred to as “unprotectable or uncopyrightable”; not only does this account of the public domain ignore its central role in subsequent literary production, it seems also to confer a peculiar nonstatus on any noncommercial object. We are led to conclude that an object not defined by property lacks proper existence. Since we lack a precise language to describe the commons, it has by default come to denote the residue of property. Responding to this challenge, James Boyle calls for a twenty-first-century information movement akin to the formation of the environmental movement during the 1960s. For this to take place, however, scholars like Boyle and Litman contend that a reinvigorated language of the commons is a necessary precondition if one hopes to mobilize communities to protect it.

The cultural activities of open source programmers and literary organizations like the Poetry Research Bureau, UbuWeb, and Information as Material afford both a theoretical and practical point of departure. Beyond the already multifarious range of meanings we give to the commons, from at least the fourteenth century onward, the term also affords a synonym for community (L. communis). Digital networks create countless possibilities for storing, distributing, and sharing cultural resources. These are the principles upon which networked collectives such as UbuWeb establish affiliations, codevelop their ideas, and present their work. Hence, UbuWeb functions both as a site of shared resources and as a site of community formation, and should be thought of and defended as such. Parks, squares, campuses, recreation centers, and social networking sites historically function as spaces in which communities form and mobilize as political subjects. One must apply this same logic to the public domain.

Next, we should conceive of the commons as a practice—and thus inject a logic of the commons into the fabric of our thoughts and actions. Again, both open source code sharing and UbuWeb’s commons-based poetics are instructive. Theories of authorship often mystify creativity by concealing the collective production of culture and its reliance on past traditions. Critiques of individual creativity appear all the more convincing with reference to contemporary poets, musicians, and authors whose challenge to proprietary definitions of authorship is the very hallmark of their practice.

To this end, the role of the avant-garde in the twenty-first-century is finding renewed purpose. The militaristic origin of the term avant-garde is well known. Renate Poggioli, responding to the legacies of futurism, imagism, and vorticism, argues that the formation of an avant-garde is essentially agonistic: the movement is defined “against something or someone”—and typically the academy or the general public. Although agonism appears within Greek, Christian, and Romantic traditions, “avant-garde agonism” refers to a radical form of opposition, a paradoxical affirmation of “self-sacrifice” by a “collective group” on behalf of the principles it advances. This now canonical definition of modernist experimental practice overshadows the intensely social projects of community building undertaken by artistic communities throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is this social imperative that gives direction to contemporary practice. The role of artistic and literary collectives today need not jettison agonism as such, but rather its sometimes elitist, chauvinistic, fascistic, and eschatological associations. The responsibility of the avant-garde will instead require an activistic obligation to create and fortify public domains of open source knowledge, to challenge excessive restrictions placed on language and information, to bring forth marginalized knowledges from a position of inaccessibility to the public at large, and to produce and share artistic tactics and works that challenge intellectual property. That which is at stake is nothing less than open accessibility to culture. Hence, writers and artists are becoming more collaborative and interdisciplinary, drawing on the general and specialized skills of archivists, programmers, academics, and community organizers. Recalling the syncretic logic of Wershler-Henry’s the tapeworm foundry, this form of political organization is recognizable in the formal politics of the poem: literary communities begin to participate in the struggle for the commons by advancing an open source artistry as the central axiom of their practice by insisting that the signifying codes that one develops belong to a community that shares, adapts, and transforms its many possible uses. 


Stephen Voyce is an Assistant Professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His work examines twentieth-century poetry and culture, print and digital media, and the history and politics of literary movements. His recent book, Poetic Community: Avant-Garde Activism and Cold War Culture (University of Toronto Press, Spring 2013), addresses several key poetic groups collaborating after World War II. He is currently working on a book project titled Open Source Culture: Literature, Appropriation, and the Public Domain, which investigates how late-twentieth-century poets, fiction writers, and artists creatively subvert intellectual property law and the regimes that enforce these policies. He is a member of the University of Iowa’s Digital Studio for Public Arts & Humanities and the director of the Fluxus Digital Archive.


On Not Being Published, by Stephen Ramsay

Open Access Week 2013 begins today, and all week we’ll be running posts by guest bloggers on open access and contemporary scholarship in the Humanities. Today’s post comes from Stephen Ramsay, Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Professor Ramsay is the University of Iowa’s open access guest-scholar this year, and he will be delivering a lecture, “What is a Publisher?” at 2 pm in the Illinois Room (room 348) of the IMU today, Monday, October 21st. He will also be participating in a panel discussion on open access and trends in academic publishing Tuesday, October 22, at 3 pm in Room 1117 of the University Capitol Centre. Find more details here about these events and Open Access Week at the University of Iowa. We hope you’ll join us.

On Not Being Published

Stephen Ramsay

I’m going to risk a certain immodesty by talking, in rather self-aggrandizing terms, about an essay of mine called “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do With a Million Books“.

This essay began as a talk I gave at Brown University in 2010. The talk was a bit rough, but reasonably well received. Later on that year, I was invited to a workshop in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (the organizers had taken advantage of off-season rates to hold it in a stunningly beautiful resort town). The workshop was called “Playing with Technology in History” (later rebranded as “PastPlay”) and focused on bringing notions of play and the ludic (using, for example, role-playing games, Arduino boards, and even Lego bricks) to teach history. The plan was that we would spend a day playing games, hacking things, and participating in other sorts of activities — in other words, trying things out and exchanging ideas to see what might work and what might not. On the second day, though, we would get down to business. We were all supposed to bring an essay to be workshopped in traditional seminar format. University of New Brunswick Press had agreed to publish the resulting volume (subject to the usual terms of peer review). So, I revised my essay from Brown — making it a bit less “talky” — and submitted it to the group.  Reactions were, I thought, more positive this time, though one participant told me I was dead wrong on one particular point. He was right; I fixed it, and fiddled with it some more. Publishing takes a while, as we all know, but being generally anarchic digital humanists, we all agreed that it would be a good idea to put all the essays online in advance of them being formally published.

That essay is now, far and away, the most successful thing I’ve ever written. It has been cited countless times, is a regular feature on course syllabi throughout the land, and was even discussed at some length by Stanley Fish on the New York Times “Opinionator” blog.

But here’s the thing.  It is 2013 — three years later — and that essay still hasn’t been published.

Now, there are several reasons for this, none of which includes lassitude on the part of the workshop organizers. Nonetheless, when I write my annual review, I still list it as “forthcoming,” which means that it doesn’t yet “count” as something next to which my department can put a check mark. It’s not yet accepted as one of my “scholarly accomplishments.” The question, therefore, is whether I should actually care about this.

In one sense, the answer is “yes.” Academics tend to think of success as adding to the list of items on their CV, and this one still isn’t on mine. On the other hand, this essay made me famous (not Miley Cyrus famous, but you know what I mean). To be more precise, it gave me readers — people who actually care what I have to say. I cannot possibly communicate my astonishment that this happened. For years now, I have been putting everything I’ve ever written online (or rather, everything I can legally put online). I don’t really know why this one caught fire. “Hermenutics” isn’t, I suspect, high on the list of most-googled terms, and while “screwing around” likely is, I imagine that most in search of content related to the latter are disappointed by the marked lack of prurience in a piece that mostly talks about libraries.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t have surprised me at all. For years, I had been tweeting things like, “Hey everybody! New blog post!” As with spam, someone always has to investigate further. But even if that response rate is minuscule, the effect might be just as the old shampoo ad put it: “I told two friends. And they told two friends. And so on and so on . . .” After a while, people started to read other things I’d written.

I’m uncomfortable telling this story, because it sounds like any number of absurd narratives (“rags to riches,” “the entrepreneurial spirit,” and so forth). But I cannot deny a very important aspect of this tale: it happened because the piece was open and online. It was, in other words, open access.

These days, we are likely to speak of open access in terms of the economics of publishing and libraries. Occasionally, we speak of open access as a way to make scholars’ work available to a wider public. What is seldom discussed, though, is the role of naked self-interest on the part of academics. If you’re interested in having readers (and you should be), does it really make sense to bury your work in the stacks of a research library to be discovered by the six graduate students who find it while researching “Hermeneutics–Data Processing”?

Back when I started working on digital libraries (as a graduate student, not too long after the Web appeared), one often heard professors talking about their fear of having their work “stolen” if they put it online. Twenty years on, one still hears it from time to time. We used to say, “You should be so lucky!” My work wasn’t stolen (so far as I know), but one thing I know for sure: I was so lucky, and I certainly wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t put it out there for all to see.

Hopefully, it will never be published.


Stephen Ramsay is Susan J. Rosowski Associate University Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Fellow at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. He is interested in the digital humanities, theories of new media, theater history, applying computational methods to humanities scholarship, and designing and building text technologies for humanist scholars. His publications include Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (University of Illinois Press, 2011) and, with Patrick Juola, the forthcoming Mathematics for the Humanist (Oxford University Press).




Open Access Poetry Publishing: John Tranter’s Founding and Editing of Jacket Magazine

Don Share will be at the University of Iowa on Monday, speaking in the afternoon about open access publishing and contemporary literature and the humanities. Poetry, the magazine that Share has a hand in editing, is an open access literary journal,  and it is not the only one: in the past ten years open access has been an increasingly popular publishing model for poetry journals, and the Australian-based Jacket was arguably the first to utilize open access in reaching a global audience with massive, diverse issues that traditional publishing methods were unable to accommodate.

Jacket was founded by the Australian poet John Tranter in 1997, and Tranter has recently published ” ‘The Elephant Has Left the Room’, Jacket magazine and the Internet”, a brief memoir in which he explains how Jacket came about, what kinds of things the internet makes possible in poetry publishing that are impossible with print, and how the unusual success Jacket attained made it difficult to find support among advocates of literature not accustomed to the journal’s approach to poetry:

“[Jacket‘s] international focus made it ineligible for Literature Board grants. This is not just a peculiar irony; it is a corollary of parochialism. When you publish a parish newsletter in an Australian community, it will not be widely read in that community if most of the articles are about events in Rome or Canterbury. You need to draw your material from the local parish if you want the local parishioners to take an interest in it.

So the greater Jacket’s success on the international stage—and it was successful immediately—the less ‘Australian’ it was, and the less interest it held for Australian scholars and cultural bureaucrats. In the thirteen years of its existence, Jacket never had a grant from the Literature Board, and was never the subject of a paper presented at an Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference, for example. Jacket, however, was the subject of a lively and well-attended panel discussion at the 2011 US Modern Languages Association convention in Los Angeles.”

Read Tranter’s full account of how he managed to produce the world’s most widely-read poetry publication. Jacket2the current incarnation of Jacket produced under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania, provides an introduction to Tranter’s memoir.


Digital Rights Management and Scholarship: What Could Go Wrong? by Kembrew McLeod

With an eye to Open Access Week, here’s a post by Transitions guest-blogger Kembrew McLeod, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. If you’d like to learn more about the issues of author’s rights and copyright discussed in this post, take a look at the University of Iowa’s Author’s Rights and Copyright library guides.

Digital Rights Management and Scholarship: What Could Go Wrong?

Kembrew McLeod

Over the past quarter-century, private companies like Blackwell and Taylor & Francis have taken control of journal publishing. Before that, scholarly societies like the National Communication Association handled this task. Professors gave away their work to journals for free, something that was often referred to as a “contribution to the field.” But today, this kind of academic gift economy is being threatened. Contrary to what free-marketeers assume, the privatization of knowledge has created more economic inefficiencies. Typically, universities pay professors not only to teach, but also to produce scholarship; it’s part of the job description. When researchers sign over their copyrights to journal conglomerates like Blackwell (again, for free), college libraries are then required to purchase the right to view those articles at inflated prices (especially compared to previous decades). In other words, schools are paying twice—to produce, and then rent—the same product. What’s more disturbing is that these publishing companies often use technological means, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM), to block unauthorized access to articles.

DRM can, for instance, restrict the number of times one can view a PDF document file or print out a hard copy. I found this out the hard way when I e-mailed a PDF of my first academic article, published in the Journal of Communication, to students in an honors thesis writing class I taught in 2007. I wanted to have a discussion with them about the process of researching this article, but I didn’t anticipate a major problem. It turned out that Blackwell, the company to which I stupidly signed away my copyrights when I was a grad student, placed DRM restrictions on the digital file. After the second student printed out a hard copy of the article from the same PDF, the rest of my class was blocked from doing so. Their computers would only allow them to print out blank sheets of paper, save for Blackwell’s copyright notice at the bottom. In other words, I was prevented from sharing my own writing with my own class, an ironic and idiotic situation that runs counter to the principles of sharing and exchange that have traditionally characterized academia. I can’t think of a more poetic expression of what is wrong with academic publishing than a blank sheet of paper where words and ideas should be. It’s also a demonstration of how over-commercialization can generate economic friction (universities paying for the products of academic labor twice) and pedagogical disasters (my derailed class discussion).


Kembrew McLeod, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa, independent documentary filmmaker, and music critic, frequently writes on intellectual property law and the influence it has on contemporary culture. His book Freedom of Expression®: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity (2nd ed., University of Minnesota Press, 2007) received the American Libraries Association Oboler Award for Best Scholarship in the Area of Intellectual Freedom. He is also the author, with Peter DiCola, of Creative License: the Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (Duke University Press, 2011) and the editor, with Rudolf Kuenzli, of Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law (Duke University Press, 2011). Follow him on twitter: https://twitter.com/kembrew