Librarians are loud in their protests against having to catalog books acquired as a result of patron-driven-acquisition policies which are incomplete, duplicative, roughly scanned, and lacking all bibliographic information. Nowadays you can cobble together any likely looking public domain stuff and offer it for sale on-line. Print-on-demand means you don’t have to hazard any investment in inventory (except for a set-up charge) and can just wait for the unsuspecting to buy your edition of say Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which the innocent student might not even recognize as identical to The Wealth of Nations which is already on the library’s shelves. When for their $27.95 the librarians receive this badly scanned, apparatus-less, bibliographical-data-free offering with several sections missing, they naturally get annoyed at the waste of time and money.
Last night I had a dream. I dreamt I was up a ladder in a large book-lined room trying to get a book. A huge 3-volume set became dislodged and ended up balanced on my head. I threw down the books, each as large as three eight-year-olds or one of those old electric switching boxes (if that’s what they were) we used to see on the street, and screamed that these tomes should be thrown away. My colleagues — because this appeared to be a publisher’s production office — remonstrated with me. So much work had gone into the compilation and production of these out of print volumes that we had to keep them: and that was indeed the rationale behind much of the dusty library stored around our hangar-like office. We all in academic publication have been involved in a few at least of these books. Massive compilations of second-rate Soviet science brought to the eager attention of a Western audience and so on. Luckily for me I worked only in respectable places, so such fare was rare, but after the War it was a popular way of feeding the free-world frenzy for library materials. A company like Pergamon Books became a hot property largely by the quick and dirty translation of masses of recently liberated Eastern European scientific papers. I suppose the librarians of the day happily cataloged it all and gave scant thought to how often the material was used. Polder Management and Alder Forestry Practice in the Pripet Marshes edited by Gazumov and Razumov might look like a respectable publication, but as nobody ever opened it, nobody ever knew.
Rick Anderson on The Scholarly Kitchen takes off on academic journals which masquerade as serious while retailing garbage. He sees the phenomenon as having expanded with the increase in open-access journals where the poor author gets to finance publication.
Of course we disapprove of it, but aren’t the problems we are having with deceptive publishing just a sign of the times, a consequence of technological change, which always opens up avenues of exploitation to the unscrupulous. The move from script to print allowed dubious editions to be run off. In the 19th century the development of the rotary press and cheap paper led to an explosion of piracy, particularly in America. The development of offset lithography, especially the paper plate small press variety opened up a world of piracy in the “East” which only became easier with digital printing. The Internet presents us all with simple mechanisms to become pirate publishers, or publishers of stuff with minimal value.
The long and the short of it is that the buyer needs to be aware. I doubt if the supply is going to go away. So librarians shouldn’t just order stuff because any old customer has requested it. Think about it before you spend your money. And if the response is that we just don’t have time to do that, then stop complaining. If you’ve set up a system you don’t like and you won’t change it, then maybe such errors of purchasing are a reasonable charge to bear. Nobody need open the deceitful book, as, just like my dream colleagues, you will of course be reluctant to throw it away.