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Ethan Zuckerman Is a Casualty in the Media Wars

Ethan Zuckerman tries to write for a dead-tree publication:

Ethan Zuckerman's musings on Africa, international development and hacking the media. January 19, 2007: The article I didn’t write. I haven’t written much about the One Laptop Per Child initiative in the past few months. This isn’t because little has happened with the project - in the months since I wrote a long OLPC post, we’ve seen a prototype of the machine, a factory-produced device, major work on the “Sugar” operating environment, and a finalization of the first five countries to pioneer the device. It also isn’t because I’ve lost interest in the device - I continue to be fascinated both by the audacity of the project and by the degrees of success it’s had so far.

I agreed to write a long piece for a well-respected technology journal about the laptop late in the spring of 2006. The editors of the journal asked - not unreasonably - that I not use in the information I was going to publish in that piece on my blog, and I agreed. I turned in a draft of the piece in early July, went through several edits with my editor, and generally felt pretty good about where the piece was going. (A slightly updated version of that draft is available here.)

But then the managing editor of the journal got hold of the piece, and I discovered they wanted something very different from what I’d written - they wanted critique, tension and controversy about the project. I got a draft back that bore very little resemblance to what I’d written - it was filled with international development clichés (”In a world where half the world has never made a phonecall, does it make sense to give children a laptop?”) and mean-spirited skepticism about the project (”if the laptops overheat, poor people can use them as pot warmers”.)

Basically, it wasn’t something I was willing to have my name attached to. And so I withdrew from writing the piece and told the editor I’d been working with - not the editor who’d demanded these changes - that she was free to run the piece under her name using my research, but that I wasn’t going to be associated with the tone or the conclusions of the piece.

So... eight months, several drafts and many, many unhappy phonecalls later, I’m not going to have the peer-reviewed journal article that I could hold up to my colleagues at Berkman to prove that, yes, I really am trying to be an academic. And I’m left with some questions that I need to think through before taking on an assignment like this again.

One of my best friends, Nathan Kurz, read through the draft I ended up refusing and helped me conclude that I shouldn’t allow it to be published. He flew home a few days later and read “The Best American Science Writing 2006″ on the flight home, which gave him a useful insight on my experiences. “I’d wager that about half the pieces had the same tone of breathless controversy that your editor added.”...

My concerns over the project have to do with whether educators will embrace the project or fight it, and whether the project’s aims will be embraced in developing world schools. But that’s more an open question than it is a breathless conflict. It’s possible that the draft I came up with is simply so boring that it couldn’t appear in this journal without some tension to draw in readers... but it raises the question of how one writes about science or technology when there’s no great drama unfolding, just progress being made.

The other frustration in this process is the timescale. When I drafted this article half a year ago, it was quite up to date and would have broken some new ground in writing about the project. Subsequently, Wayan Vota has reported much of what I’d planned to say on his excellent OLPC blog, and John Markoff has written the definitive OLPC article in the NYTimes. Even had I approved the last edit of the piece, it would have taken another couple of months to get through peer review and into print, possibly nine months from my first draft to publication. And this isn’t even that bad - I have a book chapter waiting for publication which is now over a year old - when I wrote it, it had up-to-date statistics regarding developing world weblogs. By the time it’s published, it will only be interesting as a historical document - not a single figure will be within an order of magnitude of accuracy.

It’s hard to figure out the value of academic publishing if you’re not an academic. When I write here, I tend to get critique - usually smart, well-informed critique - within hours. I often discover that I’m flat out wrong about something I’ve asserted, and I can update my opinions and impressions based on feedback from people better informed than I am. That seems like a much more efficient form of peer review - at least in the academic realm I inhabit - than waiting six to twelve months to find out whether an anonymous reviewer thinks my now-out of date paper is worth publishing...

Seems to me that there are two problems here: (i) the long time-lag in conventional publishing, which in fast-moving fields is absolutely deadly; (ii) a double-crossing of the subeditor with whom Ethan Zuckerman was working by her boss, who had not made the assignment or the expectations clear to the magazine's own staff, let along to Ethan Zuckerman.

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