December 19, 2014

Rhetoric Matters | Peer to Peer Review

In a column called Peer to Peer Review, it’s appropriate to review our peers once in a while, so I’d like to discuss last week’s column by Rick Anderson on “science and religion in the library.”

He’s not talking about the Qs and the Bs. In the column, Anderson writes: “For my purposes here, I’m going to define as ‘science’ those aspects of library work that deal with figuring out and describing things as they are, and as ‘religion’ those that deal with figuring out how things should be and why they should be that way.” He later gives examples by dividing questions between “is” and “should,” such as the following:

Is: “We have to cut Journal X if we’re going to subscribe to Journal Y.”
Should: “Journal Y is too expensive and its publisher makes too much money.”

My question is, why would he want to make such a distinction? It’s an odd approach to the topic, and the analogy to science and religion is pretty forced. What do we gain by thinking in those terms?

It’s very similar to a distinction Anderson made between political and nonpolitical views in a Scholarly Kitchen article last year, where he argued that making purchasing decisions based on, for example, one’s stance on open access publishing or particular publishers was putting “politics” over patron needs. There, he wrote, “By ‘politics,’ I mean our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.” I extensively criticized that distinction here and here. The gist of my criticism is that the distinction is a false one. Librarians don’t have “personal” or “political” views on how scholarly publishing should function. They have professional views based on professional experience, and to label them as merely personal, or even political, is an attempt to marginalize them.

The science/religion distinction functions the same way. Dividing is and ought questions between science and religion is also a poor analogy. We have much better and more apt distinctions, such as practical and theoretical, or perhaps pragmatic and philosophical. Both are more accurate and less loaded than talking about politics or religion.

Anderson claims that “it’s important to emphasize that ‘science’ questions are not better or more important than ‘religion’ questions, nor vice versa. Both are essential.” However, that’s not really true, especially in academia. Practice and theory are both essential but not science and religion. In academia, science deals with facts and knowledge about the world based on standards of evidence. In the broader and older use of the word science (e.g., the sense meant by library science), the entire academy is devoted to science, to the discovery and creation of scientia, knowledge.

Religion, on the other hand, concerns faith in propositions that can’t be proven by scientific standards of evidence, and outside of religious institutions of higher education, it plays no role in the academic mission, except perhaps as an object of study rather than a motivation for action.

Thus, calling questions or propositions “religious” within the context of academic libraries, like calling them “political,” functions to push them outside the bounds of professional discussion. Politics and religion are contentious, frequently irrational, and have no place in discussions of issues regarding academic libraries. However, librarians don’t justify their professional actions or beliefs by saying Jesus or Karl Rove told them so.

Rhetoric matters. What we call things and the stories we tell ourselves about them influence the way people think about them. If librarians bring their personal politics into a discussion of scholarly publishing, or if they base their arguments in the stormy emotional field of religion instead of the cool, rational domain of science, it sounds as though they might be acting unprofessionally. However, librarians are doing neither of those things.

If we label these questions in an impartial manner, it’s harder to marginalize them. Questions about what we ought to do aren’t necessarily political or religious. They’re philosophical, specifically ethical. What should we do? How should we live? These questions can be answered in a political or religious way, and they can have political or religious implications, but at their most basic, they’re philosophical questions. Arguing that the status quo is good and arguing that things should change are both philosophical arguments about what the future should be like. They are both arguments “that deal with figuring out how things should be and why they should be that way.”

Labeling certain questions or propositions about scholarly publishing as political or religious makes it more likely that we will avoid discussion rather than engage in it. There are good reasons for encouraging this if you believe that the status quo of scholarly publishing is a good thing and the future should pretty much be like the present. As such, it’s a profoundly conservative rhetorical move and could subtly affect our thinking, unless we recognize the potential and guard against it. It’s important that we do so, because these issues need to be addressed, not evaded.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. Rick Anderson says:

    Wayne, you clearly object to my use of the term “religion” in this context (even in the very limited sense that I outlined for it in my piece — a sense much more limited than the one you’ve used here), so for the purposes of our conversation let’s agree not to use that term. Instead, how about if we simply draw the distinction between “is” and “should” propositions?

    Citing my examples of “is” and “should” statements, you ask why I would want to make a distinction between them. To me, the reason for doing so seems pretty obvious: there is a meaningful difference between statements of fact that can be affirmed or contradicted by reference to an objective reality (“This journal costs $X”) and statements of opinion that can be disputed based on one’s subjective beliefs (“This publisher makes too much money”). Recognizing and acknowledging the difference between such statements is important when one is charged with managing personnel, marshalling limited resources, and meeting the needs of library patrons. By asking why I would want to recognize that distinction, you seem to be implying that the distinction is either unreal or, if real, unimportant. Is that what you mean to imply?

    You’ve also suggested that the beliefs held by librarians that inform their “should” positions shouldn’t be characterized as “personal” or “political” — that, in fact, to characterize them as such is to marginalize them in some way, and that it would be better to characterize such beliefs as “professional.” Astonishingly, you’ve asserted that “librarians don’t have ‘personal’ or ‘political’ views on how scholarly publishing should function” — that, instead, they have “professional views based on professional experience.” I would suggest that the dichotomy you’re proposing here (between “professional” and “personal/political”) is far harder to defend than the one I’ve suggested between “is” statements and “should” statements. Is it your position that librarians’ professional views are uninformed by their personal and political beliefs about what’s right and wrong?

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that rhetoric matters. In fact, that belief is part of what prompted me to write last week’s column. This is actually tangential to the point of my column, but in the context of your reaction to it I think this is a good place to say it: too often, I think, the rhetoric we use in libraries genuinely does marginalize all but those views that are most congenial to the political mainstream of our profession, and too often we couch “should” statements in rhetoric that serves to bully our colleagues into tacit agreement about what putatively “is.” I would suggest, in fact, that those most at risk of having their voices silenced in this profession are those whose thinking falls outside of that political/philosophical mainstream. The use of “conservative” as an epithet is one example of such silencing. I don’t think anyone who knows me and my social views would characterize me as a conservative in any meaningful sense. But in this profession, to say anything other than “scholarly communication must radically change,” or to suggest that politics ever influences our professional decisions, is to run the risk of being branded a conservative and thereby dismissed. To have one’s argument characterized as conservative (let alone “profoundly conservative”) is to have it branded unworthy of consideration on the merits. In this respect, I think, our profession tends to mimic those characteristics that people often like least about religion.

  2. Rick, you make some good points and I’ll try to address them. First, I definitely didn’t mean to imply that we can’t make is/should distinctions. My problem was labeling “should” statements as “religious” (or “political”). If we just label them as “should” statements and leave it at that, I have no problem at all. I agree that the distinction is important, but I don’t think the distinction is as useful as you seem to think.

    Statements of fact don’t lead us to action of any kind. Saying that “we have to cancel journal X if we want journal Y” is a statement of fact, but it tells us nothing at all about what we should do. Should we cancel journal X and subscribe to journal Y? Why? You argue that we shouldn’t make such distinctions based on, for example, what we think about the journal publishers. I would disagree. However we proceed, we’re operating under “should” statements, which you say are just subjective opinion. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I agree with you. If so, your statement that we should not cancel a journal because we don’t like what the publisher does is also just a subjective opinion, with no more grounding in fact or “science” than any other such statement.

    Of course we have to make decisions about how to allocate scarce resources, but every such decision is based on a “should” statement of some sort. You might argue, as you’ve implied in the past, that we should cut book budgets to allocate money to Big Deal journal packages instead of resisting the gradual metamorphoses of library budgets into serial order fulfillments for a few big publishers (although, obviously, you wouldn’t phrase it that way!). I would argue that we shouldn’t do that, and can base my argument as much upon “fact” as you. If we have limited resources, as we all do, how best to spend them? I would further add that we should look to the future and not just the immediate present. Is the path we’re on sustainable and fair to all our users, and not just fair to a handful of publishers and the scientists who benefit (if the journals are affordable at all)?

    I believe open access scholarly publishing to be a good thing, partly because of philosophical and historical beliefs about the origins and goals of research universities, but also because the current model of scholarly publishing has had a dreadful impact upon library budgets, especially those outside the sciences. As a humanities librarian, that is an area of concern for me, but it’s not religious or political. I can prove with facts that library budgets have gradually eliminated support for the humanities, and the reason is the dominant model of commercial scientific publishing. Because I believe that all library users should be supported (a statement of subjective opinion, but nevertheless a shared value among most librarians), I believe that a different model than the current one is necessary for the future.

    And you make a very good point about the use of the word “conservative.” I was doing exactly what you’ve been doing with “political” and “religious” and you rightly called me out on it. However, while a view about OA and libraries will almost certainly be religious, any rhetorical move that serves to protect the status quo at against reformers is by definition conservative. The conservative move is to protect the status quo, whether it’s political, religious, or institutional. “Conservative” does have negative connotations within librarianship, but that’s political conservatism. Institutional conservatism runs deep and librarians often resist change. Regardless of your political views, your rhetoric on scholarly publishing is institutionally conservative.

    Hence, I partly agree with you that librarians have been silenced for being conservative, if we mean that politically, but institutionally conservatism is the norm. You, for example, are hardly silenced. You write in the Library Journal and Scholarly Kitchen, you publish Ithaka reports, you get prominent speaking slots at the Charleston Conference, and you use all those opportunities to defend the dominant model of scholarly publishing backed by the largest scientific publishers in the world. You’re the establishment!

    I’m not going to try to portray myself as part of the marginalized and oppressed masses. While I’m not as prominent as a lot of librarians, I don’t lack venues to express my views about libraries. But in terms of the dominant model of scholarly publishing, the one that some publishers try to institute into law (e.g., the failed Research Works Act), the model with all the money behind it, I’m the David against the Goliath doing what little I can to claim rhetorical space for pro-OA arguments.

  3. Rick Anderson says:

    Statements of fact don’t lead us to action of any kind. Saying that “we have to cancel journal X if we want journal Y” is a statement of fact, but it tells us nothing at all about what we should do.

    I agree, and I said as much in my column. You seem to be under the impression that I privilege “is” questions over “should” questions, but I was at pains to say just the opposite: I said that while it’s important to recognize and understand the difference between them, that both are nevertheless essential. Nor did I say that “should” statements are just subjective opinion. I said that in order to answer “should” questions, “we will have to appeal to values.” The distinction between those two statements is pretty important, I think.

    And you make a very good point about the use of the word “conservative.” I was doing exactly what you’ve been doing with “political” and “religious” and you rightly called me out on it.

    No, we were doing very different things. In the SK post in which I referred to “politics,” I wasn’t denigrating politics — I was saying that we need to be careful not to put politics (which I defined as our personal views about how the world ought to be) ahead of mission and service. I acknowledged explicitly that this is a complicated issue, and said that “the question isn’t whether politics ought to enter into (library) decisions. The question is one of balance.” As for my use of “religion” in last week’s column, I (again) very explicitly defined it as an essential parameter of library decision-making. In your response, you addressed “religion” as if I were using it in the supernatural sense, and proceeded from there to the assertion that “religion plays no role in the academic mission,” and from there to the assertion that my provisional use of the term “religion” therefore marginalizes the discussion of values. The only way to get to that conclusion was by ignoring the sense in which I explicitly said I was using the term. In other words, I used neither “politics” nor “religion” as an epithet. I used both terms neutrally, and in the context of narrow provisional definitions that I presented explicitly up front. That’s not the way you used the word “conservative.”

    You, for example, are hardly silenced. You write in the Library Journal and Scholarly Kitchen, you publish Ithaka reports, you get prominent speaking slots at the Charleston Conference, and you use all those opportunities to defend the dominant model of scholarly publishing backed by the largest scientific publishers in the world. You’re the establishment!

    I have made no claim to being silenced. What I said was that those who have conservative views in our profession are silenced, and that labeling a person (or a person’s argument) “conservative” in this profession is a way of silencing them. Now, that said:

    “Conservative” does have negative connotations within librarianship, but that’s political conservatism. Institutional conservatism runs deep and librarians often resist change. Regardless of your political views, your rhetoric on scholarly publishing is institutionally conservative.

    The distinction between political and institutional conservatism is important. But I don’t think there’s anyone (certainly not you, and certainly not me) who believes that absolutely everything about librarianship and publishing ought to change. I’ve been preaching, writing about, and implementing change (sometimes at a fairly radical level) in libraries for years. On the other hand, I do find the fundamental structure of scholarly publishing to be more or less sound. So does that make me an institutional liberal or an institutional conservative? You believe that the system of scholarly publishing needs to change fundamentally, but I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that you also believe libraries should continue to defend our longstanding tradition of letting patrons read whatever they wish. Does that make you an institutional liberal or an institutional conservative?

    I’m the David against the Goliath doing what little I can to claim rhetorical space for pro-OA arguments.

    Is it your impression that pro-OA arguments are being crowded out of our profession’s rhetorical space? Because I’m pretty sure that for every one example of an anti-OA (or even OA-agnostic) statement you cite from that space, I’ll be able cite you at least ten pro-OA ones. In the context of the library profession, I can hardly imagine a safer (dare I say more institutionally conservative?) position than being pro-OA.

  4. Rick, you’re getting tricky now, trying to spin advocates of reform of the status quo of scholarly publishing as the conservatives! But if you’re the one trying to conserve the status quo of scholarly publishing, you’re taking the conservative stance regarding scholarly publishing. That’s the status quo, and plenty of people want to reform it. I’ve made numerous public arguments about how the status quo of scholarly publishing is deleterious to library budgets, inconsistent with the goal of serving all users equally (and not just the scientists), and inconsistent with the culture of sharing of scholars themselves. It’s not just librarians who balk at the status quo now. It’s researchers themselves when they run up against the barriers the status quo in the terms of takedown notices or laws trying to prevent open access to publicly funded research.

    If you want to defend the status quo of commercial scientific scholarly publishing as a good thing for libraries and scholars or consistent with their values and the values of research universities in general, please do. But whenever you try to evade that discussion, either by attempting to marginalize OA advocates as bringing in their personal politics or holding religious rather than scientific views, or by trying to focus attention on another goal of libraries so that we can “opt out” of a discussion of scholarly publishing, I’m going to criticize those moves for what they are.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Rick, you’re getting tricky now, trying to spin advocates of reform of the status quo of scholarly publishing as the conservatives!

      I’m not being tricky at all — I’m just pointing out the logical implications of a concept you introduced into this conversation: that of “institutional conservatism.” That concept is a knife that cuts more than one way: what counts as “institutional conservatism” depends entirely on the norms and values of the institution in question. Pointing that out isn’t “spin,” it’s logical rigor.

      If you want to defend the status quo of commercial scientific scholarly publishing as a good thing for libraries and scholars or consistent with their values and the values of research universities in general, please do.

      Wayne, instead of responding to what I say you keep misrepresenting what I say and then responding to the misrepresentation. There’s a big difference between arguing that “the fundamental structure of scholarly publishing (is) more or less sound” (which is what I said) and “defend(ing) the status quo of commercial scientific scholarly publishing.” I’m not sure how much of my stuff you read, but I’ve argued that lots of things about both commercial publishing and librarianship ought to change. But these are spectrum issues, not binary ones–the fact that someone doesn’t advocate total revolution doesn’t make him a champion of the status quo.

      But whenever you try to evade that discussion, either by attempting to marginalize OA advocates as bringing in their personal politics or holding religious rather than scientific views, or by trying to focus attention on another goal of libraries so that we can “opt out” of a discussion of scholarly publishing, I’m going to criticize those moves for what they are.

      Truly, I’m not evading the discussion at all. I keep responding to you point by point. The problem is that no matter how many times I point out the misrepresentations that lie at the root of your comments, you keep going back to them. For example: no matter how many times I point out that I used the term “religion” in a very specific provisional sense in my column (a sense that I clearly and explicitly framed at the beginning of my piece), you can’t seem to let go of your belief that I really meant it in a broader, colloquial sense. I also said in my piece, very clearly and explicitly, that in the senses I was using the terms, “religion” is just as important in librarianship as “science.” The only way you can interpret my column as an attempt to marginalize OA advocates is by refusing to accept that I meant what I said. You’re not “criticizing (my) moves for what they are” — you’re critizing them for what they aren’t, by ignoring what I explicitly say, asserting that I really mean the opposite, and then critizing me for the opposite of what I said. I’m not evading this discussion–I’m trying to keep it grounded in reality.

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