My last column critiqued a science/religion analogy regarding debates about the future of libraries and scholarly publishing. It seems to be the season for science and religion analogies when discussing scholarly publishing, because this post at Scholarly Kitchen also uses the analogy, sort of.
The post argues, rightly in my opinion, that extremists make discussion and cooperation impossible. The motivation comes from another blog post inspired by the pointless debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham over evolution vs. creationism. That post was far too charitable to Ham. Supposedly, among the evolutionists and creationists, “both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently.” That’s one way of putting it. The entire scientific worldview against one particular interpretation of one particular holy book. Ham isn’t weighing the evidence. He’s ignoring it.
Nye’s problem was to take Ham at all seriously, because he’s not worth debating. One cannot reason with those who have abandoned reason. Another mistake is to consider a debate between them as one of evolution vs. creationism, because Ham doesn’t represent all creationists, particularly with his bizarre belief that the earth is 6,000 years old. After him, we might call his version Ham-fisted creationism, but it’s hardly the only version. It’s just the version that’s totally incompatible with science. If it had truly been a debate between evolution and an even remotely sophisticated creationism, then…wait, never mind. There wouldn’t have been a debate at all, because they’re not incompatible.
The Scholarly Kitchen post compares the debate between so-called extremists over science and religion to the debate between extremists regarding traditional commercial science publishing and open access (OA) publishing. In this case the analogy favors the OA advocates, because as John Dupuis notes, it makes the traditional publishers look like Ken Ham. OA advocates, regardless of their extremism, are thus equivalent to the scientists. Even when they’re extremists, they’re still right.
It almost works as an analogy, too. Traditional publishers are trying to uphold the status quo of scholarly publishing and are fighting against technological progress that makes their publishing models increasingly irrelevant. When information can be disseminated as quickly and cheaply as it can now, traditional publishing has less to offer. Traditional publishers are also propped up by an irrational tenure system that seems to value the place of publication more highly than the quality of the publication, and this system also seems to be eroding, not least because the majority of scholars and researchers are no longer on the tenure track.
As with the evolution versus Ham-fisted creationism debate, the problem isn’t one of extremes, though. The problem is a clash of worldviews. The Scholarly Kitchen post claims, “There are a lot of very smart, dedicated, and hard-working people in our community, and at the end of the day we all want the same thing—to make the best possible scholarly content available to those who need it.” The phrasing itself is worth noting: “available to those who need it.” That isn’t the goal of OA advocates, though. They want scholarly content available to anyone who wants it. This statement implies that commercial publishers and OA advocates have a common goal, but they don’t. OA advocates want open access scholarship, and commercial publishers want to maximize their profits.
Most of the time, there isn’t much of a conflict. The vast majority of publishers provide value for money, and if all publishers were like that, the OA movement wouldn’t have gained much traction with librarians and researchers. But there are extremists who upset the delicate balance that still works well most of the time. Extremists who inflate prices well beyond what library budgets can support. Extremists who give money to members of Congress to support legislation against providing open access to publicly funded scholarship. Extremists who send takedown notices to Academia.edu against scholars who have tried to share their scholarship for free. Extremists who sue universities because faculty share scholarship with students. These extremists don’t want to make good scholarship available. They want to make money and fight against any activity that might interfere with their profit margins.
It’s true that there can be no debate among extremists. However, it’s also true there can be no debate with extremists. One reason OA scholarship is so attractive to so many people is because the actions of extremists on the other side over the past couple of decades have made it much harder to see the benefits of traditional publishing, to make it seem a desirable good instead of a necessary evil. Those extremists have poisoned the well against their own cause and against the majority of traditional publishers whose models work quite well for librarians and scholars.
My suggestion to the publishers out there that aren’t Ham-fisted extremists is to stop arguing with OA advocates and focus on the bad practices among yourselves that have driven people to want to abandon traditional scholarly publishing altogether. Based on the comments, some publishers genuinely don’t understand why OA advocates seem to criticize everything they do, even if it allegedly supports OA scholarship. Now they know why. After the actions of the Ham-fisted extremists, any arguments coming from commercial publishers that claim they have any goal other than maximizing their profits at the expense of promoting scholarship seem disingenuous, even if they’re true. I agree that’s too bad, but OA advocates didn’t cause that problem, no matter how extreme they might be.
There may be extremists on every side, but Nye is as right as one can be with the evidence at hand, and Ham is just wrong. Since we can’t have such certainty in debates about publishing, perhaps a political analogy would work better. Just because the French Revolution radicalized and turned violent doesn’t mean the ancien régime was worth preserving.