March 17, 2018

On Extremists | Peer to Peer Review

Wayne-Bivens-Tatum-newswireMy 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 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.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( 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. Thanks Wayne for a great column. The SK blog definitely comes from another worldview, so much so that it’s mostly irrelevant to the reforms in scholarly communication that so many are working for. To continue the religion metaphor, they are mostly arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin– at the risk of being “left behind.”

  2. Barbara Meyers Ford says:

    Enjoyed reading your post, Wayne. It is quite thought-provoking. It made me think of a recent Bill Maher show when he interviewed Bill Nye and pretty much said the same thing you did. How could you possibly respectfully debate Ham? Nye’s reply was that he didn’t respect Ham’s position, but he did respect his passion. Nye’s attitude is one that we might all take into consideration.

    Also, the Nye-Ham debate was a situation where yes there was one side abandoning reason and ignoring fact. However, in the situation we have in scholarly publishing, it is a matter of perspective and motivation and that brings in many shades of grey. No one of us who truly cares about the transfer of information and knowledge condones pricing based on excessive profit versus production plus reasonable overhead. But the former unfortunately is driven by business economics first and transfer of knowledge not a close second, save for how it might boost profits.

    This situation has not been around forever. If you look back to the 1970s you will see all journal publishers operating pretty much on the same level. Then investors discovered how lucrative STM journals can be. Their entry into the commercial side of publishing, which was not dissuaded by the men who were running the commercial sector of STM journal publishing back then, began the increase in prices based on profit that remain unabated.

    In the case of “traditional publishers” as you put it and OA advocates, we do not have a situation where one has abandoned reason. Far from it. And we don’t have publishers clinging to traditional publishing operations, if you look at many of the technological strides made in publishing over the years you will find commercial publishers involved in every research project. Nearly all commercial journal publishers also have a form of OA. What we have are some publishers attempting to maintain a certain business model.

    If commercial publishers manage to figure out how to attain an acceptable color of OA while maintaining to a large extent their particular economic conditions they will most likely do so.
    There really isn’t a moral or ethical or even political basis to the conflicts we see between those who support a ubiquitous OA model and those who, at the moment, have a hybrid model which has more of the traditional versus the OA components in it.

    I think it comes down to economics that many of us have no control over. Until there comes a time when commercial publishers either work out a new business model or get forced into a situation where they MUST factor in OA and thus have a decrease in their profit margins, we probably can write as many columns as we like but we’ll be living what Einstein warned about in terms of results. You know the one, about results not varying when you continue to do the same thing … over and over.

    • As for Nye on Ham, I have no respect for “passion” as such. Religious passion has inspired great works of art and charity, and also great works of destruction and death. I judge the passion on its results. Ham’s passion reinforces ignorance and miseducation, which isn’t something I can respect.

      And I agree that this isn’t a situation where one side has abandoned reason, which is why I concluded that the science/religion analogy just won’t work, even though I playfully tried it out a bit. Both sides of this debate, even the extremes, are operating under a logic proper to their positions. What differs are the foundational premises of their actions: profit v. distributing knowledge. I thought I was clear that I believe most of the time the “production plus reasonable overhead” works out well for everybody, and without the abandonment of that model by some publishers the OA movement probably wouldn’t have started, or not gained as many supporters. The extremes of one side led to the existence of the other in the first place.

  3. Catherine Arnott Smith says:

    Wayne, as a former medical librarian who turned into a university professor so that I could research health information problems full-time — I appreciate what you have to say about OA; could you clarify for me what you mean by “place” in this comment:

    “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..”

    I can’t quite tell if by “place” you mean “medium” or “venue.” I got tenure at my R1 university (where you have to publish quite a lot) in a field where an increasing number of publishers have adopted gold-road OA,which makes it quite a challenge for a social scientist. But it’s peer-reviewed OA and in the end it’s the peer review and the impact factor that convinces. Nobody cares about the medium very much in my experience.

    • Barbara Fister says:

      Place in this case, I think place means journal impact factor, which was not designed to indicate the impact of articles, just (in a ham-fisted way) of journals as a whole. In non-science fields, reputation (oh, that’s a *good* journal) often takes the place of IF. That favors tradition over the new.

    • Sorry, these comments came just as I was leaving town and had little computer access. Yes, Barbara is correct in her interpretation of what I meant. It’s that the reputation or impact factor of the journal is often considered over the quality of an individual article.

  4. David Mainwaring says:

    The vast majority of (presumably traditional) publishers provide value for money vs the ancient regime must fall. Are the vast majority of publishers therefore simply casualties of revolution? And who plays Napoleon in this analogy?

    • Well, I didn’t say *must* fall. I meant to imply that just because one side contains extremists doesn’t mean what they’re fighting against isn’t also problematic. And I don’t know who the Napoleon will be, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be me.

  5. This situation has not been around forever. If you look back to the 1970s you will see all journal publishers operating pretty much on the same level. Then investors discovered how lucrative STM journals can be. Their entry into the commercial side of publishing, which was not dissuaded by the men who were running the commercial sector of STM journal publishing back then, began the increase in prices based on profit that remain unabated.