Science is “being harmed,” but all I can muster is a bit of schadenfreude…

A somewhat alarmist outcry went up Monday on HuffPost regarding the state of scientific publishing, and it’s dripping with cynicism. Here’s a snippet that I think is representative of the author’s perspective; he seeks to draw an analogy between the recent decommissioning of print versions of Newsweek and the current trends in the scholarly publishing industry:

What if, rather than ceasing printing, Newsweek had adopted this “author-pays” mode of open-access publishing? The ploy would have sustained the magazine financially, generating profitable income from authors of every persuasion, advancing special interests and others eagerly paying to fill the pages of Newsweek with their articles. Readers would have been left to sort out the worthy from the unsound. The same situation is faced by readers of many open-access scientific journals. Now when a scientist writes up new research for publication in a prestigious journal, he or she must deal with all the contradictory findings of questionable rigor and accuracy being published by these vanity-publishing, open-access journals. (emphasis added)

I think this is interesting (and quite funny) on a few levels. First, one would think that, coming from a neuroscientist (or any scientist in general), such a statement would be tongue-in-cheek. After all, isn’t this what scientists are trained to do – sort the scientific wheat from the chaff? Isn’t it part of the professional activity of scientists (and intellectuals in general) to distinguish what is worthy, creative, innovative, or meaningful from what is merely banal, incorrect, or outright bullshit? The locus of academic authority, I would argue, rests on the presumption that this is an activity integral to the legitimation of academic knowledge. And here is a scientist saying it’s a shame that traditional journals will no longer be around to do it for us. Sounds like parody, right?

So that’s humor point #1: it’s not a parody, but rather an expression of frustration for having to perform one’s particular responsibilities and ethical obligations as a particular kind of professional.

Humor point #2: He’s just given away the game. That scholarly journals acted as the winnowers that separated “excellent” or “quality” research from the less deserving is precisely the source of their success as an industry. In other words, academics relied on journals to sort through the mountain of scholarly information available, codify certain products as “knowledge” in the strict sense (that is, in the sense of being legitimated by an authority), and then disseminate that knowledge to an interested audience. The disciplinary model of publishing according to ever-more-specialized fields of research reinforced academic publishers (and the industry in general) as authorities regarding what is worth reading or paying attention to and what is not. In some sense, this means that journals and academic publishers were crucial to a particular strategy academics relied upon for coping with the massive quantities of research being undertaken and publicized (that is, published).

But in another, and perhaps more important sense, this means that the publishing industry has (and still does) actively steered the course of academic research by alternatively highlighting certain kinds of work and rejecting others. And, the fact that it is an industry – they are for-profit corporate entities – means that research has been integrally connected to market dynamics since the inception of for-profit publishers. This is precisely the kind of closely-coupled interaction that the author denounces as “an increasingly corporate and government business rather than the scholarly academic activity that it was for centuries.” I’m not convinced that academic publishing has been a purely academic activity for centuries; rather, based on my and my colleagues’ research into the history of peer review, the kind of “scholarly academic activity” that the author alludes to – which I take to be something like scholarly communication that is autonomous from markets and politics – seems to be the exception rather than the norm.

So the danger to which the author is reacting, the open access movement and open access mandates from research funders, is not a danger to science; it’s a challenge to one of science’s authorities – the publishing industry – that proclaims this authority has lost some (or, in the view of some, all) of its legitimacy.

Humor point #3: The whole analysis smacks of Enlightenment-era puritanism regarding the epistemic mandate of science; that is, science is the impartial and objective arbiter of what constitutes knowledge, and it ought not be sullied by governmental interference, or the intrusion of special political interests. But this is only a half-truth: science is, indeed, an arbiter of what constitutes knowledge, not, however, because it is objective and impartial, but because society has generally accepted the claim that science gets at the “truth” about reality.

I laugh at these sentiments because it means having one’s cake and eating it too – which is not unethical per se, but is highly impolitic. There is no critical engagement with the paradox that scientists are beholden to government funding, and yet are adamant about the government keeping its politically dirty hands out of the management of communicating and disseminating the products it has payed to be produced. The author calls governmental mandates for open access twisted logic, but I think this kind of argument is more twisted (insofar as it is self-deluding to think that the above is not a non sequitur) than governmental research funders ensuring that the public is getting a good return on their investment – or, that members of the public are at least given the opportunity to evaluate for themselves whether or not the investment is worth it. This, I think, is the real source of the author’s fear: that science will actually have to answer to the hand that feeds it.

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