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The Price of Parody in an Era of Scorched-Earth Publishing Politics

Keep Calm and Carry On

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Over the past week, the Scholarly Kitchen has been a focal point for a small number of very vocal people who have deployed an embarrassing level of invective and insult as part of a winner-take-all approach to argumentation.

While we’ve seen inklings of this type of behavior before — in relation to my response to the Monbiot rant, to my questions of quality and relevance around open access (OA) publishing, and to recent posts on the Elsevier boycott — this time, the vitriol was even more concentrated. The post that started this particular round was a parody of the RWA and FRPAA, a bit of satire based initially on the fact that FRPAA could be pronounced like “frappé.” By flipping the two initiatives, and attempting to fit them into a food-service paradigm, some interesting little jokes emerged. It wasn’t a perfect post, but it was nice Sunday fare.

The comments started slowly, then grew into a bit of a flood. I’ll admit, I wasn’t at my best that day, and got a little frosty with a few commenters. I regret this. I’ve been reminded of some basic lessons — don’t let comments get under your skin, don’t try to write quickly, and don’t use strong words when milder ones will do. All these lessons I know, but I didn’t keep them in mind. I made some mistakes in tone. But the reactions strike me as completely out of proportion to what you’d expect as a reaction to a few sharply worded comments.

Ultimately, this all led to the first instance in the nearly five-year history of this blog when comments on a post were shut down. I shut them down out of a combination of exasperation and exhaustion — I was answering the same questions again and again; most of my answers were carefully worded and carefully thought out, meaning they took a lot of time to write, review, and improve. By the time 10 p.m. rolled around, and after a day of driving, flying, and more driving, I’d had enough. Answering all these comments had proven exhausting, and I had to get on with my life.

When I shut down the comment thread, the crowing on Twitter was immediate and sustained. It was clear that defeat, not discussion, was the goal among some of the commenters. Attacks continued via Twitter and elsewhere over the next 24-36 hours, and may still be occurring.

Over the past year, some of the rhetoric around publishing has become reckless and hateful, and definitely unreasoned and unreasonable. This week distilled some of the bile into a very observable flow. Over the past week, I’ve been called a douche bag, the f-bomb has been used in combinations only an adolescent would find impressive, and I’ve been compared to a fecal infection. Meanwhile, the Scholarly Kitchen has been listed on certain anonymous Twitter accounts as a force of evil on par with Satan.

Why does this level of anger and invective exist? I don’t want to try to diagnose it, partly because some of the most egregious perpetrators are hiding behind fake accounts, so I can’t assess their motivations. Some are repeat offenders, people who apparently don battle dress at every turn. It’s sad that so much emotionalism and such reckless reasoning can exist among trained thinkers.

While we rarely communicate as a group, these events brought us together, and the team here has vowed that we won’t be dragged down into this or any particular swamp. Our audience, the Scholarly Kitchen, and the Society for Scholarly Publishing all deserve a place where they can find stimulating ideas, interesting essays, and vibrant discussions by reasonable people with broad publishing experience. This blogging corps, and everyone who has been a part of it to-date, has provided that. We strive to be fearless, skeptical, playful, thoughtful, insightful, open, engaging, patient, and inclusive. Our traffic continues to grow, our comments outnumber posts now by nearly 12:1, and we publish what I think are excellent essays. We try not to be rude, dismissive, condescending, biased, or pompous. We’re not perfect in any of our aspirations, but I think we’re pretty good, and getting better all the time.

There’s a line between vigorous discussion, even witty barbs, and outright insults and invective. When is the line crossed? I looked around a bit for a good example, and think the video below offers some insight and a little levity, with the topic being the lovely country of Canada (from where two of our bloggers hale, in one way or another):

Part of the problem seems to be that some of the people just learning about the Scholarly Kitchen don’t understand what it is, so I’ll explain.

The Scholarly Kitchen is currently in its fifth year. It is an independent blog of independent authors, ranging from publishers to librarians to consultants to wonks. The Scholarly Kitchen is the official blog of SSP, a nonprofit organization formed to promote and advance communication among all sectors of the scholarly publication community through networking, information dissemination, and facilitation of new developments in the field.

In our day jobs, we have various backgrounds. Not one of us is employed by a “big publisher,” although some of the consultants sometimes do work for big publishers, in addition to small publishers, non-publishers, and others. The publishers here are all part of not-for-profit publishing houses, some small, some larger. Our backgrounds are pretty well-described in our About section, and we’re completely discoverable online otherwise, as far as I know.

As bloggers, we hold a variety of initial opinions on a wide variety of topics, but as any one of us can attest, once you start trying to tackle a topic, sometimes you discover that your opinion changes. Writing with integrity is harder than it might look. After something’s published, we don’t always agree with each other, but we are respectful toward each other, and we like blogging together and working through ideas.

Nobody on this blog receives any money for blogging. SSP pays about $100 per year in fees so we can have custom CSS and our own domain, and to suppress the default advertisements on WordPress blogs. We’ve consistently felt that our independence is best preserved by eschewing any financial entanglements related to our blogging for the Kitchen. SSP has been entirely supportive of this.

This is a blog about scholarly publishing. If our bloggers are good at writing about scholarly publishing, have unique insights, express them well, and stay on-topic, they’re welcome to write. Nobody has let me down yet by bringing in personal or extraneous baggage.

I’m very proud of this blog, the authors who have written here and who continue to write here, and the audience we’ve developed. We work pretty hard at it. We publish nearly every weekday, sometimes more than once. We cover breaking news, conferences, and recent research. We try to translate ideas from other areas that might have a bearing on publishing. We try to have a little fun here and there.

Volunteers writing independently for a non-political organization devoted to learning, supporting its members, and advancing information dissemination — it hardly sounds like a target for invective. However, given the current scorched earth politics surrounding certain topics in publishing today, being flamed will continue to be sad part of the game as we cast a skeptical eye on topics people care about. Our goal remains to bring a reasonable set of voices to the proceedings. And so we will keep calm and carry on.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-val, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

24 thoughts on “The Price of Parody in an Era of Scorched-Earth Publishing Politics

  1. I have also been surprised by the strength of feelings on this issue, which to me seems fairly esoteric – how publication of scientific papers is funded basically.

    Posted by David Stern | Feb 17, 2012, 6:32 am
  2. I’m the Publisher for the London Mathematical Society and, over the last few weeks, found myself reading several blogs due to the rise of the Elsevier boycott and mention of our Journal of Topology. (Not always accurate mentions but close enough to stop me diving into the maelstrom.) Until a few days ago, the Scholarly Kitchen was a peaceful haven; I’m not alone in finding it one of the few places where the comments are almost as interesting as the original blog.
    I hope the guys who vented their anger will move on; I have a huge respect for the standard of debate here and we all have better things to do than read their abuse.

    Posted by Susan Hezlet | Feb 17, 2012, 7:34 am
  3. Good. I like the posts here even when I don’t agree with them. It’s nice to read a science publishing blog that is not polarised, and that goes in for thoughtful opinion. I do have a slight gripe about the paucity of women authors on your panel (especially as the excellent Ann Michael does not write often enough!), but I promise not to go on Twitter about it ;-)

    Posted by Maxine | Feb 17, 2012, 7:56 am
  4. Very nicely said, Kent. I’ve had some excellent debate with some OA advocate bloggers and know that we can have strong feelings and even strong words without losing sight of the fact that we are at least engaging and this helping to effect change.

    I’ve also been called a parasite and witnessed a colleague being compared to…wait for it… Hitler. Yes, really. They went there.

    I’ve found myself frequently thinking: are these the same scientists who purport to be rational thinkers? Thankfully, many are. And even those whose arguments don’t hold water (in my humble opinion) are able to be respectful.

    I’ve learned a great deal from the debate.

    And let me echo the call for more women chefs!

    Posted by Liz Smith (@lexemes) | Feb 17, 2012, 8:18 am
    • You have hit on a topic we’ve been trying to address. Ann is an excellent Chef, but because she’s very successful (aka, very busy) in her consulting business, she can’t write as much as she would like or we would like. She does a lot behind the scenes, though, and we’ve created some features (“Ask the Chefs”) so that our busier contributors can chime in with shorter, directed posts. Ann always contributes to these, and even drives some of the questions forward. That said, we’ve been hoping for more Chefs who aren’t white males. It’s superficial, but it’s also real, and addressing it can be a little dicey.

      We’ve asked some of the prominent women in SSP to write for us, and Alix Vance was a contributor for a while. The challenge seems to be time pressures, and a willingness to stick your neck out.

      All you have to do is email scholarlykitchen@sspnet.org if you have suggestions or are interested yourself. We’re happy to consider new authors.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 17, 2012, 11:56 am
  5. I am all for civil discourse. I will respectfully point out the most revealing line of the new post: “Why does this level of anger and invective exist? I don’t want to try to diagnose it…”

    Posted by Michael Tomasson (@MTomasson) | Feb 17, 2012, 9:39 am
  6. Kent, thank you for writing this honest and thoughtful post. I hope all the ‘chefs’ will take some comfort in the fact that only a popular, prominent blog would receive such strong attention on multiple fronts. I think we all know that only a small percentage of readers will publicly react to any piece of writing, even if it’s easy to comment online. Although it’s easier said than done, try to remember the silent majority when reading the vitriol.

    Posted by Laura | Feb 17, 2012, 11:33 am
    • Thanks for the comment. This caused to reflect on the tremendous growth we’ve had over the years, in traffic, Twitter followers, and citations. We have a great audience, and we don’t want to let you down. Thanks again.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 17, 2012, 11:57 am
  7. I read this blog for news about scholarly publishing and the academic world. Even though I am a lowly high school librarian, I have found many things to think about and some wonderful insight here to share with colleagues. I do not think this lack of civility and tolerance for differing opinions is limited to blogs. It is unfortunately apparent in many areas of life. I suppose it is much easier to respond by name calling than a thoughtful comment. I appreciate the work the writers here do to help keep me informed about the world outside of school libraries.

    Posted by Robin Henry | Feb 17, 2012, 12:16 pm
  8. Let the debate continue, but in a civilized way. The Scholarly Kitchen is an important contributor to the dialog in scholarly communications. SSP is lucky to have Kent and the Chefs volunteer so much of their time, thought, and expertise. Thank you all. Thanks too to all those who comment respectfully, whether you agree or disagree with the bloggers.

    The risk of having an opinion in the wild west of the social networking world is a real one. I hope the past nastiness does not dissuade others with disparate opinions on many subjects from contributing to the discussion as bloggers and as commenters.

    Posted by Carol Anne Meyer | Feb 17, 2012, 12:53 pm
  9. I just want to add that what makes the Scholarly Kitchen so great are exactly the same values that make its sponsor, the Society for Scholarly Publishing, so great.

    — SSP has always been committed to including the full spectrum of scholarly publishing, including publishers, librarians, academics, vendors, and techies, representing books and journals, commercial and nonprofit publishers, societies and university presses, from the largest to the smallest, from centuries-old institutions to startups. Most other similar organizations focus on one or another of those constituencies.

    — SSP’s mission is to provide a forum where ALL of those various interest groups can meet, debate, and learn from each other (and ABOUT each other), breaking down the barriers of us-vs.-them, from stereotypes to prejudice to downright demonization, that obscure or prevent real understanding.

    — SSP’s membership has always been focused on individuals, not organizations. It wasn’t very many years ago that we developed organizational memberships, and even with that, the focus is on individuals _themselves_ as members, not as representing an organization or a point of view.

    — SSP has always stuck by its commitment NOT to take stands in debates. Its role is to _foster_ the debate, and provide a safe environment where debate can be productive.

    The Scholarly Kitchen exemplifies all of that, every day.

    Posted by Bill Kasdorf @BillKasdorf | Feb 17, 2012, 2:48 pm
  10. Kent, you are confusing people who disagree strongly with you and saying things you disagree with with polarization. Was a little bit of salty language used? Yes. But the most polarizing thing said here BY FAR was your original blog post, which, far worse than calling people a few mild names, mocked an entire group of people and belittled decades worth of their work. How can you think that it’s ok to engage in that kind of commentary and not expect people to respond in kind? If you guys want this to be a safe place to talk to your friends and aren’t interested in the other side of the issues you discuss, fine. But don’t then turn around and pretend you’re engaging in some kind of open debate of the issues.

    Posted by Michael Eisen | Feb 17, 2012, 3:14 pm
    • Michael,

      Do you agree that “salty language” and “mild names” include: “asshat,” “douche bag,” “fucknuckle,” “asshole,” and “fecal coliform infection”?

      You and I have very different definitions of “salty” and “mild.” Remind me not to eat tortilla chips or salsa at your house.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 17, 2012, 6:49 pm
      • Yes. I do. I’ve been called all but the last of those on comments on my blog and on twitter, and I try take it for what it is – the dialect of the internet. Do I use terms like that? Yes. More so when I am angry. Do I regret using terms like that? Sometimes. But only because they distract people from the underlying points under discussion. This is why I avoided using that kind of language here.

        And, for what it’s worth, I don’t want you to apologize for letting comments get under your skin. I want you to apologize for being wrong about open access, and for repeating a series of factually incorrect thing in support of your points.

        Posted by Michael Eisen | Feb 17, 2012, 8:42 pm
      • I don’t recall all of these terms being used on the Scholarly Kitchen; nor (to my knowledge) elsewhere by any of the people who did comment here. I don’t condone their use (though I admit there’s something goofy about the term “asshat” that always makes me giggle). In fact, perusing the comments, it seems to me that you said more offensive things than anyone else.

        So it seems that you shut down the comments on the earlier article because of things that other people said elsewhere. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

        I’ve already had one comment moderated out of existence on this post. If this one goes the same way, I will take the hint and not bother contributing again. Then we can go our separate ways, sit in our respective comfortable echo-chambers, and remain convinced of our own rightness, safe from the danger of opposing opinions.

        Posted by Mike Taylor | Feb 17, 2012, 10:21 pm
        • When you’re fielding an endless stream of comments and then see yourself being insulted on Twitter at the same time, it’s pretty clear you’re no longer in a discussion, but under attack. That’s why I shut down the comments.

          Your comment we “moderated out of existence” was removed because we’re trying to keep this round civil and short of sarcastic. We are usually fine with leaving our comments wide open (as you know, and commented favorably on before), but we’re running a tighter filter at the moment.

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 17, 2012, 10:43 pm
  11. Unless you deleted some comments that were particularly nasty, I didn’t see “invective and insult” in the comments on that satirical post. I saw people saying they disagree with you and found your satire unfunny and unconvincing.

    The “price of satire” is that it will be criticized as satire. Good satire is funny, biting, and shames the powerful and foolish. People read your piece and found it wanting in one or all of these areas, and were happy to take advantage of the comments section to tell you so.

    As Michael Eisen points out, if you plan to mock people, expect them to push back hard.

    Posted by Steve Lawson | Feb 17, 2012, 5:56 pm
    • I don’t think the comments amounted to literary criticism. As for the parody, it made fun of a number of different players caught up in these debates. Read the dialogue of the “chef” character for example. It’s not exactly flattering to publishers and their ilk.

      I was attacked on Twitter and our blog smeared there because of the topics the parody touched on. The comments that were so offensive occurred outside of the comment stream. Others that were borderline are in the comment stream. As I stated, some of these got under my skin, and I’m sorry about that. I have yet to hear a similar apology or statement of regret from some of the people who also got caught up in the heat of the moment and ultimately made disproportionately crude and angry statements. There were people on Twitter attempting to get the abusive statements to stop, who knew such statements were inappropriate. They were doing the right thing. But there has been no message of regret from those who did it. All I can take from that is that they feel they did nothing wrong.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 17, 2012, 7:38 pm
  12. Michael Eisen’s comment prompted me to re-read Kent’s posting. And I agree that (while Kent clearly did not mean it to be), it might be seen by some as “mocking an entire group of people and belittling decades worth of their work”. In the same context, what about the T shirt graphic promoted on Michael’s web site? Most of the dozens of people I know who work for Elsevier and scholarly publishing are well-intentioned, hard working and paid less than their counterparts in academia. One thing is for sure: neither Elsevier or OA advocates are any good at PR.

    Posted by AnonToday | Feb 17, 2012, 6:17 pm
  13. Seems to me that part of the problem stems from an unwillingness to take what people say about their motivations at face value. Eisen claims idealistic reasons for the PLoS One model – when Anderson dismisses that and suggests that maximizing revenue is the true reason, Eisen gets pissed (I’m a skeptic about PLoS One, but I can’t blame him) and responds in kind. Same thing happens with Elsevier – in recent days several Elsevier execs have posted in various forums claiming that they are devoted to maximizing the communication of science in efficient and effective ways, and that they believe the traditional subscription model does that well. They are then roundly berated by librarians and others as liars. Many OA partisans have adopted a moralistic tone and that’s gotten in the way of discussions about the real issues – like whether or not the PLoS One model (if it is ever truly actualized) will in fact be an improvement over the traditional peer review model or not. When people are accused of being cynical and mendacious – regardless of which side of the debate they’re on – they have trouble maintaining a calm demeanor. If we could get past our suspicions about each others’ “true” motivations, maybe we could have more productive discussions about the issues that really matter. Maybe Eisen is wrong about what’s best for scholarly communication, maybe Anderson is wrong, maybe the Elsevier execs are wrong, maybe the OA partisans are wrong. But that doesn’t mean that any of them are not principally acting from what they truly believe to be in science’s best interests.

    Posted by T Scott Plutchak | Feb 17, 2012, 6:43 pm
  14. I strongly second Scott Plutchak’s comment, especially his concluding sentence. In numerous other discussion groups, I’ve also seen us blown off the course of discussing the practicalities, the obstacles and the opportunities of this very drastic evolution of the scholarly publishing supply chain that has been upon us for a decade plus and is perceptibly accelerating. From now on, I’ll be trying harder myself to stay on course.

    Posted by Bob Bolick | Feb 19, 2012, 9:57 am

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