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.