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“Anger and Invective,” and Scholarly Communication

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Last week was a tumultuous one for the Scholarly Kitchen. In the wake of some particularly vituperative exchanges, some of which burst out into the wider blogosphere and the Twitterverse, SK editor Kent Anderson wrote a posting in which he mused about the tone of those exchanges. “Over the past year,” he said, “some of the rhetoric around publishing has become reckless and hateful, and definitely unreasoned and unreasonable.” He then went on to wonder, “why does this level of anger and invective exist?”

In response to Kent’s piece, a couple of commenters expressed the same bemusement in rather different ways. The first commenter basically echoed Kent: “I have . . . been surprised,” he said, “by the strength of feelings on this issue, which to me seems fairly esoteric—how publication of scientific papers is funded basically.” Another commenter’s observation was a bit snarkier: “I will respectfully point out the most revealing line of [Kent's post]: ‘Why does this level of anger and invective exist? I don’t want to try to diagnose it . . . ‘.” That second commenter, if I understood him correctly, seemed to be suggesting (without taking ownership of the suggestion) that Kent has no interest in understanding why these discussions make people so angry.

As I read Kent’s posting and the subsequent comments, I found myself asking the same question along with the commenters: Why do people get so exercised over issues related to the funding of scholarly publication? Having now spent 24 years working in an environment in which strong feelings on these issues are taken as a matter of course, I’m no longer surprised by the heat-to-light ratio that we see whenever such questions arise, but the comments in response to Kent’s musings prompted me to really think for the first time about why that ratio is so lopsided. Kent characterized the approach of some participants in the discussion as “scorched-earth,” and I think that characterization is fair. Why so much vitriol?

I think one explanation lies in the difference — bear with me, now — between “is” propositions and “should” propositions. An “is” proposition makes a statement about the way things actually are in the real world. A statement like “current pricing trends are unsustainable in the long run given current library budget trends” or “publishers take content at no charge to them and sell it back to the research community at a markup” is an observation about things as they are, and either of those statements can be supported or refuted to a reasonable degree by recourse to verifiable facts. When we argue about these issues, the discussion tends to stay pretty civil as long as it plays out on that level.

Things start getting ugly when we stray into the territory of “should” propositions, which can be established or refuted only on the basis of normative assumptions. When publishers defend their practices based on the value they provide, they’re invoking a “should” argument: “Customers should recognize that we add value and stop complaining about having to pay for it.” When libraries accuse publishers of unfairly charging the public for access to results of research the public has already paid for, they are also invoking a “should” argument: “If the public underwrites the research, the resulting publications should be freely available to the public.” You can’t settle these arguments by an appeal to the facts. Facts certainly contribute to the discussion (it’s a fact that “value” is variable and subjective; it’s a fact that publishers do more than just take content and sell it back to those who contributed it), but the argument is about how these facts “should” be weighed against each other in light of what’s right and wrong.

In other words, the positions we take on these issues aren’t purely rational. They’re at least normative, and in some cases they might reasonably be described as religious — they’re based on particular views of what’s moral, not of how the world is but of how it ought to be. People ought to be willing to pay for good value; people shouldn’t have to pay to learn the results of research they have underwritten with tax dollars. Disagreement on these issues constitutes a clash of moral positions. If I hold one of these positions, then I’m likely to regard people who disagree with me as not merely operating from a misunderstanding of the facts, but from a deficit of moral character.

That’s when the arguments start getting nasty. Once we start arguing about “shoulds,” it becomes much more difficult to do so in a civil and rational way. For one thing, the frustration level rises — there are no verifiable facts that can fully justify my position, but at the same time it’s hard to understand how any decent person could entertain an opposite one. More perniciously, defeating my opponent seems more important when moral issues are involved and also justifies harsher tactics — when my opponent is merely mistaken, it’s appropriate to correct him gently by recourse to the facts, but when he’s operating from a position of moral bad faith . . . well, that’s a different story. And when he refuses to acknowledge his bad faith and maybe suggests in return that I myself am somewhat evil and maybe even a bit stupid? Now it’s time to crack my knuckles and really settle his hash.

Am I suggesting that we should avoid the discussion of “should” question in SK? Not at all. I’m simply venturing an “is” observation — that the discussion of “shoulds” in this (or any other) venue always runs the risk of generating more caustic exchanges and fewer useful conclusions. But I would also suggest that the risk is worth it. I think it’s both good and important to bring “should” issues to the surface and make them explicit. I also think it’s important that the conversation be kept, as much as possible, on the level of civil discourse (though I remain ambivalent about the degree to which civility should be enforced by editorial fiat).

Everything I proposed in that last paragraph is a “should” argument. I fully expect some readers to disagree with them. I hereby pledge not to characterize as evil anyone who does so. Or at least I’ll try not to.

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About Rick Anderson

I'm Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

Discussion

19 thoughts on ““Anger and Invective,” and Scholarly Communication

  1. Having spent 40 years studying the nature of complex issues I have met this problem many times, but never spent too much time on it so I only have a shallow answer. The phenomenon is moral outrage. I am amused by folks surprise here because I usually work with environmental issues, where moral outrage is a primary factor. Basically SK walked in front of a moving cause.

    The scientific question is what role moral outrage plays in society? I do not have an answer except that it is large, fundamental and necessary. I agree with Rick’s description, except for the seeming suggestion that norms are somehow extraneous to reason, perhaps even subservient. I once wrote a paper entitled “The Norm of Rationality and the Rationality of Norms.” The point is that rationality itself is a normative concept. The highest moral imperative is arguable to believe the truth. Thus when we see someone believing something that we regard as false, it makes them immoral. This can justify extreme forms of action, beginning with anger.

    Posted by David Wojick | Feb 23, 2012, 9:39 am
    • David, instead of simply saying that it “seems” as if I’ve said norms are “extraneous… perhaps even subservient” to reason, can you support that characterization of my position with something I actually wrote in the piece? Or are you just making a large inferential leap from my observation that the tone of conversations tends to change when we move from “is” to “ought” statements?

      (As you may have figured out by now, one of the norms to which I subscribe is the one that says we should respond to arguments people actually make, rather than coming up with caricatures of their arguments and then responding to the caricatures.)

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 23, 2012, 10:04 am
      • It is when you say “In other words, the positions we take on these issues aren’t purely rational. They’re at least normative…”

        You shift from factual versus normative to rational versus normative.

        Posted by David Wojick | Feb 24, 2012, 7:55 am
        • In this context, I think you’re invoking a distinction without a difference. The sentence you quote does indeed assume that when we respond to a putative statement of fact (such as “Elsevier only sells journals in bundles”) by reference to a countervailing statement of fact (“Elsevier sells all of its journals individually”), we are operating on the ground of reason, whereas when we raise a moral objection to a behavior (“Elsevier charges too much for its journals”) we are operating on the ground of norms. I’m not saying that norms and reason have nothing to do with each other (still less that it’s a matter of one “versus” the other), but I am assuming that there’s a meaningful distinction to be drawn between purely rational appeals to fact and the invocation of norms.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 24, 2012, 10:02 am
          • You are still doing it! You contrast “purely rational appeals to fact” with “the invocation of norms.” What happened to purely rational appeals to norms? We reason from and about norms all the time. Your asymmetric construction suggests that there is something non-rational about norms. This is what I am objecting to.

            Posted by David Wojick | Feb 24, 2012, 1:44 pm
          • David, you are still doing it: you’re taking what I say, mischaracterizing it, and arguing with the mischaracterization. My point is that there’s a meaningful difference between pointing out an incompatibility between two factual statements (which constitutes an appeal to logic) and characterizing an action as moral or immoral (which constitutes an appeal to norms). Saying that there is a difference between two such statements is not the same as saying that norms can’t have any rational basis at all, or that norms can’t be invoked in a rational manner. I’m saying that “is” statements and “ought” statements are meaningfully different, and you keep responding as if I’ve said that “is” statements and “ought” statements can’t have anything to do with each other. Things can be different and still related.

            Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 24, 2012, 2:32 pm
  2. Rick has here invoked an issue that has long been a challenge for philosophers. Hume famously argued that no statements containing “ought” can be validly inferred from statements containing “is,” and this fact/value distinction has been the subject of considerable debate among philosophers ever since. See the discussion under the subhead “Is and Ought” here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume-moral/#io

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Feb 23, 2012, 10:27 am
    • Not that I necessarily mind going down this philosophical road — I’ve always found the “is/ought” question very interesting — but I do want to nip in the bud any idea that the purpose of my posting was to raise (let alone settle) that ancient philosophical problem. I’m merely suggesting that a) there is in fact a difference between “is” statements and “ought” statements, and b) it’s harder to stay civil when we’re arguing over “ought” statements.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 23, 2012, 11:25 am
      • But whether there is such a difference is the philosophical issue. On the other hand, if you are merely claiming that ought statements are somehow more emotional then I disagree. For example, many fights have started over who is the better baseball pitcher, which is an “is” issue. Different people get excited about different things.

        Posted by David Wojick | Feb 24, 2012, 7:42 am
        • But whether there is such a difference is the philosophical issue.

          You’re right that the debate between the radical pragmatists and the positivists is one that I failed to account for in the phrasing of my post. I guess I should have said it this way: “When we move from the discussion of those subjective, culturally-determined, and socially-negotiated word games that people naively refer to in common conversation as ‘facts’ (such as ‘Elsevier charges $2,000 for access to Journal X’) to the discussion of propositions that we freely acknowledge as ‘beliefs’ (‘Publishers shouldn’t charge so much money for their journals’), then what most of us generally perceive and agree to characterize as the ‘tone of the conversation’ runs a high risk of changing.”

          On the other hand, if you are merely claiming that ought statements are somehow more emotional then I disagree.

          That’s not what I’m claiming.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 24, 2012, 9:40 am
        • Not to mention the emotion that is aroused in debates over the “fact” of when life begins! But is the abortion debate really one about facts–which it superficially resembles–or a debate about conflicting values? Maybe it isn’t so clear after all when the argument concerns “is” or “ought”?

          Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Feb 24, 2012, 2:08 pm
          • I think Hume would argue that simply establishing when life begins (an “is” question) doesn’t automatically tell you what you “ought” to do about that fact. But like I said, I’m not out to settle that question. My point is simply that there is a meaningful difference between the two questions, and even if it were possible to derive an “is” from an “ought,” that wouldn’t mean that there’s no difference between the two types of question.

            Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 24, 2012, 2:33 pm
          • Er… “even if it were possible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is,'” is what I meant to say. Which “is” to say, it’s what I “ought” to have said.

            Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 24, 2012, 3:36 pm
  3. I support the summation of this piece. I think much of the invective spewed out of late comes from: a) a percieved lack of action from various stakeholders in the publishing process
    b) sprinting rather than orienteering through the maelstrom of real and perceived facts
    c) forming rigid polarized, almost religious level ‘moral’ opinions (as per David’s point) as fact based on this sprint (such as an allegiance to ‘dinner party level statements’).

    The stakeholders of this business are not great communicators, social media is rarely a hive of evidence based information and money breeds suspicion, these are the fundamental problems.

    Witch hunt’s are usually found to be counter productive.

    Posted by tom clark (@polkyth) | Feb 23, 2012, 10:53 am
  4. Thanks for your good perspective on this, Rick. I’d like to point out a good way to respond to a “should” statement: with a “how?” And I don’t mean a snarky or cynical “how” that is really an “oh, yeah?!?!?” For example, a good response to your example of a “should” statement — “If the public underwrites the research, the resulting publications should be freely available to the public” — is
    “Okay, how?” How will that publication be accomplished? What work is involved? Who will do it? Who will bear the costs? Note that none of these questions implies any conclusions; they are not leading questions or rhetorical questions. They’re just plain real questions. Needing real answers. Focusing on the “how” brings the discussion back to a reasonable, civil level. Reality-based. And it might even lead to some useful insights or ideas. It could happen!

    Posted by Bill Kasdorf @BillKasdorf | Feb 23, 2012, 11:12 am
  5. I’m with Rick here—these values issues—or issues we choose to cast as values issues—will inevitably result in more heated dialogue than more mundane issues of “praxis.” What strikes me as interesting about the recent SK discussion, or some of the other animated recent threads on the same or related topics (The Economist, The Atlantic, etc.), is that while most of the arguments were couched as moral issues, there’s just enough shades of gray that smart people are willing to engage. As a tactical matter, our campuses have very mixed views on the subject—librarians, press directors, editors, society officers, promotion and tenure committees— and we’re not quite to the point of dismissing each other as holocaust deniers or satanic-cultists. So, even though the back and forth may sometimes seem heated (passionate conviction), we’ve not yet totally dismissed each other. That’s a good thing, because it’s not like the world will come to an end if we don’t resolve this by the close of business today.

    A group of provosts today published a letter in Inside Higher Education (http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/02/23/essay-open-access-scholarship) that is quite value-laden in its conviction that research universities are committed to advancing the public good, and that sharing knowledge through research and instruction is the way that academics affirm that mission. While they voiced expected concerns about the extent to which commercial publishing was supporting these university values, these provosts also admitted to the challenges they face in driving a campus consensus on the best ways to organize scholarly communication— the “how” issue introduced above by Bill Kasdorf.

    All in all, maybe the overriding culture of civility in SK and elsewhere is more remarkable than the occasions where we drift over someone’s line of tolerance for conflict (the positioning of those lines varying widely by all manner of psychological and sociological factors). I don’t know that anyone in the academy is saying, “I’m committed to making the world a better place for all the little children, and Publisher X doesn’t care if they live or die.” Were that the case, we wouldn’t even bother posting our annoying barbs.

    Posted by Mark Sandler | Feb 23, 2012, 3:09 pm
    • Yes, it was a pleasant surprise to find the provosts admitting that they could do more to work toward consensus on their own campuses. The CIC is probably ahead of most groups of universities in at least sponsoring regular meetings of their chief academic officers and other top administrators. Once upon a time, the CIC head librarians and press directors even used to meet regularly. We even jointly worked out a proposal submitted to Mellon in 1996 to fund an experiment in electronic monograph publishing, which alas the Foundation decided not to support.

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Feb 23, 2012, 6:21 pm
    • One wonders if those provosts feel the same way about being open and sharing the results of their research when it results in patents that are licensed through their technology transfer offices. The extent of openness and sharing that’s important for advancing the public good is, always, in the eye of the beholder.

      Posted by David Crotty | Feb 23, 2012, 7:17 pm

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