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.