In a recent PLOS Blog subtitled: Why Science Communication is Doomed, Atif Kukaswadia uses an example of creationism versus evolution to argue convincingly that, by letting extremists dominate scientific debate, we are not only reducing the chance of reaching any sort of consensus, we are actually exacerbating the polarization of views.
Kukuswadia’s post got me wondering whether the same thing may be happening in our own industry, especially around issues of open access, where the rhetoric on both sides can sometimes be heated, if not downright hostile. And although extremists in scholarly publishing – as elsewhere – are in the minority (as Kukuswadia points out: “If you imagine everyone existing on a normal distribution – with extreme opinions on the edges – then the vast majority of the people exist in the gulf between those [extremes].”), unfortunately, as he goes on to say, “those extremes are what people hear.”
Kukuswadia also cites some alarming evidence from a study published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication designed to measure what the researchers – Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin, Madison – dubbed “the nasty effect.” They asked a cohort of about 1,200 participants to read a fictitious blog post about a new technology product, including the comments (also fictitious), and then to add their own responses. Half the group were shown civil reader comments, the other half rude ones – the difference being in tone rather than content (eg “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot”). To quote Brossard and Scheufele:
The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology. Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.
By going on the attack we may succeed in winning more support from those who are already inclined to support us (whatever our stance), but we are also undoubtedly driving away people who might otherwise be more inclined to listen to what we have to say. Kukaswadia again:
If we want to bring people together, we have to avoid using language that drives us apart. If we want to promote science, we have to discourage hate. And if we want to educate others, we first have to start by understanding others.
Easier said than done? Some people may think I’m overly optimistic, but I believe this is achievable. Publishers have for many years collaborated with each other – not always easy! – on initiatives such as CrossRef, CLOCKSS, ORCID, CHORUS, Research4Life, Access to Research, and PatientAccess. There are also encouraging examples of collaboration between librarians, researchers, and publishers, such as SCOAP³. As Ann Okerson points out in David Wojick’s interview with her on the topic:
This ambitious type of project takes a village … The village includes definitely the CERN folks, our counterparts in other countries, and our colleagues in the publishing community. We need each other’s contributions.
And arguably the debates on our own blog have been more civil of late – to quote David Crotty in his round-up of 2013: “My hope for 2014 is that these lines of communication remain open and we can continue to keep the focus on getting things done rather than getting lost in arguing for the sake of argument,” and Mike Taylor’s encouraging response: “I’ve found the Scholarly Kitchen much better in recent months than previously. It seems more possible to have an actual conversation here.”
Could we do more? Undoubtedly. But might there not be a greater impetus to do so if OA advocates were to acknowledge and encourage these efforts, rather than criticize them? Conversely, when new ventures such as Faculty of 1000, PeerJ and others celebrate their successes, is there any reason why traditional publishers should not learn from them – not to mention offering their congratulations? And how about actively working together to achieve more diverse representation from across the publishing spectrum –traditional publishers through born OA – on industry organizations, including SSP? A librarian joining the CHORUS board, for example; a publisher on the SHARE board; an OA advocate writing for the Kitchen?
There are a lot of very smart, dedicated, and hard-working people in our community, and at the end of the day we all want the same thing – to make the best possible scholarly content available to those who need it – and we are all wrangling with the same challenges. I’m convinced that, by working together to serve our collective communities, we can do a better job than by fighting each other.