Jeffrey Beall came to prominence because of Beall’s List, which set out to document the existence of what Beall termed “predatory publishers.” Without addressing the question of whether Beall was right 100% of the time, I thought he was doing a good thing. There are inherent structural problems with Gold Open Access and sooner or later unscrupulous people were going to exploit them. Beall offered himself as the cop on the beat and helped to make ours a safer neighborhood. Kudos to him.
Since I first became aware of Beall’s List, however, I have been following some of Beall’s work with growing unease. Here and there some (to me) distasteful political ideology peeked through (with my pragmatic mindset, any kind of ideology makes me queasy), but you don’t have to agree with somebody all the time to agree with them some of the time. But now, in a recent screed, he has crossed the line. While I continue to admire Beall’s List, the broader critique (really an assault) of Gold OA and those who advocate it is too strong for me. Sorry, Jeffrey, but I’m not with you on this.
So what is that Beall is expounding? The following comes from the conclusion to his essay:
The open-access movement isn’t really about open access. Instead, it is about collectivizing production and denying the freedom of the press from those who prefer the subscription model of scholarly publishing.
It’s the English major in me who notes the odd disconnect between the content of these two sentences and the rhetoric. We are talking about a way of publishing academic articles–not the stuff of a revolutionary, or counter-revolutionary, movement; as my kids would say, Bor-ing! But someone is invoking one of the Big Principles, “denying the freedom of the press.” If the word “collectivizing” went by you, slow down and read again. Yes, the OA movement is out to deny life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All this blather about open access is the work of a bunch of commies who have taken over the university. I am not making this up.
At the heart of Beall’s argument is that “The OA movement is an anti-corporatist movement.” (Perhaps you are reaching for your dictionary, as I did, and have concluded that Beall really means “anti-corporation.”) No doubt there is some truth to this; you can find strong feelings against corporate America just about everywhere and maybe with greater frequency in the academy. But not every OA advocate is singing Jefferson Airplane’s “We Can Be Together” (“Tear down the walls *&%$#*&”). There are extremists among those supporting OA, but there are also moderates and even conservatives who speculate about the social benefit of openly available research material. They may all be wrong, but the charge of collectivization, especially in a country that is only beginning to awaken from the nightmare of the Cold War, is a naked appeal to emotion, and not the best of emotions. Let’s dial this back a bit.
Beall’s error is a common one, and that is to characterize a group by its most extreme elements. This is an old and easy rhetorical trick; read the columns of David Brooks in the Times, for example, or the highly entertaining, but over-the-top essays of Evgeny Morozov. What this does is enforce an excluded middle, an us-against-them frame of mind.
A good part of my disappointment in Beall’s latest is that much of what he says seems to me to be correct, but simply overstated and stuffed inside a political wrapper. There are in fact predatory publishers, and Gold OA is more likely to produce them than will traditional publishing. The traditional form of peer review seems to me to be superior to the “methodology-only” policy of PLoS ONE. The economics of Gold OA shuts out some researchers. The measure of the value of research is its value to other researchers, not the general public. And citations are the coin of the realm, which are captured in journal impact factor, not in altmetrics. In opposing Beall’s argument, I am not opposing all of it. But his outrage clouds his judgment and expression and undermines his best arguments.
Surely there must be a way to talk about scholarly communications without having MSNBC on one side and Fox News on the other, something more reflective than a broken dialogue between Stevan Harnad and Jeffrey Beall. I have to pinch myself and remember: this is scientific publishing we are talking about.