Cooperation (Photo credit: glsims99)

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 SCOAP³As 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.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

I am a Co-Founder of the MoreBrains Cooperative, a scholarly communications consultancy with a focus on open research and research infrastructure. I have many years experience of both scholarly publishing (including at Blackwell Publishing and Wiley) and research infrastructure (at ORCID and, most recently, NISO, where I was Director of Community Engagement). I’m actively involved in the information community, and served as SSP President in 2021-22. I was honored to receive the SSP Distinguished Service Award in 2018, the ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing in 2016, and the ISMTE Recognition Award in 2013. I’m passionate about improving trust in scholarly communications, and about addressing inequities in our community (and beyond!). Note: The opinions expressed here are my own


39 Thoughts on "Collaborate, co-operate, communicate!"

Was it always this way and this way in all societies in the world? Social anthropologists are as split as anyone when it comes to whether people are basically cooperative and redistribute or are fierce by nature. The two camps are epitomised in America by Sahlins (substantivist, who argues that ‘primitive’ society now and in the past had economic and social ‘laws’ based on redistribution and reciprocity) and Chagnon (who considers all people are fierce and may just have different ways of showing it). Mankind can and does change all the time and whatever the ‘natural’ state of affairs, he can and does change them. So whatever one’s views on the nature of man, we can if we want behave in the more pleasant way that you suggest. However, since modern human beings got going and in particular over the last 10,000 years, ‘progress’ in terms of social and technological advance has largely taken the form of thesis, antithesis, synthesis rather than noble savages sitting around discussing nicely the many paths to enlightenment. If we want the goodies (which inevitably come with baddies attached) perhaps we have to accept that man moves forward by resolving contradictions ~ and omelets are not made without breaking some eggs.

Thanks Robert. You’re right of course that sometimes ‘fierce’ behavior is needed but does it continue to be needed after significant progress has been made? I worry that, by continuing to frame the OA debate in particular as a war, we are alienating the moderate majority and risk failing to find a solution that works for them. Now that OA is a reality I believe the time has come for civil debate rather than more hostilities. And as I said I do see some encouraging signs….

Fortunately the public policy process tends to be one of compromise. The great challenge is that the middle ground is far more complex than the extremes (which tend to be simple). Articulating compromises is a difficult process so there is much work to be done. Civility is a necessary condition, but it is by no means sufficient.

Thank you! I feel exactly the same way. The rhetoric is hostile and I don’t understand why. We are all working toward the same goal and it seems that there is room for many different kinds of models. There certainly is no shortage of papers out there. I am glad to see innovation and experimentation, and I am happy to sit back and see where it goes. Some of it will do well and others will fail spectacularly.

There really does need to be a compromise somewhere and it can’t be all one sided. But as long as one side is vehemently trying to put the other out of business, that won’t happen.

Thanks Alice, for expressing these thoughts so eloquently. It’s something that continues to frustrate me. OA advocates have asked the publishing industry to change and to try to do things differently, and yet when we do, those efforts are often immediately rejected by a small but vocal minority of advocates, not because of the efforts themselves, but because the efforts come from publishers.

There remains an archaic “us versus them” mentality and an assumption that anything done by publishers is some sort of nefarious plot to destroy OA. There’s often a failure to see that efforts are additive, rather than substitutive. A publisher performing an OA experiment does not magically block other experiments from other quarters.

For example, when CSHL Press announced that they were staring bioRxiv, they were publicly attacked and their efforts rejected by some because they didn’t have the right “OA credibility”. This was perhaps ironic, as a 100-plus year old, not-for-profit, cancer research institute with a long history of discovery and support of research were being told they didn’t have any credibility in academia, and the proposed alternative said to be more credible was an unproven, for-profit, venture capitalist run archive (PeerJ). I’ve yet to understand why one employee of an institution, working at an academically owned and governed University Press is automatically considered the enemy of another employee at the same institution serving as a researcher.

The sad thing was that the assumption was made that it was an either/or choice, that having two different preprint archives run in different ways was somehow a bad thing. This assumption of a zero sum game, where for one effort to thrive another must be destroyed is far too prevalent. We see it often in reactions to CHORUS, which is a good faith effort by publishers and doesn’t harm or prevent any other efforts by any other parties.

If you want publishers to change the way we do business, then when we try to do so, give those efforts a fair shake. Judge them by what they are, rather than who they are from. To be sure, there are some bad actors out there on the publishing side, and bad faith efforts should be called out. But this should not be the immediate default response to everything by everybody. This is an important part of the shift from OA being an “angry protest movement” to a mainstream part of science. At the end of the French Revolution, at some point the revolutionaries had to come down off of the guillotines and start to govern the nation. Hopefully we’ll reach that point soon.

Alice, I think that your message needs to be heard and felt in Washington D.C. as well. While reading this article, I wondered if the adversary approach of the American judicial system might be a factor. Perhaps we should look for a correlation between the number of lawyers involved and the degree of fierceness expressed. There are certainly a large number of trained lawyers in the U.S. Congress and, with that, plenty of fierceness. The adversary system of jurisprudence is believed to be the most direct path to the Truth. Can we be civil adversaries, the loyal opposition, etc.?

Bohannon suffered the same extremist reaction after the publication of his sting, which was dismissed and attacked because it was journalism from an established and major journal’s news division. He was really disturbed by the responses by scientists to his significant efforts to uncover flaws in the system. I had a similar experience with my PMC/eLife investigations, which were attacked as motivated by anti-OA sentiments when in fact they were spurred by discontent among OA publishers, who felt PMC was favoring one OA publisher over others, and my own dislike of being lied to by government officials (who work for taxpayers).

There is also an ad hominem aspect to modern discourse, where people are labeled, and these labels impede understanding. Getting beyond these labels is really the first step to communication and collaboration. The world is complex and nuanced.

While your call for compromise and collaboration is well-placed, it takes two to tango. As long as the OA movement sees itself as a form of uprising against scholarly publishers, it will be difficult to collaborate and compromise with the most extreme elements. The paradigm is clearly win-lose, not win-win. Fortunately, as OA becomes more widely understood, as claims are smoothed out by evidence, and as experiments reach maturity points, the actual limits and actual benefits of OA are becoming clearer. Some OA journals aren’t working. That’s natural. That’s business. Failure and risk are part of publishing.

If we’re able to separate fact from fiction, we should have better dialog in the years ahead.

As I said to David Crotty above, criticism may not be the best path to collaboration.

That cuts both ways.

But what do you do when there are clear failures (failure of peer-review ala Bohannon, failure of objective standards ala PMC/eLife, failure of managing conflicts of interest, failures of journal experiments)? Not everything fits neatly into the dialectic some people have created for us to operate within (pro- or anti-something). Some things deserve criticism because they let everyone down or the criticism teaches us something.

We need to rise above pro- or anti- this or that, and renew our efforts to find the best, most sustainable, and most beneficial path. That will mean some things get criticized, some things celebrated. Heat comes from light. Not all heat is merely friction.

Your path seems to be that of criticism and attack. That is not the path to collaboration and communication.

Thanks for clarifying. I can accept criticism. Criticism is a form of communication, and a perfectly legitimate form. It can be addressed with logical response. One of the issues we’ve been facing over the past decade is that any criticism of certain initiatives (OA, in particular) is portrayed as an attack on those initiatives. This has proven to be a great tactic for turning criticism back on its source, but it is not a good way to listen, collaborate, and communicate. As I said above, it takes two to tango, as in any conversation.

Just to elaborate on my comment above about the labor of finding a middle ground, I have done a lot of this sort of thing, often using an issue tree to help guide the process. My best case was working with coal miners and mine operators, who basically hate each other. The issue was why they were having so many wildcat strikes?

They started off with the usual hateful rhetoric, but as I built the issue tree of their arguments before them the game changed. They became contemplative rather than contemptuous, as each side worked to respond to the other side’s points. It was like a chess match. For the first time each side had to consider the other side’s arguments, presented in systematic detail. It transformed them and finally the answers emerged, compromises that were not all that difficult to implement. But it took a lot of work to get there, by building and seeing a complex branching structure in the process.

We see glimpses of this kind of detailed dialog sometimes in the Kitchen exchanges, but the tree-like structure of the issues makes it almost impossible to proceed systematically in a debate format. Every line of reasoning that is followed leaves several not followed. My rule of thumb is that for resolution an issue tree of at least 2000 statements must be worked through. (I call it the rule of 2000.) That cannot happen in the linear formats of blog comments or verbal exchanges such as meeting around a table. One must be systematic in unpacking the detailed sub-issues between the parties.

I have a crude little free textbook on this:
if anyone wants to try it.

I consider myself an OA advocate but find myself frustrated by those fellow advocates who insist that nothing can count as “true” OA unless it uses the CC-BY license. Those purists thereby narrow the possibilities for OA by arbitrarily using a definition that excludes most of what is done in OA monograph publishing, which operates under a CC-BY-ND-NC model. How does it advance the OA cause to define out of the “movement” a whole group of potential allies?

How do we decide weather to cooperate or retaliate? This is always a challenge.

I lean toward the strategy exposed by Robert Axelrod in his classic book The Evolution of Cooperation. The successful strategy he argues is tit for tat. Begin with cooperation and then respond in kind to the treatment you receive. As a librarian, I am prepared to argue that the treatment we have received from the publishing community, particularly the commercial publishing community, does not merit a cooperative response.

And really, “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.” Nice to think that we should all sing Kumbaya together, but this hardly cuts it at a shareholders meeting. The big commercial publishers have been extracting monopoly rents from their journals for decades, as they should. They have a fiduciary responsibility to their share holders to do just that. Those of us on the other side need to respond to the situation as it is, not as we might wish it was, and always playing nice is not the effective strategy given the treatment we have received.

Retaliation is not an effective strategy when it comes to public policy.

Public policy is often shaped by conflict and lack of cooperation between parties. Sometime interests diverge to such a degree conflict is all there is . It may not always be the most productive or enjoyable way to make public policy, but so it goes. We seem to be at such a point in the publishing world now.

Axelrod’s point is that the best way to advance your interests is to respond in kind. Cooperate if cooperation is offered, but if you respond to retaliation with cooperation, you will be played for the sucker.

I don’t agree that we should always respond in kind – I can’t see how any conflicts would ever get resolved if we took that approach.

Public policy is indeed shaped by conflict, but not by retaliation. The conflict is the struggle of ideas, which is useful. But retaliation is a losing idea. Try telling a legislator or regulator that your motive is retaliation. That would be fun to watch. We are all trying to make things better, not to get even.

I think a problem with this is that there’s a great number of publishers who are not-for-profit and who are owned and governed by research institutions, research societies and researchers themselves. While anger at a number of bad actors may be justified, it’s counterproductive to put all publishers in the same anger bucket. This unnecessarily cuts off access to expertise and the parties who might be best suited (and very willing) to experiment and try new approaches.

And at some point, one must decide if the goal is progress or punishment. If this is all about revenge, then so be it. But if it’s really about making things better, then why not support positive change when it’s offered, regardless of the source?

First of all I don’t think commercial publishers are bad actors. They, appropriately, are in business to maximize their profit. That is what for-profit corporations do. I don’t blame them. I just don’t think their interests are mine.

I do think society publishers are in a difficult place and to the extent they are prepared to discuss better and cheaper ways of distributing scholarship, we should talk. But when they sell their publishing operations to commercial publishers or use them as a cash cow to subsidize other society activities, again our interests diverge.

How to respond to perceived hostility? How to get to that compromise, the synthesis, the elusive middle land? Try walking a mile in your opponent’s shoes…then you are far enough away to limit the effects of retaliation…and perhaps more importantly you have the bounder’s shoes!

By coincidence Stewart Wills has posted a wonderful link to a new PEW study mapping twitter links, in his Side Dishes column. The map for Polarized Crowds is striking and applicable to our discussion here. It helps show why there is so little detailed dialog between the polarized sides, as there is little sustained communication between them. See

As an aside I think that all of the six map structure types PEW identifies are importantly relevant to scholarly communication. But as I have said before the challenge with these altmetric analyses is to figure out what they are telling us.

At the AAAS meeting in Chicago last weekend I participated in a panel with my colleagues from the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, Fred Dylla (AIP), John Vaughn (AAU) and Crispin Taylor (ASPB). The purpose of the panel was to review developments over the past four years from the perspectives of the research universities, publishers and librarians.

The recommendations of the Roundtable (issued at the end of 2009 and available on the AAU website) were largely incorporated into the America COMPETES Act and substantially informed the requirements laid out in the Holdren OSTP memo. The Roundtable remains, as far as I’m aware, the only significant OA-related activity to have active and equal participation from librarians, publishers large & small, commercial and not-for-profit, as well as senior representatives from the University community. Certainly its success in influencing federal policy is a reflection of that, despite the fact that it was that very inclusiveness that led to its being immediately dismissed by many of the loud voices in the debate. It has been explicit in our discussions with policy makers that they are seeking moderate and inclusive views to help develop policy and that the extreme voices on either side are mostly a distraction.

Our presentations in Chicago all emphasized the need for these communities to work together more effectively. Fred & Crispin have been key players in the development of CHORUS, and John plays a significant role in the development of SHARE. Much of our discussion at dinner the night before our session and at lunch immediately after was concerned with how these efforts might be complementary rather than disconnected alternatives at best, or in opposition at worst. How might we develop them as community efforts that all of the stakeholders could contribute to? (And yes, Alice, the notion of adding a librarian to the CHORUS board came up.) Each of us brings a very different perspective, but we all share the belief that we will be more effective if we can figure out better ways to collaborate.

Kent is correct that “it will be difficult to collaborate and compromise with the most extreme elements” in the OA camp. The appropriate response, then, is to ignore them. They do not represent the views of most people who think thoughtfully about these issues — certainly not most of the librarians that I talk to who, while frustrated by the realities of the affordability problem, recognize that we are, indeed, all in this together. Attempting to persuade the extreme elements, on either side, is a waste of time. Energy will be much better spent helping those in the moderate middle see that they are not alone.

To David Lewis — as librarians, we need to quit bringing up a mental image of Elsevier every time we mouth the word “publisher.” There are many more potential allies in the publishing community than librarians are aware of but we need to expend the effort and energy to seek them out.

To Kent — criticism is important, but in the literary sense, criticism involves finding the positives as well as the negatives. Alice suggests that we look for what might work and what might be worth celebrating in new and unconventional approaches. When criticism is unwaveringly negative it becomes more difficult to distinguish it from an attack, and therefore easier to dismiss.

There were fourteen of us who participated in the long and often tense discussions of the Roundtable during the summer and fall of 2009. The most important thing that we did was listen to each other, based on an assumption that we were all people of good will who all still had something to learn about these complex issues.

Perhaps the second most important thing we did was to eat and drink together. Sharing a meal and a glass of wine and stories about the things that are important in our lives goes a very long way toward breaking down the walls of distrust that confound us. We don’t do enough of it.

Scott, on March 10 I’m going to be giving a talk at the Smithsonian on the topic “Is It Possible to Have a Rational Conversation about Open Access?”. Would you mind if I quote from your comment here — with attribution, of course?

“the most important thing we did was listen to each based on the assumption that we were all people of good will who all had something to learn about these complex issues”

This sums it up for me – thanks Scott for your positive and encouraging comments.

Prior to the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable there was another meeting, on The University’s Role in Publishing Research and Scholarship, held in August 2008 in Washington, DC, under the auspices of the AAU, ARL, CNI, and NASULGC that similar brought together all stakeholders. i was one of three university press directors participating in this discussion and, like Scott, can testify that dialogue can be very fruitful when reasonable people are brought together to talk about problems of mutual concern.

Ignoring the extremists is not a viable solution when the extremists are the leaders of the movement.

I’m not sure that’s the case at this point. OA is in a transitional period, where it’s moving from an angry protest movement to a practical implementation phase. I see more and more of the OA community marginalizing the extremists who haven’t been able to make that shift. Anger and shouting have helped push things forward, but their effectiveness wanes as things truly progress. The real leaders of the movement are the do-ers, not the shout-ers.

I am not sure I agree on the policy and political side, where big fights remain to be fought. If the shout-ers as you call them can mobilize constituencies they may still have a significant role to play. For example it is said that the OSTP OA memo was broken loose by the petition. And the House bill to outlaw delayed access was more or less shouted down when it was introduced.

Speaking of conversations it is now over a year since the OSTP OA memo came out and to my knowledge OSTP has yet to respond to the agency plans submitted in August, so we are still waiting for something to talk about. Perhaps OSTP too cannot figure out which way to go.

Comments are closed.