Here’s a proposition with which I suspect publishers, editors, authors, librarians, and readers would all agree: over the past couple of decades, the scholarly communication environment in which we all operate has become much more complex.
Here’s another one that I hope will be uncontroversial: with the increasing complexity of the scholarly communication environment has come a greater intensity of feeling about the impacts and implications of those changes and about what we ought to do going forward. Some members of our community feel under threat, some feel exhilarated about possibilities for the future, some feel angry, some feel anxious. Many are confused and apprehensive. None of these feelings, I believe, is intrinsically uninformed or necessarily irrational, though all of us may handle our feelings in ways that are more or less useful and wise.
The increasing complexity of our environment and the heightened emotion around the issues we’re dealing with suggest, I believe, the increasing importance of discriminating between analysis and advocacy. As issues become more complex, the more important it becomes to do (and listen to) careful analysis of those issues; at the same time, however, as issues become more emotionally or politically fraught, the louder will become the voices of advocacy on all sides. To be clear, the world needs both analysts and advocates; however, it’s essential that we be able to discriminate between them. If we don’t carefully do so, we run the risk of accepting propaganda as reportage or debatable interpretation as solid fact.
Virtually every segment of the scholarly communication community has advocates, and every segment of the community also produces analysis of various kinds. In the United States, publishers have advocacy groups like the Association of American Publishers (AAP); scholarly authors have the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); libraries have the American Library Association (ALA). Analysts and analysis organizations include the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), Outsell, Inc., and a variety of individuals who provide research, data, and consultation to all segments of the community. Some organizations have one department or subunit that acts in an advocacy role and another that does analysis — consider, for example, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), which hosts both a Statistics & Assessment office dedicated to the gathering and analysis of quantitative data from member libraries, and an advocacy organization (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or SPARC), which lobbies Congress as well as encouraging funding agencies and the higher education community towards policy reform.
Furthermore, the dividing line between analysis and advocacy can sometimes be tough to identify, especially when a particular analyst has a hidden agenda. Sometimes, advocacy deliberately masquerades as analysis: just because an organization calls itself a “Research Council” doesn’t mean it’s doing disinterested research.
Anticipating one likely objection to this essay, I want to emphasize my view that advocacy is both good and important. However, it’s essential that those of us charged with making decisions about programs, priorities, and resource allocation be able to recognize the limitations of advocacy — whatever its affiliation or agenda — as a source of complete or reliable information.
Why would I say that? Fundamentally, because it is an analyst’s job to tell the whole story, but it is an advocate’s job to tell only the part of the story that will further the advocate’s agenda. This becomes particularly problematic when advocates are treated in the news media as sources of analysis.
Please note that none of this means it’s possible to do absolutely unbiased and objective analysis; all of us have agendas of one kind or another, not all of them conscious. However, it is in the essential nature of analysis to attempt to provide a whole and unbiased picture, whereas it is in the essential nature of advocacy to promote a particular goal. This difference is fundamental and matters very much. Think about it this way: imagine someone looking at a rock and telling you about it. If he’s an analyst, he’ll be trying to give you as much useful and objectively correct information about the rock as he can; if he’s an advocate, he’ll be trying to sell you the rock. (Or to convince you to buy something else instead of a rock).
How do these fundamental differences play out in the real world, and what kinds of markers can we look for when trying to discriminate between analysis and advocacy? I would suggest that they include these five:
Complexity vs. Simplicity
When we do analysis we tend to draw attention to complexities, because a recognition of complexities (where they legitimately exist) leads to a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the issue at hand. When we do advocacy, on the other hand, we want to make the issue as simple as possible — partly because simple stories are easier to communicate, and partly because it’s much easier to sell people on a simple proposition than on a complex and qualified one. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, of course — sometimes, voices of advocacy will try to create nuance and complexity where they don’t exist, if the simple reality of a situation is not conducive to the advocates’ agenda. But in my experience this scenario is less common than its opposite.
Data vs. Anecdote
Advocacy argues from data when the data support the agenda, and argues from anecdote when supportive data is lacking or where the data’s implications are too complex to unambiguously support the agenda. Analysis argues only or primarily from data, using anecdote sparingly (if at all) and only for illustrative purposes. To be clear, none of this means that anecdotes can’t be tremendously useful and meaningful, particularly when used honestly and responsibly — only that, as the popular axiom has it, “the plural of anecdote is not data.” If you encounter an anecdote being used to illustrate a point previously demonstrated by data, you’re probably reading analysis; if you encounter an anecdote being used in the absence of data, you’re probably reading advocacy.
Comprehensiveness vs. Selectivity
When we do analysis we draw on relevant information as broadly and inclusively as possible, trying to incorporate as much relevant data as we can to inform conclusions and carefully taking into account the implications of the full range of that information. When we do advocacy, we use data selectively, emphasizing those data points that support our agenda and downplaying or leaving unmentioned those that don’t. Please note, again, that there is not necessarily anything dishonest or wrong about the latter approach; it simply reflects the fact that advocates have a different job from that of analysts. (Of course, the selective approach can easily devolve into dishonesty if we are unscrupulous about the selection criteria we use when presenting data.)
Transparency vs. Opacity
Analysts are more likely to share their data widely, recognizing that there may be information embedded in the data that they themselves have missed and that others may be able to tease out. Good analysts also understand that their interpretations will inevitably be shaded by their own biases and experience and that there is great interpretive value in letting others look at the same value through the lenses of their own biases and prejudices. Advocates will tend to share their data grudgingly, if at all — for exactly the same reasons.
Passion vs. Dispassion
Advocacy needs to be passionate, because communicating the urgency and rightness of the agenda is an important part of its job. An advocate who presents his message coolly and dispassionately is arguably not doing what he should. Analysis, on the other hand, needs to be dispassionate; it needs to show, not only by the analysis itself but also by the manner in which it’s presented, that it does not have a vested interest in any particular conclusion but is simply stating the facts as found. Again: we all understand that there is no such thing as a purely unbiased presentation of the facts — but the ideal toward which analysis aspires is to present reality as dispassionately and with as much objective accuracy as possible.
Are there other markers like the above that we all can usefully watch for when trying to discriminate between advocacy and analysis? Comments welcome.