Greetings from the blue heart of a blue state, where the daily protests rage. To give you a sense of the local post-election atmosphere, our schools and child-oriented businesses felt the need to send around emails to parents on how to talk to children about recent events, essentially recycling the same messages they used after the Sandy Hook shooting and 9/11.
The Scholarly Kitchen is not a political blog, but we are all affected by political events (see Brexit as an example). There’s almost no way to predict the impact we’ll see on scholarly publishing, as a minority of US voters has elected a completely unpredictable President. Very few forthcoming policies have been discussed and many of those that have are already being walked back. This unpredictable nature is at the heart of the anxiety that many of us feel.
Maslow’s Hammer tells us that, “it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail,” and I’m sorry to say that this is the best I can offer you today, a look at two post-election analyses that I think relate directly to scholarly publishing.
The first is the role of social media in the election, or more directly, that of Facebook and the impact of how it curates content for users. Mark Zuckerberg insists that the fake news stories so prevalent on Facebook did not influence anyone’s vote:
Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.
Zuckerberg has offered no evidence to support his claims, while others have shown how prevalent even a small percentage of fake stories can become. Regardless, this seems to put Facebook in a position of arguing against the pitch it uses to lure advertisers. If the site has no influence on its users, then why waste your advertising dollars? I’d argue that the problem caused by Facebook and social media in general is less the fake news stories and more the isolation they cause, the filter bubble created as they expose users to just the information that confirms their previously held beliefs. The great promise of social media is that no matter how weird you are, you can find community with like-minded individuals and see that you are not alone. The great flaw of social media is that once you find that community, it tends to insulate you from the rest of the world.
Facebook’s struggles with the truth are the result of a move from curation based on human judgement to the use of algorithms. This has led to the spread of a great deal of misinformation. Rather than considering the role for human judgement in editorial decisions, Tim O’Reilly suggests doubling down on the use of algorithms, and that all of Facebook’s problems can be solved through the creation of a magical program that can separate truth from lie. Exhibiting the worst of Silicon Valley’s “there’s an app for that” myopia, he suggests that a stronger curation effort is not the answer, and instead, Facebook should emulate Google’s process for ranking search results.
The problem with this sort of thinking is that Google is a poor arbiter of the truth. Perform a search for “vaccines cause autism” (and please sign out of Google and/or use private browsing mode so Google doesn’t feed you results meant to match your previous reading behavior). Three of the top six results I see offer “undeniable scientific proof” that the vaccine/autism link is factually true. Try a search on “Hillary Clinton killed Vince Foster” and the percentage of reputable sources drops precipitously.
Google’s rankings are based primarily on popularity, not accuracy. Your site gets a higher ranking when others link to it, not when what you say is shown to be true. Google is apparently so aware of this that they hired a team of human medical curators to sort out the nonsense, doing just the opposite of what O’Reilly’s faith in automated algorithms would suggest.
Further, Google’s business is not built around offering the best, most accurate search results to users. Google is an advertising company, and their customers are the advertisers. Their efforts center around meeting the needs of advertisers, not truth seekers. Paid placement, the favoring of results from Google’s other owned services, and the ever-dwindling space given to actual results offer clear evidence of more holes in O’Reilly’s argument.
As publishers and editors, curation is at the heart of what we do. Our books and journals are valueless unless they contain accurate information. For this, we rely on expert opinion, through the advice offered by qualified peer reviewers and ultimately, an editor’s experienced worldview. These decisions are informed opinions based on human judgement, and this is often difficult for some members of the research community, which generally favors quantitative results over qualitative ones, to accept. But the questions, “is this work any good?”, or even, “is this work methodologically sound?” are qualitative questions, and at best, quantitative methods can only offer an approximation of the opinion we are seeking. That’s one of the main reasons the Impact Factor is so flawed a tool, but also why attempts to replace it with similarly flawed tools are no better.
With this latest evidence of the effect that spreading misinformation can have on society, I would argue the opposite of O’Reilly. This is no time to abandon our responsibility for curating the world’s research in hopes that a computational solution will somehow make these difficult decisions for us. We must carefully consider the societal effects as we experiment with new business models that focus on serving the needs of authors rather than readers, and as we pare down the review process and the requirements for publication in order to increase speed and decrease costs.
The other piece of post-election analysis that has stayed with me comes from novelist and screenwriter Jesse Andrews. There’s no one reason why the election went the way it did, and trying to reduce everything to a simple answer is to ignore the many complex factors involved. But Andrews makes a convincing point about the power of story, and how one candidate did a much better job of telling a simple story than did the other.
Like I’m doing right now, Trump told a grossly simplistic story in his campaign…But as a story, it was super effective. It was very easy to understand. You could remember all of it, and it was about America…
What was Clinton’s story? Clinton ran as a technocratic incrementalist, who knows tons of stuff about tons of stuff and will make well-considered technical improvements to our country here and there, continuing and sharpening our neoliberal trajectory with policies that address this thing and that thing, based on dizzying amounts of science and data. She’ll react to world events on a studied, case-by-case basis. That is both a very sound vision of a presidency, and the most boring thing I have ever typed. I had to get up two different times for coffee while writing it. It’s not a story at all.
I’ve been involved in some recent efforts to help scholarly publishers do a better job of outreach to the research community and to society at large. We are notoriously poor at telling our story. We know we do something valuable, but what we do is often subtle and unseen, and when we start describing it, we get lost in the details and the caveats. At that point, we’ve lost our audience.
For the last decade and a half, we have been trying to counter an argument that all publishers are greedy corporations, reaping massive profits, and bent on stopping cancer patients from reading about their conditions. Or one that publishers steal the hard work of researchers and then sell that work back to them at exorbitant prices. Neither of these arguments is particularly true, but both resonate emotionally. That’s hard to counter with wonky charts showing declines in cost-per-use or cost-per-citation or an in-depth explanation of the peer review process. Rooting for a self-declared Luke Skywalker over someone they’re accusing of being Darth Vader is much easier to get behind than understanding the subtleties of a complex service industry.
Our industry is under an increasing burden of regulation from governments, funding agencies and universities. We can live with these regulations as long as they are rational and fair, but to achieve that, we must learn to tell our story in an effective manner.
Effectiveness means clarity and simplification, it means finding ways to get our point across in a direct and easy to remember manner. I won’t go so far as to suggest prevarication, but what we need most is a narrative about just what it is we do and why it is important.
Consider this an industry-wide challenge. At least it will give you something constructive to do as you hunker down in your doomsday bunker during 2017, or roam the deserts in search of water and gasoline.
Stay safe, stay positive, and support one another as we enter difficult times.