“I don’t think it’s appropriate”

March 28, 2013

I was struck by this bit of prevarication in Richard Van Noorden’s new piece on open access. First the set-up:

To [Michael] Eisen, the idea that research is filtered into branded journals before it is published is not a feature but a bug: a wasteful hangover from the days of print. Rather than guiding articles into journal ‘buckets’, he suggests, they could be filtered after publication using metrics such as downloads and citations, which focus not on the antiquated journal, but on the article itself.

So far, so good. And then we have this:

Alicia Wise, from Elsevier, doubts that this could replace the current system: “I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that filtering and selection should only be done by the research community after publication,” she says.

What does the weasel-word “appropriate” mean here?

Is Alicia saying that she doesn’t think what Eisen’s saying is correct? No, if that’s what she meant, she would have said so. “I don’t think it’s right to say X” is a much stronger statement.

In fact, “not appropriate” is code for “correct, but we’d rather you didn’t say it”. When you’re six years old, your parents tell you it would not be appropriate to remark on your Auntie Griselda’s wispy moustache. That doesn’t mean the moustache isn’t there. If it wasn’t there, you wouldn’t have an issue. Your parents wouldn’t need to tell you anything. By saying it’s “not appropriate”, your parents are acknowledging that, yes, Auntie G. does have a fluffy upper lip, but that they don’t want you to draw attention to it.

And in the same way, Alicia’s quote here means “Yes, filtering and selection should be done by the community after publication, but please don’t say so. That would be inconvenient for us, since our business model consists of taking money off you in exchange for bestowing illusory prestige. We want you to collude with us in perpetuating the illusion”.

Let’s not be complicit.

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