Publishers provide certain services (peer-review management, typesetting, brand badges, sometimes proof-reading or copy-editing, archiving, indexing) to the scholarly community.

Those services are of greater and lesser value, provided at higher and lower levels of quality, and cost greater and lesser amounts. Of course, we in the scholarly community want high-value, high-quality low-cost services. This is true whether the publisher in question is a multinational corporation with a multi-billion-dollar turnover, or a tiny boutique press run on a non-profit basis for the sheer love of the process.

Since the scholarly community (researchers, authors, peer-reviewers, academic editors, etc.) is spending money in exchange for publication services, and since publishers are providing publication services in exchange for money, it is clear that the goals of these two groups cannot be aligned. Any money that the scholarly community can save on publication costs is income lost to publishers; and any additional money that publishers can charge for their services is money lost to the scholarly community. I hope that so far, this is uncontroversial.

In the same way, if you sell me a second-hand car, then however well you and I might get on in civilian life — we might support the same football team, drink the same beer, discuss the same novelists, watch the same films — then for the purposes of that transaction, what is good for you (a high price) is bad for me; and vice versa. Note that in saying this I am not condemning or even criticising you. I am just stating a fact about transactions.

Now, suppose my wife and I sit down and decide that we need to buy a new car. We consider Hondas, Fords and Fiats. We weigh up various models on their merits, compare their prices with their features, and reach a decision on what we want to buy and how much we’re prepared to spend. We then approach the various Honda dealers (or, as we may have decided, Ford dealers or Fiat dealers). We negotiate with them to agree a price that we are happy with for a model that is in good enough condition. Different dealers compete with each other to win our custom by offering good cars at a low price. This is a functioning market.

What we don’t do is invite all the dealers to come and join us in our initial conversation. When my wife and I are discussing how important it is to us that our new car has variable-speed intermittent windscreen-wipers, we have that discussion in an environment quite free of car dealers telling us how great Fiat’s intermittent-wipe feature is. How could we possibly reach a coherent decision on what our own requirements are if we’re bombarded by the claims — some competing, some in collusion — of all the car dealers? And how can we think sensibly about what we’re prepared to spend if we’re surrounded by the dealers’ defences of the various financing arrangements they offer?

So in the same way, I feel that the scholarly community needs to figure out what publication services it needs, free of the influence of publishers who (and again this is not a criticism) have their own agenda. Then, when we know what we want, we can go to the publishers who offer the kinds of services we’re interested in, and invite them compete for our business on the basis of features and price.

But involving them in the initial what-we-want discussion can only lead to confusion, and a compromised outcome. Which is what we’ve seen for the last 50 years. This was the fatal flaw that led to the deeply flawed Finch Report and to the erosion of the RCUK’s initially very progressive OA policy.

As a side-note: my wife and I may end up deciding we don’t need a car at all: we might decide we can walk, or cycle, or take public transport. Car dealers would hate that: they would advocate against such an outcome with all their might if they were involved in that discussion. Which is why they can’t be.

 


Note. This post is adapted from a message to the Open Scholarship Initiative mailing list.

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I have before me the reviews for a submission of mine, and the handling editor has provided an additional stipulation:

Authority and date should be provided for each species-level taxon at first mention. Please ensure that the nominal authority is also included in the reference list.

In other words, the first time I mention Diplodocus, I should say “Diplodocus Marsh 1878″; and I should add the corresponding reference to my bibliography.

Marsh (1878: plate VIII in part). The only illustration of Diplodocus material in the paper that named the genus.

Marsh (1878: plate VIII in part). The only illustration of Diplodocus material in the paper that named the genus.

What do we think about this?

I used to do this religiously in my early papers, just because it was the done thing. But then I started to think about it. To my mind, it used to make a certain amount of sense 30 years ago. But surely in 2016, if anyone wants to know about the taxonomic history of Diplodocus, they’re going to go straight to Wikipedia?

I’m also not sure what the value is in providing the minimal taxonomic-authority information rather then, say, morphological information. Anyone who wants to know what Diplodocus is would be much better to go to Hatcher 1901, so wouldn’t we serve readers better if we referred to “Diplodocus (Hatcher 1901)”

Now that I come to think of it, I included “Giving the taxonomic authority after first use of each formal name” in my list of
Idiot things that we we do in our papers out of sheer habit three and a half years ago.

Should I just shrug and do this pointless busywork to satisfy the handling editor? Or should I simply refuse to waste my time adding information that will be of no use to anyone?

References

  • Hatcher, Jonathan B. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63 and plates I-XIII.
  • Marsh, O. C. 1878. Principal characters of American Jurassic dinosaurs, Part I. American Journal of Science, series 3 16:411-416.

 

If the internet has any underlying monomyth, or universally shared common ground, or absolute rule, it is this:

People love to see the underdog win.

This rule has a corollary:

When you try to censor someone, they automatically become the underdog.

I say “try to censor” someone, because on the internet that is remarkably difficult to achieve. I’m not going to argue that the attention paid to the range of stories told on the internet is fairly distributed–being published is not the same as being read, and people seem to prefer cat pictures to reading about genocide. But it’s awfully hard to shut someone up, and any attempt to do so may backfire spectacularly.

If you work for an organization of any size, or have amassed any considerable power, reputation, or influence personally, you need to keep that at the forefront of your mind in every interaction you ever have with anyone, anywhere, ever. The reason for this constant attention is to keep you from becoming the overdog and thereby making an ass of yourself (and your organization, if you belong to one). Go read about the Streisand Effect and think proactively about how to keep that from happening to you.

Now, for the purposes of this tutorial I am going to arbitrarily sort the full range of possible messages into four bins:

  1. Those that make the teller look good.
  2. Those that make the teller look bad.
  3. Those that make someone else look good.
  4. Those that make someone else look bad.

Two and three are dead easy and often go hand in hand. If you want to spread messages of that type, all you have to do is find someone with less power, reputation, or influence–a prospective underdog, in other words–and be a jerk to them, thus turning them into an actual underdog. Coercion, threats, employment termination–these are all pretty good and may eventually pay off. But if you really want to look like a complete tit, and make the other party an instant hero, you gotta go for censorship. Out here in bitspace, it is the ne plus ultra of suicidal moves. It’s like Chuck Norris winding up for a roundhouse kick to someone’s face, only somehow his foot misses the other person’s face and hits him right in the junk instead. We will click and tap on that until they pry the mice and touchscreens from our cold, dead hands.

The first one–positive messages about yourself–is tricky. You can’t just go around telling people that you’re awesome. Anyone with any sense will suspect advertising. The only sure-fire method I know of is to do good work where people can see it. One thing you will just have to accept is that reputations are slow-growing but fast-burning. So, again, try to avoid burning yours down.

The last one–making someone else look bad–is also surprisingly tricky. If you just broadcast negatives to the world, that will probably backfire. At the very least, people start thinking of you as a negative force rather than a positive one. If the person you want to make look bad has ever lied or falsified data or oppressed anyone, use that. If they’ve ever tried to censor someone, or are actively trying to censor you, rejoice, they’ve done most of the work for you.

The upside of that last one is that, provided you’re not actively nasty, it is hard for others to hurt your reputation. If they just spew vitriol, it will probably backfire. If they lie about you, it will definitely backfire. About the only way to really trash your reputation is through your own actions. Your fate is in your own hands.

———–

So, this is transparently a meditation on the DNLee/Biology Online/Scientific American story.

I would really like to know the backstory. Did someone at Biology Online contact SciAm and ask them to take down DNLee’s post? If so, well, geez, that was stupid. Why does anyone ever expect this to work anymore? I mean, the actual event from which the Streisand Effect got its name happened a decade ago, which may seem short in human terms but is an eternity online (it’s two-thirds of the lifespan to date of Google, for example).

If someone at SciAm did it unilaterally to protect their valued financial partner, it was doubly stupid, because not only did the censorship act itself fail, but now people like me are wondering if Biology Online asked for that “protection”. In other words, people are now suspecting Biology Online of something they might not have even done (although what they did do–what their employee did on their behalf, which amounts to the same thing–was bad enough).

So all in all the affair is like a tutorial on how to royally cock things up on the internet. And in fact it continues to be–Mariette DiChristina’s “apology” is a classic non-apology, that uses a torrent of words to say very little. Her self-contradictory tweets are much more revealing, despite being under 140 characters each. And in fact her loudest message is the complete lack of communication with DNLee before she pulled the post. So meaning scales inversely with message length for DiChristina–not a great quality in an Editor-In-Chief. And, OMG does she need to learn about the Asoh defense.

In the end, the whole thing just saddens me. I’m sad that SciAm made the wrong call immediately and reflexively. It says to me that they don’t care about transparency or integrity. They may say otherwise, but they are belied by their actions.

I’m sad that, having not even known that Biology Online exists, my perception of them now starts from a position of, “Oh, the ones that called that science writer a whore.” (If you’re a BO fan, please don’t write in to tell me how wonderful BO actually is; doing so is just admitting that you didn’t read this post.)

I’m sad that this happened to DNLee. I hope that going forward her reputation is determined by the quality of her work and the integrity of her actions, and not by words and circumstances inflicted on her by others.

… I wonder if I could make it as a corporate consultant if I put on a suit, walked into rooms full of pointy-haired bosses, and just explained the Streisand Effect and the Asoh Defense as if they were novel insights. I’ll bet I could make a killing.

In what is by now a much-reported story, @DNLee, who writes the Urban Scientist blog on the Scientific American blog network, was invited by Biology Online to write a guest-post for their blog. On being told this was a non-paying gig, she politely declined: “Thank you very much for your reply. But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day.” To which Biology Online’s blog editor Ofek replied “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

So far, so horrible. I had never heard of Biology Online before this, and won’t be seeking them out. You can add my name of the long list of people who certainly won’t be writing free content for them.

It’s what happened next that bothers me.

DNLee posted on her blog about what happened — rather a restrained post, which took the opportunity to discuss the wider implications rather than cursing out the perpetrator.

And Scientific American deleted the post.

They just deleted it.

This bothers me much more than the original incident, because I had no idea who Biology Online are, but thought I knew what Scientific American was. Looks like I didn’t. All I know for sure about them now is that they’re a company that accepts advertising revenue from Biology Online. Just saying.

Not a word was said to DNLee about this censorship by the people running the network. The post just vanished, bam. If you follow the link, it currently says “You have reached this page due to an error”. Yes. An error on the part of the blog-network management.

(This, by the way, is one of the reasons I don’t expect Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week ever to join one of these networks. I will not tolerate someone else making a decision to take down one of my posts.)

What makes this much worse is that Scientific American‘s Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina has flat-out lied about this incident at least once. First she tweeted “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” Then after a day of silence, she blogged “we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post“.

So which was it, SciAm? Did you censor the post because it was off-topic? Or because of a perceived legal threat? Or, since we know at least one of these mutually contradictory claims isn’t true, maybe neither of them is, and you removed it avoid inconveniencing a sponsor?

DiChristina’s blog-post is a classic nonpoplogy. It says nothing about the original slur that gave rise to all this, and it doesn’t apologise to DNLee for censoring her perfectly reasonable blog-post. What it does do is blame the victim by implying that DNLee’s post is somehow illegal. (You can judge for yourself whether it is by reading one of the many mirrors.)

Then there’s this: “for legal reasons we had to remove the post”. What legal reasons? When did the SciAm legal team get involved in this? (Did they at all? I am sceptical.) Have you actually been threatened by Biology Online? (Again, I have my doubts.) Even if a threat has been received, it’s at best cowardly of SciAm to cave so immediately, and grotesquely unprofessional not even to bother notifying DNLee.

So SciAm are digging themselves deeper and deeper into this hole. Even their usually prolific and reliable blog editor @BoraZ has gone uncharacteristically quiet — I can only hope because he, too, is being silenced, rather than because he’s complicit.

There are only two ways for the SciAm blogging network to get out of this with some shreds of their reputation intact. They need to either show clearly that DNLee was lying about Biology Online, in which case they would merely have mismanaged this incident; or they need to reinstate her post and apologise properly. “Properly” means “We screwed up because of our cowardice, please forgive us”, not “We’re sorry if some people were offended by our decision to do this thing that we’re going to keep claiming was OK”. Because it wasn’t.

Right then, SciAm. Where now?