31 January 2017

Scientific Publishing in a Time of Political Assaults

Sign in the Olin Library at Cornell University Sign in the Olin Library at Cornell University Kent Anderson

by Kent Anderson


Republished with permission.

Politics and academic publishing don’t usually conflict beyond what might be compared to thumb wrestling—minor tussles that are quickly and painlessly resolved. This may be because academic publishers reflect the cultures of academia and science, which are usually civil and certainly driven by open and vigorous debate. Science itself has long benefited from a well-deserved place at the head of the pack in successful societies, which also tamps down disputes before they get too large. Governments mostly support and pursue science willingly, even aggressively. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

During the last five centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that they could increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. This wasn’t just blind faith–it was repeatedly proven empirically. The more proofs there were, the more resources wealthy people and governments were willing to put into science.

These norms and assumptions are no longer certain. We live in strange times and in a bizarre political climate, unlike anything we have ever seen. Academic publishers can no longer assume they will be insulated from the shocks rippling through the system. From Brexit to Trump to white nationalists to hackers to anti-science groups, the global scientific community is under new pressures and tensions, which means its publishers are, as well, like it or not.

Our normal practice is to soldier through the storms, from SOPA to funding crises to the latest OA mandate from bureaucrats in a distant capital. But today’s storms are larger, more powerful, and growing. They won’t blow over soon, and our traditional approach may not provide sufficient shelter. Already, this week’s PSP meeting in Washington, DC, is down a speaker—the Reviewer Experience Lead at Elsevier, who was not allowed to travel to the United States owing to last week’s hastily imposed travel ban.

In response to the travel ban, a growing number of academics and researchers are contemplating boycotting professional meetings in the United States.

Boycotts and travel bans are bad enough, but consider these additional facts about the landscape beyond publishers, all of which were gleaned in the last week:

Gag orders on scientists in the US government since the inauguration of President Trump have added to the overtones of Orwell, fascism, and authoritarianism. Further, the new US president is attempting to set himself up as the sole source of truth while stating he is at war with the free press, which is portrayed as “the opposition.” Other politicians are joining this authoritarian anthem, with Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the Chair of the House Science Committee, saying there is now a new source for truth:

Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.

This totalitarian view of the world, in which a single person becomes the source of facts and evidence, comes from—it bears repeating—the Chair of the House Science Committee in the United States.

We are clearly off our moorings.

From this extreme (and unacceptable) view, we have gradations, more of which seem to be emerging on the end of the spectrum we used to reserve for tin foil hats and mumblers. Now, voices raised, hair combed, and tin foil hats hidden in the pockets of nice suits, these previously fringe personalities are aggressively attacking the status quo, and science, scientists, and others find themselves on their heels.

In a time of political upheaval that threatens even the fundamental acceptance of how facts are established and how accuracy is achieved, what is our role?

Soldiering on is difficult in this environment, as it seems too mild a response to outrageous behaviors. What has been happening gradually over years is now becoming acute. It goes well beyond technical incursions like Sci-Hub, and is more existential. Science and scientific publishing have inherent political determinants, including the right to free inquiry, the right to free speech and a free press, the right to travel, and the right to assemble. Politics that seek to diminish these while imposing a predetermined world view — whether that view springs from religious doctrine, racial prejudice, political expediency, or some other source—runs directly counter to what science and scientists require to succeed.

It’s difficult to respond coherently to a communication strategy from governments that seems designed to overwhelm with shock after shock, wearing down the populace with a barrage of bizarre, worrisome, radical, and unusual stances and statements. Without the normal protocols of consultation, debate, or citation of fact, we’re in a realm of unreality. In this environment, the fundamentals of discourse—scholarly and civil—are under assault, explicitly and tacitly.

Publishers are viewed generally as part of a service industry, and we’re accustomed to providing services scholars cannot or don’t wish to take on themselves. By doing our jobs, we make researchers more efficient, saving them time and distractions via an outsourcing relationship. These are, at least, the basic tenets of the agreement. However, there are major responsibilities this perspective doesn’t acknowledge, including those involving the editorial offices we help form and support, the overall integrity of the scientific record we have a hand in establishing and defending, and the reputation for quality and evidence we have to preserve and defend. There is also the fact that a high proportion of people working in scholarly and academic publishing are former or current scientists or academics themselves, creating vast swaths of overlapping interests. Even the non-scientists working in academic and scholarly publishing are often quite passionate about the purpose and goals of science and education. There is a broad community responsibility extant in our world.

Yet, in a time of political upheaval that threatens even the fundamental acceptance of how facts are established and how accuracy is achieved, what is our role?

In some ways, the sheer economics of science provide some bulwark against mischief directly impeding the market. As Theresa May is learning, Brexit’s threats to UK science collaborations need to be dealt with proactively. But what’s happening is not limited to economics. The very underpinnings of the scientific endeavor are being actively attacked.

At the recent APE 2017 meeting in Berlin, Richard Horton of the Lancet and a panel of Scholarly Kitchen Chefs discussed these issues, along with an audience of concerned publishers. In some ways, the situation was viewed as a potential opportunity for science publishers, libraries, and researchers to come together in common cause in support of evidence, citation, truth, and freedom of thought.

Libraries may be taking the lead here, as [the above] sign in the Olin Library at Cornell indicates.

The Association of American Universities has also been active, releasing a strongly worded statement on the day after last week’s immigration ban was put into effect. The statement reads, in part:

It is vital to our economy and the national interest that we continue to attract the best students, scientists, engineers, and scholars. That is why we have worked closely with previous administrations, especially in the wake of 9/11, to ensure our visa system prevents entry by those who wish to harm us, while maintaining the inflow of talent that has contributed so much to our nation.

Many universities have released similar statements in response to the travel ban, including the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and Johns Hopkins University. With the reputation and future of US universities deriving in large part from their ability to attract prominent scholars and promising students and researchers from around the world, the travel ban and its accompanying chilling effect threaten academia at many levels. Estimates are that the ban covering seven countries could affect as many as 17,000 students. Faculty, researchers, and other academics are not included in this estimate.

The state Attorney General for Massachusetts is expected to join an ACLU lawsuit against the ban, citing in part the harm done to the University of Massachusetts. Two Iranian nationals teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth—Mazdak Pourabdollah Tootkaboni and Arghavan Louhghalam—were detained when they returned to the US on Saturday night. The AG from Washington State was also filing suit.

Scientists and their worldwide collaborations are also feeling threatened, and are becoming more politically active, with 400 stating interest in running for office in response to the current machinations, while a march on Washington, DC, is scheduled for some time in the next weeks. Other marches in other cities are forming with coordinated activities. The terrain is new for many, as the Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union said last weekend:

This is first time in my career I’ve seen scientists this energized and active.

So we have activist scientists, academics, librarians, and citizens. But where are the publishers in all of this?

Some are stepping up. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., an STM publisher in New York state, has pledged to support scientists and their march by donating 5,000 pairs of “GoGreen Shoelaces for Science™” as part of a grassroots initiative to support the activists.

The Association of American University Presses (AAUP) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) released a statement yesterday condemning the immigration order.

In this environment, what were once normal proceedings are drawing scornful attention. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) is the focus of an open letter started earlier this week, asking them to repudiate the new US President, his administration, and their policies. Why? Simply because the AAP sent a polite letter after the election to the President-elect outlining its policy priorities and attempting to facilitate a dialogue. Standard practices no longer apply.

This seems to be a time when non-profit publishers and other university presses in particular could shine. With strong reputations, editorial and organizational leadership suffused with respected scientists, and global recognition of their brands and stances, these organizations have an opening that they have long sought. Rather than playing second fiddle to larger commercial organizations, they can step into the breach and let ‘er rip. Opportunity of an unexpected type is knocking, and the chance to re-establish their voice and role awaits. Already, statements are emerging, like this from the American Mathematical Society.

However, the strength of the reaction from publishers is a concern within such a distributed industry. Political activism is much more difficult than rallying around the DOI standard or funding something like CHORUS. It takes more resolve, alignment, and money than what we’re used to handling as an industry. However, the threat is more existential this time, it appears.

Many non-profits will tell you that their endowments or investment funds are set aside for the proverbial “rainy day.” Well, if this isn’t a rainy day, I don’t know what is.

For publishers, this moment has the potential to allow them to reboot their fraught relationships with libraries, universities, and scientists. Over the past 10-15 years, for various reasons, publishers have become misaligned with these groups, and do not seem to be viewed as part of the same team. From being portrayed as exploitative with copyright and financial models, to the inability to stop predatory publishers, to being slow to get in front of the rise in volume and costs created by emerging scientists in China and elsewhere, publishers are in a pickle.

Stepping forward in common cause with librarians, scientists, policymakers, and editors could do a lot to reset the table. Conversely, sitting on the sidelines at this crucial moment may only deepen the fissures that already exist.

I will end with a quote from a 1995 article in Science entitled, “The Politics of Science,” by John H. Gibbons, then the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (the Trump administration has yet to name who will head the OSTP for its term, it bears mentioning). You decide if “scientists” and “publishers” are interchangeable at the beginning:

There are those who believe that scientists should stay out of politics. This is not a luxury we have; in truth, it is a luxury we never had. Each of us needs to be a partisan for science, to embrace a partisanship born of hope for the future. It is not partisanship based on party ideology but on concern over the possibility that the work of generations that has put us at the forefront of world science and technology could be undone. . . . It is a personal partisanship based on conviction, and such partisanship is the moral calling of every citizen in a democracy.


The original version in The Scholarly Kitchen can be found here.

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.