Yesterday, I gave my first talk in a while at the Charleston Conference. It was reassuring to see this terrific conference back and thriving again. The streets of Charleston were busy with familiar people passing, exchanging greetings, making plans, and enjoying each other’s company.
My talk was called “Are Publishers Doing Their Job?” and I was joined by Steven Heffner of IEEE. I’ll focus on my contribution here.
The first thing I tried to address is what this “job” represents. I think it’s all about serving as a trusted information intermediary within a community, a flexible but accurate definition that embraces news publishers in a locality, niche publishers (braille publishers, children’s publishers), and scholarly and scientific publishers in all their variety.
I noted that trusted intermediaries of all kinds — referees and umpires, judges, and reporters/editors — are currently beset, making the neglect and diminution of trusted intermediaries a society-wide problem, and one that seems to be leading in dangerous directions. As Jonathan Rauch wrote in his book, “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of the Truth” (emphasis mine):
Without the places where professionals like experts and editors and peer reviewers organize conversations and compare propositions and assess competence and provide accountability — everywhere from scientific journals to Wikipedia pages — there is no marketplace of ideas; there are only cults warring and splintering and individuals running around making noise.
Given the job, a techno-utopian vision of an unmediated information landscape proves fundamentally detrimental. You can’t serve communities or foster trust without mediation, and all media are defined by the mediation choices they make (and, to quote the great Peart, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”) This led to the main argument of my presentation, an idea I just can’t shake:
Mediation Is Media
Anxiety around changes at Twitter revolve mainly around changes in its mediation approaches. But publishers of all types are defined by their mediation stances — record labels cultivating a jazz community will make different mediation choices than a radio station catering to sports fans. Both sides of mediation come into play — who you are mediating for, and how you are mediating.
In the journals world, premier journals are defined in large part by their exceptional mediation practices, while preprint servers are defined by their relatively lax and lacking mediation.
Media Is Mediation
One of the more interesting moments of my portion of the talk came when I mentioned another pandemic most of us had experienced in our lifetimes — one that cost millions of lives, decimated entire continents and economies, and changed numerous cultural norms. I asked the attendees if they could name the pandemic’s source. It took longer than you might expect. The answer? HIV/AIDS.
I then related the story of NEJM’s editors facing pressure to give way as a trusted intermediary as journalists, commercial players, and activists claimed they were unjustly withholding important information. As it turned out, the “important information” was misinformation, and the editors were right to hold firm. Their justification was particularly compelling (emphasis mine):
. . . the risk is that consumers will be receiving misinformation as well as valid information, and that they and their doctors will find it difficult to tell which is which. Misinformation is not innocuous. Much is made of the value of early news of research; too little is made of the risks. . . . [misleading materials] raise false hopes and contribute to indiscriminate cynicism about the validity of medical research.
The morning of my talk, I was able to include a timely quote from an article by Nilay Patel in The Verge, which made an important point about the moderation challenges facing Musk:
. . . it turns out that most people do not want to participate in horrible unmoderated internet spaces full of shitty racists and not-all-men fedora bullies. . . . So if you want more people to join Twitter and actually post tweets, you have to make the experience much, much more pleasant. Which means: moderating more aggressively!
The entire article is a great read.
I also noted that one prominent health care expert noted that the scientific community actually confused the public during Covid, which has led to a number of deleterious effects. Preprints, false claims given false standing, and more contributed to this, and much trust was lost — so much so that the OSTP now speaks of restoring trust in its new policy guidance.
I also talked about what we as scholarly and scientific intermediaries “privilege” and how that has changed:
- “The Scholarly Record”
Questions from the audience were excellent, including whether we can gear AI and ML to focus on quality around large datasets (we can), whether Galileo would emerge in the current model (probably yes currently, but perhaps years from now, when the modern version of the Medici family runs a funding and publishing vertical), and whether we’ve reached the point of no return (I refuse to accept that because this is existential to science, society, and democracy, and we’ve faced down bigger problems).
The full talk will be posted in a couple of weeks, along with a video of the session, so you can also see Steven’s excellent contributions.
The Charleston Conference is thriving again. This meeting has done I think the best job of bobbing and weaving its way through the pandemic, and appears to have come out all the stronger for it. Plus, they ordered perfect weather for this week, which was very thoughtful of them . . .