Foxes and Hedgehogs in Publishing

Pragmatists make better bets, and are better at assessing a complex future

Foxes and Hedgehogs in Publishing

In 1953, Isaiah Berlin, a philosopher, wrote an essay called, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” The essay was inspired by a phrase found on a manuscript fragment credited to a Greek poet — “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.” This may seem like an equivalent knowledge set, but research by Philip Tetlock (University of Pennsylvania) into the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches found that foxes are superior forecasters, beating hedgehogs consistently when it comes to predicting what may or may not come to pass.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, the future is full of surprises and complexity, and people who appreciate nuance and uncertainty are more likely to make more measured predictions.

In his 2010 book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail — and Why We Believe Them Anyway, Dan Gardner wrote about Tetlock’s findings:

Tetlock’s data couldn’t be more clear. . . . hedgehogs who are ideologically extreme are even worse forecasters than others of their kind. . . . when hedgehogs made predictions involving their particular specialty, their accuracy declined. And it got worse still when the prediction was for the long term.

Gardner also notes that, despite their dismal track record, hedgehogs are media darlings because:

. . . [they’re] confident, clear, and dramatic. The sort who delivers quality sound bites and compelling stories. The sort who doesn’t bother with complications, caveats, and uncertainties. The sort who has One Big Idea.

Tetlock and Gardner later became collaborators, co-authoring a book in 2015, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.

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The hedgehogs in scholarly communications and scientific publishing are most confident and vocal about what I’ll call OpenX (with the “X” expanded to mean any of the following, and more — source, review, science, access, data). These hedgehogs first made their way into publishing in the late-1990s, via Harold Varmus and E-Biomed. Ideological and fixated on a big idea, they were certain OpenX was the future of scientific information publication, distribution, and sharing.

Now, more than 20 years on, the changes hedgehogs have been able to push seem incremental and not clearly beneficial.

The foxes of publishing — pragmatists in general and not just businesspeople, but including various editors, reviewers, and researchers of a more realistic and less idealistic cast — have been skeptical and cautious. Negotiating the waters churned by the hedgehogs, the foxes floated a system of embargoes and repositories to ride out the hedgehogs, accomplishing many hedgehog goals around free content without swamping too many practical items.

Another push from the OpenX hedgehogs came in the mid-00s, leading the foxes to develop hybrid journals and simplify various aspects of submission systems and review processes in response. By 2010, it seemed as if at least the OpenX hedgehogs had made sufficient headway, and a truce seemed imminent between the foxes and the hedgehogs. That is, until Plan S and the hedgehog named Robert-Jan Smits used the single idea of OpenX to inject more demands into the system.

Gradually, however, the foxes are returning — via transformative agreements, S2O, CAP (from PLOS), and other approaches that hew to a pragmatic approach to funding the work of publishers as trusted intermediaries. This has resulted in a slow, steady turn away from non-recurring transactional revenues and toward recurring revenues. If you listen carefully, you can hear the echoes of recurring revenues in many other places, such as the Central European University’s recent announcements, one of which is here. You can also hear the foxes’ voices in yesterday’s announcement of new journals from PLOS, complete with “it’s not just about” OpenX shadings that foxes have realized are necessary to give them latitude to navigate the future in ways the hedgehogs might not support, as it goes beyond their single-minded view of the world.

Pendulum swings like this aren’t unusual, and the give-and-take between idealists and realists can be healthy. For instance, some of the benefits of various hedgehog complaints have manifested as better submission experiences for authors. But there can also be high costs to the pursuit of such single-minded notions, such as the chaos of preprint servers, the mismanagement of the public’s interface with science and its authority system, and the mindless embrace of Silicon Valley approaches to information management which has yielded things that don’t live up to their hype, like ORCID and Altmetric.

As Tetlock wrote in his 2005 book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?:

The best forecasters and timeliest belief updaters shared a self-deprecating style of thinking that spared them some of the big mistakes to which their more ideologically exuberant colleagues were prone.

And this is critical. I consistently encounter hedgehogs who insist the OpenX debates are finished, and that OpenX is the inevitable final resting state of scholarly publishing. We foxes aren’t so sure, especially as we look at three things:

  1. The track record of hedgehogs’ pronouncements about the future of other media — the ad model for journalism, micropayments for artists, or dramatic cost savings by going digital
  2. The events transpiring inside and outside our area around payments, funding, and business models — from Substack to Spotify to Apple Podcasts now, the subscription model is thriving
  3. The complexity, demands, and expectations of OpenX and concurrent demands on publishing organizations, and the inevitable costs these will incur — for instance, the expenses associated with creating and executing major transformative agreements, for both parties involved

The more I think about what’s building up as far as centralization of funding, concentration of business, expectations from users, and value in a real-world setting, the more I think there could be a snap-back from OpenX at some point, with researchers noting that it’s too much work, too draining of budgets, systemically unfair, and adding too little to the ecosystem.

Hedgehogs, talk to a fox sometime. It may help you see what’s actually happening.

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