Monday Housekeeping

A few updates and tidbits to kick Monday off right

Monday Housekeeping

Here are some short entries for a Monday kick-off — tying up a loose end, a power-packed abstract, and a discouraging theme to compliments.

Distill Goes Dark

Back in 2018, I wrote about a journal Google was publishing called Distill. It was produced by Google Brain with the participation of YC Research, DeepMind, and OpenAI (a newly relevant entity thanks to ChatGPT).

I discovered this weekend that Distill went on “indefinite hiatus” back in September 2021. Having produced 31 articles since its inception in 2016, it was never a very productive house journal, and the note explaining the reasons for the hiatus boils down to one factor — it was more work than the group could maintain.

To me, it’s yet another indication that technologists don’t understand or appreciate how hard it is to do media well. Do you remember Andreeson-Horowitz’s failed launch of Future?

Of course you don’t. Nobody does.

Journalists and publishing-capable subject-matter experts, on the other hand, seem to have a far better track record of making publications work.

Could it be that publishing is difficult and specialized work best left to professionals?

My New Favorite Abstract

From this paper, published last week:

I discuss from an economic perspective two of the most recent suggestions to reform the peer review system: (a) payment to referees; (b) ex post peer review. I show that strong economic arguments militate against these ideas.

With respect to payment to referees I use results from the economic analysis of prosocial behavior and the private production of public goods, which show that the supply of monetary incentives has the paradoxical effect of reducing the willingness of agents to collaborate, insofar as they substitute intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation.

With respect to ex post peer review, I show that it fails to offer sufficient incentives to researchers, since it is anonymous, depersonalized, and weak in its marginal impact on publishing decisions. I take this argument to criticize the lack of theorizing, in the side of radical proponents of Open access, about the conditions for transition from the subscription model to the Open model. It is this lack of critical attention to economic arguments that has led to the unintended but dramatic outcome of a net increase in the cost of scientific publishing, as documented in very recent papers.

In short, fools rush in.

The Most Disheartening Compliment

The past few months have brought a number of nice compliments my way — from renewing subscribers, readers via social media, and long-time colleagues. And while I’m always relieved and grateful — it would feel awful to think all this work is for naught — there’s a disheartening undertone to all of them:

You’re so brave/fearless.

Or, more specifically . . .

You’re saying things I wish I could say out loud.

For me, this shines a light on the elephant in the scholarly and scientific publishing room, the one that has been squashing and stifling discourse for over a decade now — the self-appointed and surprisingly effective thought police who won’t provide room for, and even encourage, people to openly debate business models, formulate arguments to sort out major philosophical and epistemological points, state opinions that challenge the orthodoxy, speak truth to power, or pursue evidence about corruption, ineptitude, or self-dealing.

More than a decade ago, social media gave these people a formidable weapon, one which became fearsome to others. Editors, publishers, and managers became sheepish and afraid of speaking up, worried they’d get flamed, swamped, and burdened with endless harassment. On the back of this intimidation, a devastation of the scholarly information economy surged ahead, and now we have a shell of what once was.

Now, from a behavioral standpoint, it’s as if we all need to pretend that everything is fine even though most of us know it has been devastating.  

An oppressive environment has consumed scholarly and scientific publishing, and more and more people are seemingly afraid to speak up. That’s discouraging. Even an organization I once admired and worked hard to support — the SSP — has eliminated protections for intellectual exchanges from its Code of Conduct, making a potential problem for anyone who pipes up or thinks differently.

I believe we deserve to be free from artificial constraints on our thinking, voices, and boundaries of innovation. Let’s start reorienting toward freedom of thought and action.