Distrust of the government has a long and sometimes valid history. It becomes a bit more questionable when a society is self-governing, but even then, power can corrupt, and governmental power can be abused.
However, distrust which is false, a front hiding forms of manipulation, is another thing entirely.
One of the most damaging concepts introduced to American democracy — one which marked the first unwinding of the thread of self-government binding this disparate society together — came around 1980, with Ronald Reagan and his political allies portraying the government as something alien, set against the people, and imposed rather than integral and necessary for a self-governing people. They weren’t calling out particular, specific corruption, but maligning governance as corrupt in concept. They began a long effort, often from within the government, to undo the government.
Fast-forward to 2001, and right-wing politician Grover Norquist’s infamous quote:
I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.
Now, we face an even more extreme version, fortunately offset by a society that has started to see these techniques and people for what they are.
The techniques are simple — portray those charged with the roles necessary for self-governance as exploitative, uncaring, and ineffective, and use this wedge to foment instability you can exploit for your own, sometimes corrupt, often selfish purposes.
Since then, right-wing politicians have used other techniques to drive their wedge deeper — portraying taxation as a burden on individuals instead of the cost for a functioning society, for example, and undermining the independent media in multiple ways, from partisan outlets to sowing general distrust. As Maria Ressa writes in her compelling new book, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future”:
We have lost sight of this now—and the social media platforms have done their best to destroy these once-universal values—but in the 1980s, another agreed-upon fact, a foundation of our shared reality, was that without good journalism, without the sound production of facts and information, there would be no democracy.
In our world, OA has represented a sustained erosion of independent evaluation and establishment of facts and information in the scholarly and scientific worlds. By serving authors, it has introduced a subtle corruption of purpose. And by undermining peer-review and the role of editors and the intellectual infrastructures they represent, it has degraded the ability for us to create a shared reality based on established facts.
This is where the similarities with right-wing thinking begin, and there are more than I at first imagined.
One of the first rhetorical tricks used by OA advocates also spoke to taxation. It was to claim that because taxpayers had paid for government-funded research, they had a right to the output. It was an extension of the right-wing grievances with taxation, but given a liberal twist — not less tax, but more for it. The logic has never made sense — sure, some research is taxpayer-funded, but the independent review, sortation, and qualification of it is not — yet like right-wing politicians, OA advocates found a taxation-based argument to drive a wedge, and they used it with relative abandon.
The next technique was to portray publishers as entities that exist outside the natural order of scholarly communications — as some “others” that imposed themselves on research reporting and scientific communities in order to extract profits and frustrate researchers, as ineffective and ineffectual rather than integral, independent, organic, and like-minded.
Another similar technique the two share is to twist words in ways that make no sense, yet strike a rhetorical chord. For the right-wing politicians in the US, the “Freedom Caucus” is one that seeks to limit the rights of women, minorities, and LGBTQ communities, making a mockery of its use of the word “freedom.” In scholarly publishing, the word “democratizing” is bandied about, without those using it necessarily realizing they are calling for uniformity, constraints on trade and thought, and government-imposed limits, all of which are the antithesis of democratic freedoms.
Both right-wing politicians and OA advocates also engage in rank populism. With OA advocates, this was encapsulated in the populist “by scientists, for scientists” mantra about how OA publishing would return power to the researchers — neglecting to note that most editors, executives, and middle managers in scientific and scholarly communications possessed advanced degrees in their fields, had research experience themselves, and would be considered scientists by most in society.
What has the OA movement injected into the spaces its wedges have created?
- Mega-journals, which ignore community imperatives and goals
- Predatory publishers, which exploit scientists or allow scientists to exploit publication events
- Preprints, which undermine peer-review and confuse the public
- A gutted scholarly publishing middle-class — university presses, society publishers, small independents
- Oligarch-friendly lobbying organizations insinuating themselves into governments to help said oligarchs
- More calls for free labor from reviewers and other forms of unpaid exploitation
To this last point, a recent editorial by Richard Sever of bioRxiv calls for exactly this — more PhDs performing free labor for his oligarch-funded preprint server, so that Sever can have an easier time hiring later. Perhaps creating paid roles for PhD students from some of the hundreds of millions Cold Spring Harbor Labs has in the bank would be more useful to these people? Where is his outrage about a rich organization locking up $800 million in investment funds, where it could be used — even as an annuity — to fund millions in jobs and research grants every year?
Oddly, the fakery of OA distrust is apparent as even the advocates compare themselves constantly with traditional journals, traditional review, and traditional metrics. They implicitly trust those, seeking to supplant them with something they feel they can control, perhaps only for the sake of control. Most of the grievances right-wing politicians and OA advocates share seems to emanate from an unwillingness to compete fairly, leading them to resort to these kinds of dirty tricks.
To this end, and like right-wing politicians, OA advocates seem to push a lot of stuff that seems pretty selfish and semi-corrupt, while insisting on a range of constraints on thought, innovation, and market freedoms because their approach requires uniformity and punishes diversity.
Behind this rhetoric, the insurrection of scholarly publishing continues, just as the insurrection of American democracy has not yet wrapped up. And, like the governmental insurrection, it’s coming from inside now.
Why the similarities? And what might come next?
OA rhetoric has long reflected a techno-utopianism popular in Silicon Valley, which is largely libertarian in its politics, tilting toward the radical. These are people who feel both superior and insulated, and who celebrate selfishness and self-interest. These are also people who want to eliminate media accountability, from suing Gawker out of existence, to attempting to create their own mouthpieces, to funding Creative Commons to erode the ability for copyright to force them to pay for content.
Is it any wonder our version pushes selfish ends for authors over selflessly addressing readers’ needs? Is it any wonder that lauding techno-utopians also led us to embrace the anti-media and anti-authority and anti-expertise biases of Silicon Valley?
As the world edges toward a mixed-market recession, these people will remain above it all — Western economies will do better than rising economies or struggling economies — even as more social unrest and scientific uncertainty spills into less-developed scientific and scholarly markets due to our lax and lazy approaches to information management.
I’m reminded of an encounter at the Charleston Conference when the NLM announced its pilot indexing preprints, and how a researcher from Brazil rushed forward to urge the Director (Patricia Brennan) to not proceed, as the misinformation and uncertainty around preprints were making scientific advances and social cohesion around facts impossible in Brazil. Fast-forward a few years, and we only have more of it — to the point that the US insurrection was imitated in Brazil only recently.
We have seen a pandemic in which, for the first time, experts noted that scientists confused the public. We have seen misinformation spread across preprint servers and into PubMed. We are exporting confusion, and confusion wounds democracy. Recently, Ian Bremmer’s Eurasia Group wrote in its 2023 “Top Risks” forecast:
[The United States] is the leading exporter of tools that undermine democracy—the result of algorithms and social media platforms that rip at the fabric of civil society while maximizing profit, creating unprecedented political division, disruption, and dysfunction. That trend is accelerating fast—not driven by governments but by a small collection of individuals with little understanding of the social and political impact of their actions.
Exporting bad information while we feel insulated from its effects is burdening or retarding developing economies and emerging scientific information economies, while also threatening democracies. As Ressa writes:
Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without all three, we have no shared reality, and democracy as we know it—and all meaningful human endeavors—are dead.
So, let’s not pretend OA is “just another business model” or something that will sustain an equivalent information marketplace worthy of societal trust and capable of moving us forward. Scholarly publishing has been corrupted via political rhetoric redolent of right-wing disruption, and needs to be rebuilt, as Ressa writes:
We are standing on the rubble of the world that was, and we must have the foresight and courage to imagine, and create, the world as it should be: more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable.
And, I’d add, more innovative, more trustworthy, and more reliable.
To recover our footing and inject the necessary energy which democracy, truth-seeking, and free societies need for a reliable, shared fact base from which to make decisions, a lot of the concepts heedlessly embraced over the past 20 years will come up for re-evaluation, and many might not survive. Nor should they. As Mihir Desai wrote recently in the New York Times:
The unwinding of magical thinking will dominate this decade in painful but ultimately restorative ways — and that unwinding will be most painful to the generation conditioned to believe these fantasies. . . .The fundamentals of business have not changed merely because of new technologies or low interest rates. The way to prosper is still by solving problems in new ways that sustainably deliver value to employees, capital providers and customers. Over-promising the scope of change created by technology and the possibilities of business and finance to a new generation will lead only to disaffection as these promises falter.
There’s a lot at stake. Personally, I am not going to stand by and watch. As Ressa learned when she first called out an injustice, which led to a positive change:
Staying silent or compliant changed nothing. Speaking up was an act of creation.