Partners or Servants?

How publishers have shifted their roles may explain some of today's turmoil

Partners or Servants?

As we approach yet another Frankfurt Book Fair, a question has been persisting in my mind — Do publishers serve authors?

Traditionally, publishers have worked with authors to serve readers. I define a publisher as an entity that assumes financial risk on behalf of authors. So, at a deep level, publishers partner with authors. But they do much more. Publishers have a role as arbiters of content via editors and experienced professionals and their own ethical and intellectual standards. And here we get to the heart of the issue, which may mean that good publishers who demand more from authors and screen out a relatively high percentage of bad content are vital to healthy societies.

This line of thinking was emphasized in a conversation recently when a publishing friend noted that he missed what publishing used to be — partnering with authors on projects the publisher wanted to pursue because the market was moving in that direction, there was a cultural gap, or there was a social need. Implicit in this was the disappointment in seeing the dignified work of publishers denigrated into a service role, with author needs elevated into short-term and in many cases short-sighted satisfaction measures, shoving aside the loftier goals publishers used to pursue.

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Unmediated content continues to create problems via social media. It’s not always easy to spot this, but social media takes service to the extreme — nearly anyone can publish, even propagandists and provocateurs. Facebook yesterday refused to take down a deceitful ad from the President because they support “free speech.” If they were better publishers, they’d have standards, and would make information — even ads — pass tests for taste, veracity, and acceptability. Instead, once again, Facebook wants all the upside of power and none of the responsibility of being a major media company. Ads and posts that blatantly lie to support authoritarian impulses shouldn’t pass muster for any publisher worth her or his salt. In so doing, Facebook and other social media companies allow cultures to be warped.

This becomes important when you contemplate the logic that politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from information. This was Andrew Breitbart’s insight, and it has been used by cultural-political tandems very effectively over the past 10-20 years. New and virulent political and cultural combos exploded in the social media era because new media — without moderators, gatekeepers, or guardrails — allowed various fringe cultures to resurge in society and wield disproportionate political power. For instance, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and Russian operatives all discovered newfound and wildly disproportionate political power once they were able to manipulate culture via unregulated social media.

This subject is tackled by a new book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” by Andrew Marantz. In a recent interview, Marantz talked about these phenomena:

There have always been propagandists, there have always been liars, there have always been racists — but it wasn’t viral, it wasn’t infectious. It just wasn’t so powerful. . . . When culture becomes a product of social media, what we pay attention to, then . . . [w]hat we pay attention to is completely unregulated. There’s no gatekeeper anymore. . . . If the media matrix we had set up was working right, these people would not have the influence they have.

Propagandists understand this. They rise in the morning, and distort cultures via social media by the afternoon. This revealed to me how profound the current struggle around “free information” actually has become — it’s about culture, cultural norms, and the political power that flows from them. Pushing gatekeepers aside has allowed sophists, authoritarians, and opportunists unlimited access to the biggest and most insidious megaphones ever invented.

Part of the reason so many feel so passionately that this is all fine is also identified in the interview with Marantz, where he describes the naïve assumptions of technologists and their intellectual children — the notion of a techno-utopia, where more information is always better. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this has led to exploitation these utopians just didn’t (and still often don’t) believe to be possible because the prior information system — gatekeepers and all — did such a good job:

There’s this certain safety in where we are. We have this broad consensus. We’ve decided we’ll be a nation of nations, we’ve decided we’ll have this multi-ethnic fabric, and that’s over, and now we can move forward. But the guys who are building the Internet — and they are guys — are not reading a lot in the humanities, they’re not questioning, they’re not asking these deep, philosophical questions.

They’re picking up through cultural osmosis, “Oh! Free speech = good, historical progress = inevitable.” I’ll just throw these tools out there, and we’ll be good. I’ll make speech as free as possible, there will be a marketplace of ideas, markets move things forward through competition, . . . and it’ll all be good.

We hold some similarly naïve assumptions in our market — preprint servers, open peer-review, and so forth — seemingly informed by the belief that nothing can blunt the inevitable progress of humanity, that anything we do with technology will feed this techno-utopian ideal, that “free speech” means unchecked speech. And there can be no downside, because we’ve never experienced a downside.

Yesterday, for instance, a preprint about OA trends was posted (I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to be part of the problem). It was amplified via Infodocket, LIBLICENSE, and Twitter, with dozens of tweets reflexively promoting this un-reviewed paper on top of thousands seeing it via other amplification. If our bar about what information deserves distribution and promotion were higher, it might mean a few weeks or months of peer-review and editorial review before the information — improved, no doubt, as the preprint has glaring conceptual flaws — reached readers. But instead, we now have unvalidated and untested claims racing around our community once again. Those behind this are behaving just like the sophists in Silicon Valley in this way — there can be no downside, more information faster is fine, even if untested or lacking professional inspection and approval.

But for the past decade, the downside has grown dire and become quite apparent, while the check and balance of informed mediation — by publishers, by librarians — has become weaker. Many are even now participating actively in undermining the systems that did provide us with the broad consensus’ that led to the eradication of polio, the elimination of measles, and the achievement of broad agricultural achievements.

Publishers and all they represent — editorial gatekeeping, author cultivation, professionalism, subject matter expertise, consolidation of information, curation — may have a more vital place in democratic and functioning societies than we’ve realized or understood. By adding constraints on what information goes out, publishers, their editors, their authors, their journalists, and their brands shape culture and govern politics to some degree. Serving the larger society above and beyond content producers seems key to publishers remaining in this pivotal cultural role.

This is akin to collection development for libraries, but upstream. Why allow content that is wrong, manipulative, or untested to reach readers? Why just shrug and assume it will all be OK even if we do less?

There may be more at stake when publishers shift away from their leadership, cultural, and partnership role, and begin to view themselves as service providers. Would we publish profitable white supremacist tracts? Would we knowingly publish bad information? Some have already drifted into these latter waters out of a misguided notion that more information is axiomatically better. Some have bragged about how many unvetted papers they host, about how authors they barely know get access to powerful publishing tools at no cost and with little effort. In fact, the limited checks some preprint servers put on information were recently the subject of an online controversy, with authors complaining about the hours or days of delay this can mean. The larger information space has created a set of expectations and entitlements in scholarly publishing which reflect Silicon Valley sophistry. The calls are coming from inside the house.

You only need to look around to see the damage. Leaders of nations using social media aggressively to disorient a culture and stymie traditional political power in democratic societies. Nation-states using social media to divide cultures and disable political rivals. Fringe cultural elements using social media to distort the fabric of society and undermine norms and standards. Discord and confusion about science sown repeatedly by authors who barely have to lift a finger to throw untested ideas into the literature, get a DOI, and have perpetual hosting.

If there were good publishers in between these cultural gatecrashers and society, ensuring information met social norms — changing as they do — and editorial standards of quality and relevance, we might not be in such a chaotic world right now.

What publishers do matters. It’s more than service. It’s loftier. It’s more critical than ever to democracies, science, and reason. Don’t let the sophists of Silicon Valley convince you otherwise. Don’t fall for the hype that the modern information age is superior or moving in the right direction. Plenty of evidence indicates the opposite.

See you in Frankfurt!

Note: Subscribers will get exclusive coverage from Frankfurt next week.

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