Scholarly Publishing as Niche Gossip
When you boil it down, it's all about what makes humans so effective
Note: A shorter version of this essay was published previously on the Caldera web site, and it remains one of my favorites. I’ve updated and expanded it for “The Geyser.”
Yuval Noah Harari memorably describes in his book “Sapiens” how humans dominate the planet for one simple reason — we gossip. This allows us to constantly check in with and on each other, casually learn who we can trust and who we can’t, and ambiently discover opportunities while we collectively alert one another to threats. This constant flow of information makes us a formidable and dominant species.
As a result, gossip is something we take very seriously. If someone is a good gossip, they are venerated in the social construct. If they’re an unreliable or malicious gossip, they may be ostracized or, worse, beaten up by those they malign.
Can scholarly and scientific publishing, for all its trappings, be easily understood as sophisticated gossip? You be the judge.
Each paper is essentially a “look what I found” notification, a “pssst” to get attention.
Journals are gossip hubs, with editors trying to find the latest and best gossip to satisfy an audience who likes rumors and updates of a particular sort. Some of the best ways to get gossip is to read articles that summarize all the best past gossip, and makes sense of it (editorials and review articles).
Journals are scored and evaluated based on how well they gossip. If a lot of other gossips mention them, they get higher scores. If other gossips don’t talk about them, they get lower scores.
People who want to be gossiped about like to get mentioned in places people see and trust what they consider to be the best gossip — we can call these “the glamour gossips.” Being told your gossip is second-rate or is nothing new hurts.
If someone tells a fib, the group expresses concern. If the fib turns out to be a lie, the red badge of bad gossip comes out, and follows the lie everywhere. Sometimes, the liar is told never to gossip again. Sometimes, gossips find out they misunderstood or made a mistake, and have to say a formal, “Nevermind.”
When someone has a new thing to gossip about in our world, other gossips are asked to evaluate whether it sounds like good gossip or bad gossip. These other gossips do it for free, because they get an early sniff at potentially important new gossip.
Some people think all gossip should be amplified equally, even the stuff nobody wants to repeat or really to hear in the first place. These people have come to believe this after listening to a group of rich white bro’s from the Valley who sell sound systems, and who only make money if there’s noise. After all, the Valley bro’s make money by listening in, even eavesdropping, and using what they hear to help companies target gossips.
Gossip often ages badly, so there’s a hunger for fresh gossip. Sometimes, it is fun to look at old gossip, though, because it turns out some things are still gossiped about as if they’re new. And some of the old gossip about leeches and stuff like that is still pretty gross and weird.
Some think people outside our groups want to hear our gossip, and believe that making our gossip accessible to these outsiders is a top priority. But it’s hard for the outsiders to understand what our gossip means, especially because we talk work and don’t know how to (or care to) gossip with them. It’s like going into a company you’ve never visited and listening to the gossip at the meetings — a lot of it may hit familiar beats, but you won’t know the specifics or much of the context.
Some people write up gossip digests and present these reviews of gossip, which can be very useful if you don’t have time to traffic in all the gossip. But there’s nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth, ultimately.
So there you have it — impact factor, peer review, retractions, citations, review articles, open access, and more, all through the lens of gossip.
It’s that simple.
But you didn’t hear it from me . . .