Stories of the Year

A few stories informed 2022, and are worthy of review — including one that hints at a more accountable 2023

Stories of the Year

A number of unexpected and/or important stories emerged here this past year, and I wanted to wrap up the year with a review to put them into perspective. Most look set to continue into 2023, as well.

  • SPARC and its gradual reveal. The investigation into SPARC and the revelations that came grudgingly and gradually started innocently enough — back in 2018, with a search for SPARC’s IRS form 990, with the full expectation that it was a non-profit filing the requisite disclosures. Like many, I’d been misled, as SPARC turned out to be a project within a registered lobbying firm (New Venture Fund [NVF]), its Executive Director was a paid employee of said lobbying firm, and its address showing shared offices, even as NVF moved. Various entanglements with funders and oligarchs, including an undisclosed conflict of interest, also came to light. Connecting the dots between SPARC and NVF and other entities proved laborious, but the stories ultimately forced SPARC to revise its online disclosures, even as it continued to mislead people about its non-profit status. It also became clear that NVF steers SPARC, and that the organization’s Steering Committee answers to NVF. The CEO of NVF confirmed the employment status of SPARC’s Executive Director, as well. Knowing SPARC was now affiliated with a lobbying firm, and that it was actively involved with the NLM and OSTP, I filed FOIA requests with both government agencies. These revealed a level of coziness with SPARC that seemed to show that government employees were unaware they were dealing with a lobbying firm’s project and employees, up to and including allowing these people to train them, consult with them, and be named to a Director-level search committee. SPARC seems to cultivate a two-faced profile in the industry, claiming to be a grassroots organization even as it caters to rich funders, lobbies government officials, and hoodwinks stakeholders on all sides about its legal status and organizational entanglements. This story emerged unexpectedly, continues to balloon, and shows how a branch of OA advocacy has become corrupted by money and power.
  • Preprints steal citations. Early this year, I was able to wheedle some hours from the technologists at Scite (which I advise). The question was simple — Are preprints stealing citations from their peer-reviewed journal article counterparts? It turns out the answer is “Yes,” that the level of theft varies, that the trend is accelerating, and that PLOS seems especially vulnerable to it, owing to the fact that they push preprint posting, and that these papers prove far less interesting subsequently.
  • The worm turns for shadow libraries. From Sci-Hub to Z-Library, political battles and legal actions have started to bring the hammer down, reinforcing the rule of law and reiterating the protections granted by copyright and other IP regulations. While some transgressive librarians may still gnash their teeth over this, copyright constraints lead to innovation and economic growth — for instance, Napster’s doom led to iTunes, which led to Spotify, which is leading to artists once again making sufficient money from selling recorded works to incentivize music production and reduce the burden on performers to play live. Perhaps shuttering shadow libraries will help academic book authors and mid-sized publishers thrive again, rectifying some of the power imbalances in the journals publishing space which have favored the larger commercial entities.
  • The OSTP Memo and the insertion of “equity” in science. It’s unclear what the OSTP guidance from August will mean, how far it will go, and whether Congress will suspend the action, but the sailing looks far from smooth. Whatever happens, a potentially anti-science and anti-scholarship concept was smuggled into the memo via dozens of references to “equity.” Seemingly anondyne or even admirable, equity is proving to be a concept at-odds with scientific and academic inquiry, as it superimposes boundaries on inquiry and findings in order to comport with transitory social mores. Academics have quit professional organizations that would require them to sign pledges over equity, because the concept is too loose, and the potential to be perceived as violating rules imposed by thought police with a lot of swagger and little oversight is too great. I personally quit SSP because the organization brokes its own rules and sanctioned me for what was portrayed as “pretty aggressive” questioning of a fellow panelist. The risk to all this is that we won’t be able to get to potentially hot-button answers — like recent findings that voting preferences are related to Covid deaths, or that certain blood or neurological conditions have racial or sex-based associations, or simply arguing out complicated points or calling BS on nonsense — out of fear of being defunded or ostracized for inequitable behavior. On a broader scale, if equity is perceived as a static state policies are meant to preserve at all costs, can true innovation and progress occur?
  • Accountability approaches for the transgressives. For the past 20 years, we’ve seen transgression celebrated as disruption or innovation. This year, generally and specifically, it seems there is some accountability coming, with high-profile social condemnation also emerging. Some is due to the stories above — Z Library, Sci-Hub, SPARC, and zero-sum citations — while the continued proliferation of predatory publishers, the systematic damage to society publishers, and the “no more hiding it” pressures on the job market are making the hollowing out of scholarly and scientific publishing worryingly obvious. Just as Web3 failed to launch, crypto imploded, insurrectionists and tax dodgers were hauled off to prison, and more, society is entering a phase of sobriety and regulation/enforcement that scholarly and scientific publishing is unlikely to avoid. Even popular culture has come out in backlash this past year, with series like Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber and The Dropout dramatizing the spectacular misbehaviors of two tech transgressives, while Knives Out: Glass Onion has its voice of reason — portrayed by the consistently wonderful Janelle Monáe — renaming self-styled “disruptors” as “shitheads.” While not quite the story of 2022, the tide appears to be turning, the incentives for correction seem to be mounting, and we may be on the road to fixing instead of breaking at long last.

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