The Risky Political Game of OA

As powerful political forces batter scientific communications, are we up to the task of checking their power and influence?

Let’s run a thought experiment. Fast-forward 20 years, and what now seems like a radical right-wing movement of religious extremists, authoritarians, and bigots has succeeded in overtaking much of the political machinery of the United States. These groups’ success in rolling back voting rights, collapsing the separation of church and state, suppressing books, films, and music they don’t like, restricting abortion rights and personal autonomy in general, including protections for LGBTQ and other groups, was just the beginning. Now, they are openly undermining states’ rights, and have learned how to stall, stymie, and exhaust any objections with a labyrinthine legislative and legal system under their control.

In this thought experiment, the funding of scientific research has lurched to the right in a similar manner, with funding diverted away from customary foci in psychology, sociology, and psychiatry, and into faddish, misguided, or politically motivated research projects designed to please radical voters and make headlines. In biomedicine, for example, the government now prefers research into the harms of vaccines, the benefits of supplements, and the promise of homeopathy.

Hoping to outlast this particular phase of madness, scientists, physicians, and researchers of all stripes are struggling to maintain their integrity and funding.

In running this too-plausible thought experiment, one thing becomes clear — scholarly publishing has abandoned its main purposes (independence, expertise of various kinds, control of scientific news, control of the scientific record) on the assumption that scientific and scholarly norms will hold in other areas, causing little harm as professionals, societies, and norms are disrupted.

I believe this assumption is flawed.

The implicit political assumption to OA, open science, and the lot, is that research will always be driven by scientific priorities and largely untouched by political operators. Never a perfect dance — the political and the scientific — in general, the scientific has predominated in nearly every instance.

But with politicized courts questioning the FDA approval of drugs that can prevent pregnancies, treatment approvals that seem more political than scientific, and a flood of papers entering the system with uncertain provenance and claims, scientific authority can’t be presumed or assumed any longer.

Having gutted the scientific publishing system — driving scientific societies out of preeminent roles and meaningful influence, consolidating money and power into five large companies, mostly non-US, and eviscerating the cultural expectation of expert review and trusted intermediation — there is only a faint echo of the previously robust and independent knowledge economy left to resist these intrusions.

Plans from OSTP and the EU to use Green OA posting on a variety of government servers as a way to achieve OA for government-funded reports — and the resulting atomization of the scholarly record — will become an even greater problem than it is now. With powerful and bewildering amplification systems (social media) creating hidden distribution networks — one of the most popular of which is closely aligned with a major authoritarian state — it’s far too easy to game the information system, overtly or simply with a thumb on the scale.

We are also closing the door behind us, in a sense. For instance, we have allowed a once ferociously independent system with a diversified set of revenues to begin coalescing around a few political entities with agendas of their own — funders, academic institutions, and governments. As I wrote recently:

[. . . this has been] part of a rolling insurrection of scholarly and scientific publishing, which started in the late 1990s and accelerated after 2010, with Outsell intoning memorably in 2012, “Politics has found us.”

Politics did find us, but we encouraged it, even courted it, from the early days of E-Biomed to the current lobbying of SPARC — mixing politics and scientific communications has been increasingly normalized, which has undermined the independence of the scientific endeavor to a remarkable degree.

Should scientific communication wish to break from a corrupt set of political priorities, and the vertical funding system it finds itself in disapproves, can that break be made now, given the financial dependencies we’re creating? Or have these entities — governments funding universities and funders seeking tax breaks and friendly regulation — effectively captured the purported independent intermediaries of scientific communication?

Accepting payments from the producers of information is more than feeding author vanity or a flagrant conflict of interest — it is pernicious dependence on more powerful entities with goals of their own.

Meanwhile, we don’t talk about these things, because to do so is unseemly, uncomfortable, or disconnected from secondary goals swapped into primary positions because few wish to think hard about the future scenarios of our retreat and disruption. Many behave as if the overall system in which we work is functioning at a high level. It is not. It is potentially broken, and is certainly far more fragile than it should be to effectively intermediate research claims and serve a diverse set of practitioner communities, much less forge confidence in science in the public sphere.

Collectively, the system is courting real political risks — of capture by powerful forces capable of coordination and untoward influence; of irrelevance in the face of anti-scientific political gamesmanship; of dependence on the very entities whose power we once existed to check; and, of social and scientific distortion and setbacks across the globe, as assumptions of normalcy are broken, and the scientific record becomes a plaything for the powerful.

Maybe these are things we should be talking about. The big question that emerges, and bothers me more and more is this — “Why aren’t we?”