Anti-OA and the Rhetoric of Reaction

You know when someone at Scholarly Kitchen thinks your anti-open access rant is excessive you’ve crossed some sort of threshold. You also know that when a biologist and a co-founder of the Public Library of Science bothers to give your article a thorough fisking, you have people’s attention. Even Roy Tennant seems a little riled, and he’s usually pretty calm. Jeffrey Beall has managed to publish an anti-open access article in an open access journal that’s so  poorly argued that I wonder if he’ll later use the publication as an example of how bad OA publishing can be. The Beall Hoax.

I was going to write a detailed response pointing out, among other things, that Beall makes a number of outrageous claims about OA advocates without referring to or citing any of them. There’s absolutely no evidence presented that any OA advocates hold any of the “anti-corporatist” (sic) views that Beall attributes to them, which leaves the article as an eight-page rant against a straw man. Beall claims that “a close analysis of the discourse of the OA advocates reveals that the real goal of the open access movement is to kill off the for-profit publishers and make scholarly publishing a cooperative and socialistic enterprise.” Needless to say, the close analysis never comes. If it had come, this article would be a serious contribution to the OA discussion instead of an uninformative rant, especially if it had analyzed representative passages from numerous OA advocates instead of cherry-picking juicy but unrepresentative quotes from a handful of alleged zealots. It wouldn’t have proved anything against OA itself, but it might have made for a good read.

Because the argument is unsupported and so extreme, all I have to do to prove it wrong is to say I’m an open access advocate who doesn’t support the elimination of private corporations or commercial publishers or any of the other nonsense views he attributes to people like me. I’m not a socialist or a collectivist or any of the other mid-20th century adjectives Beall wants to label me with. And, unlike some people I might mention, I’m not a zealot. There, thesis disproved.

After reading Eisen’s fisking, I don’t see a need for a detailed critique of the arguments, such as they are. Instead, I want to look at the rhetoric. Some of you might be familiar with Albert O. Hirschman’s book The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, in which he analyzes right-wing rhetoric from the French Revolution on down and finds three persistent types of argument.

I have come up with another triad: that is, with three principal reactive-reactionary theses, which I call the perversity thesis or thesis of the perverse effect, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.” Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the code of the proposed chafe or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment. (7)

Beall manages to deploy all these arguments in the course of his article. This shouldn’t be surprising.  For people who have read a lot of conservative literature, as I have, the clues to a reactionary worldview are evident throughout the article. For example, Beall claims that “The open access movement and scholarly open-access publishing itself are about increasing managerialism.” Eisen had to look that up, but if he were familiar with mid-twentieth century conservative political writer James Burnham, he would have known about Burnham’s 1941 book The Managerial Revolution. Burnham, a longtime contributor to the National Review, was once upon a time quite prominent in conservative circles. Along with the unfounded accusations about people being collectivists wanting to destroy private enterprise, Burnham’s work was hot among the right in the 1950s.

This bit should sound familiar to anyone familiar with the Manichaen apocalyptic novelist often taken for a political philosopher by teenage boys, Ayn Rand: “The open-access movement is really about anti-corporatism. OA advocates want to make collective everything and eliminate private business, except for small businesses owned by the disadvantaged.” How did we get from wanting open access for scholarly publishing to wanting to eliminate all private businesses? Or this: “The open-access movement isn’t really about open access. Instead, it is about collectivizing production and denying the freedom of the press from those who prefer the subscription model of scholarly publishing.” A movement devoted to open access literature is denying freedom of the press? That’s perversity in action.

This makes some sense if you share a Randian worldview. In this comforting worldview, the world is a simple place to understand. It’s filled not with flawed human beings acting upon a variety of motivations trying to make their way through a complex world. No, the world is made of heroes and villains. The heroes are the people who think as I do and are always right. The villains are any people who disagree with any part of my ideology. They do so not because the world is complicated and disagreement natural, but because they are evil and possibly stupid, and no matter what noble motives they might claim to have, they’re lying and trying to destroy some beloved institution. Also, there’s the faith that commercial enterprise is always good and free markets (if they ever really exist) always lead to the best outcome. Challenging this faith in any way leads to an extreme reaction. It’s a world of extremes. Criticizing any area in which private enterprise and free markets maybe don’t give us the outcomes we want is equated with being a “collectivist” who wants to bring the capitalist system down. That explains why in the article, criticism of Elsevier or of commercial science publishing means that one wants to destroy all corporations. It doesn’t make a lot of sense until you look at it through the Randian lens.

In this world, people don’t support open access because they think the creation and dissemination of new knowledge is a public good. They do it because they want to destroy all corporations and deny freedom to people. This must be their motive because they disagree with Beall about open access scholarship, and he thinks these things are bad, so they must be motivated by these evil ideas. Q.E.D. Since there have to be heroes and villains, Beall must be the hero and everyone who disagrees with him in the slightest a villain who is acting from evil motives to destroy everything he holds dear. Once you share this worldview, evidence doesn’t matter anymore.

The Hirschman theses show up as well. Let’s take a look at some passages trying to find the perversity, futility, and jeopardy theses.

It’s likely that hundreds or even thousands of honest researchers have fallen prey to the predatory publishers, those open-access publishers that exploit the gold open-access model just for their own profit, pretending to be legitimate publishing operations but actually accepting any and all submissions just for the money.

This is a good example of the perversity thesis in action. Predatory gold-OA publishers exist and they exploit people and harm scholarly publishing, and it’s all the fault of OA advocates. This isn’t what the OA advocates promised us! This is bad! We can all agree that it’s bad, but it takes a special kind of logic to say that because some bad people do bad things with OA that all OA is thus bad. In informal reasoning, it’s called the “guilt by association” fallacy.

One of the headings in the article claims that “Gold Open Access is Failing.” As Eisen notes, “This is the worst form of cherry-picking. Open access publishing is ‘failing’ because one open access publisher that published an insignificant number of papers went out of business?” Not really much evidence for it. But it might be an example of the futility thesis. Nothing good will come from OA scholarly publishing. It’s a futile effort that will merely result merely in more “predatory” publishers. Beware OA publishing!

The jeopardy thesis is pervasive. Scholarship is in jeopardy because of predatory publishers. Public access to good science is in jeopardy because of…predatory publishers. The tenure process for young scholars is in jeopardy because “Some tenured open-access advocates are pressuring young scholars away from submitting their work to traditional journals, sacrificing them to the open-access movement.” We don’t know who these tenured open-access advocates or pressured young scholars are because none of them are named, so we’ll just have to take Beall’s word for it. Oh, and the careers of scientists in developing countries are also in jeopardy: “OA advocates are also pressuring scientists in developing countries to publish in OA journals, and this could hurt their careers.” Again, we don’t know who these scientists are, but we’re assured their careers could be in jeopardy.

The free-market perfection of commercial science publishing is in jeopardy from gold-OA as well: “The act of instituting financial transactions between scholarly authors and scholarly publishers is corrupting scholarly communication. This was one of the great benefits of the traditional scholarly publishing system – it had no monetary component in the relationship between publishers and their authors.” That’s one of the benefits, and since there are absolutely no burdens in the traditional system, OA advocates are trying to jeopardize a perfect system. That’s bad! Beall grasps tightly to every scrap of evidence that might support his anti-OA crusade and ignores everything else that doesn’t support it. He argues like a trial lawyer when he should be arguing like a scholar. If he fairly considered the evidence for and against both traditional publishing and OA publishing, or even acknowledged the obvious fact that commercial scholarly publishing has some problems, it might be possible to engage in a discussion, but that’s impossible here.

I’ve analyzed some rhetoric because of the lack of arguments and evidence supporting the claims about OA advocates, but there seems to be a certain logic to Beall’s overall mission. Here’s the argument in syllogistic terms as I infer it:

Some OA publishing is predatory publishing.
All predatory publishing is bad.
Therefore, all OA publishing is bad.

The problem is, that’s an invalid argument. My study of formal logic was long enough ago that I can’t remember the exact name for the problem, but the error consists in moving from “some OA” to “all OA.” Thus, informally, his reasoning fails because he provides no analysis of any OA advocates while making sweeping and sometimes absurd claims about them. Formally, his reasoning fails because when put in the form of a syllogism it’s invalid. Thus, the overall argument, as put here, is neither sound nor valid. If we look at this as an argument against OA, as it seems to be intended, it fails, but as a rare example of right-wing political rhetoric from a librarian it’s kind of fascinating.

Finally, Beall approaches OA advocates the same way he claims they approach OA. Referring to the response to an article about predatory OA journals, Beall claims, “The attack on Bohannon was carried out with a near religious fervour. OA advocates will do anything to protect the image of open-access.” If anything has a religious fervor, it’s this self-righteous crusade against OA advocates that paints them all as villains. This, by the way, was my response to that article and the discourse surrounding it. Somehow I managed to say that predatory publishers are bad and OA good without religious fervor or zealotry. I pointed out that the fact that predatory OA publishers exist is no evidence whatsoever that OA publishing is inherently bad, so any fuss was for nought. Only people who can’t reason soundly would try to make that claim, which might be what some OA advocates feared. Perhaps there were OA advocates who attacked Bohannon with religious fervor, although no evidence is given for that. But if there were, that doesn’t make all OA advocates into zealots or OA publishing bad. It’s like saying that because some anti-OA crusaders produce unsubstantiated attacks on OA advocates or mistakenly argue that all OA publishing is bad because some OA publishing is bad somehow proves that OA is inherently good. Neither argument makes much sense.

6 thoughts on “Anti-OA and the Rhetoric of Reaction

  1. I love your first sentence here; it was my immediate reaction, but I didn’t blog about it. Good post in general. I’d also say I’m an OA supporter who’s neither socialist nor collectivist–but since I believe in public libraries, Social Security and Medicare, and since I’m a California native, I probably count as both in some peoples’ minds. Anyway: Good job.

    • Thanks, Walt. I’m still not convinced this article wasn’t a hoax of some sort.

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