Engaging in the Public Sphere

A few months ago I met Rick Anderson at a conference. I introduced myself by saying, “I wanted to meet you in person since we argue so much online.” Someone with Rick asked, “so who wins the arguments?” I said that nobody ever wins arguments, and Rick followed with a pithy couplet saying the same thing. Pity I can’t remember it, because it was catchy and very appropriate. The question some people might have is, if no one ever wins arguments, why does anyone argue? And if we’re not arguing, what are we doing?

Answering the first question is easy. We argue because we want to win. People can rationalize it any way they want. They’re searching for the truth. They want to “set the record straight.” The want to put some schmucks in their place. But almost always, the underlying motive to arguing is to win, and following a fierce argument between worthy competitors will usually take you through a maze of arguments designed to shift the attention to something else whenever things go wrong. “Oh, you think you have me there? Well what about this tenuously related thing you probably don’t have a response to? Let’s talk about that!” Sometimes this is just tedious. Sometimes it can be fun, like a game. But it’s rarely persuasive.

Some people, maybe most people, don’t understand this. They write and speak as if they’re really going to win, as if their opponents will stop and say, “you know what? You’re right. I give up.” That never happens, but some people just don’t care. They’ll keep arguing vigorously long after anyone pays attention to them. They’re the sad trolls in the comments section of just about anything online. They’re the angry ranters. They seek victory at all costs, and the response they hate the most is laughter. If you want to drive angry ranters over the edge, just start laughing at them. As Brian Fantana says, 60% of the time, it works every time.

Then there’s another category of argument, if we can call it argument. I definitely present arguments in this blog, but they’re generally not the sort of arguments meant to persuade opponents directly. In my last post, I made an argument about a poorly written article, but I wasn’t arguing with the article, and I definitely wouldn’t bother to argue with its author. It’s not worth my time or effort. I’m doing something, just as Rick Anderson and numerous other library writers are doing something, but what?

Depending on the situation, we’re doing a number of things. Perhaps foremost, we’re telling stories or framing narratives, not in the hope of persuading the opposition, but with the goal of providing a compelling narrative that someone might accept, maybe especially someone who hasn’t made a decision on the matter under discussion. In rhetorical terms, we’re practicing the three rhetorical appeals: to logos, ethos, and pathos. We lay out reasons for our beliefs (logos). We present ourselves as certain kinds of people (ethos), hopefully the kind of people who are rational, intelligent, considerate, even-handed, the kind of people you want to agree with, that you might respect even if you don’t like them. And sometimes, if it’s appropriate, we bring in an emotional appeal (pathos).

I’ll provide an example from my own writing, the final paragraph of my book Libraries and the Enlightenment (which, hint hint, you can purchase here):

In the midst of this, libraries and the Enlightenment project both continue their struggle. With all of the ignorance, hatred, bigotry, violence, poverty, insecurity, and uncertainty in the country, both libraries and the Enlightenment can still provide hope for better days. Libraries are still places where people can find enlightenment, education, and enrichment. They are not warehouses for old books, as some people think, but active, thriving places where ideas clash and cultures engage, where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved. Extending or maintaining that possibility for all people equally, however achieved, remains a goal and a triumph for libraries and the Enlightenment.

This is the summation of the preceding arguments, and I provided reasons for linking the development of academic and public libraries to the Enlightenment goals of reason and freedom. I also present myself as a certain sort of person: calm, rational, maybe slightly detached and yet hopeful. Finally, there is an emotional appeal. Do you passionately dislike hatred and bigotry? Does personal and social improvement give you a good feeling? Then you should like libraries and the Enlightenment and you should agree with me. Within that, I’m using god and devil words. Education and enrichment, good; ignorance and hatred, bad! Unfortunately, appeals to ethos and pathos receive a lot of unjustified hostility as modes of argument, especially from philosophers. That’s probably why philosophers don’t do very well when trying to persuade the public, because most people are persuaded by ethos and pathos.

To use a non-library example, consider a person’s position on gay marriage. Whatever that position is, it’s almost certainly not motivated by rational thought alone. Most of the people I know are probably either in favor of, or indifferent to, gay marriage. The closest most of their positions, including mine, come to logic is probably something like this: People should be able to get married legally. Homosexuals are people. Therefore, homosexuals should be able to get married legally. Opponents of gay marriage might claim its about “natural law,” but it’s probably more motivated by the “yuck factor.” “Eww, gays are gross. They have sex with each other, even the men. Sex between men is gross. Why am I thinking about it all the time? Because it’s gross!” It’s the Santorum approach. Then every once in a while, something strange happens. Let’s say you’re a Republican senator and an opponent of gay marriage, because who cares what the gays want. But then your son comes out as gay, and you realize that the son you raised and love doesn’t fit as comfortably into the category of “those gays I don’t like” as complete strangers do. A transformation occurs. “The gays” as a category of the Other melts away. My son is a person. People are allowed to marry. So of course he should be allowed to marry.

People change their minds about contentious issues not because of logical arguments, but because of human sympathy and its capacity to erode familiar and comforting categories, categories that make us feel good by making us feel superior. “Wait, what? Homosexuals are just people? What about the blacks? Or the Muslims? Damn, even the Republicans? And the rednecks? And the homeless? Isn’t there anybody left I can hate indiscriminately just for fitting into a category of people I arbitrarily assigned them to? But I want to hate people. And then I want to rant angrily about why everyone else should hate them. Have I told you lately about vaginas and anuses?”

Angry ranters and belligerent interlocutors believe they’ll win by crushing, but that’s not what happens. They just put people off. Beliefs, rationales, ideologies, movements rarely succeed because they’ve crushed opponents with excellent arguments. They succeed because they compel enough people to accept them, usually people who weren’t directly engaged in the discussion or argument. If I’m writing about rhetoric or open access or information literacy, I’m not trying to browbeat people into submission. I’m trying to provide a compelling framework of beliefs and arguments that people can try out as they read through them. Part of that is logical, part ethical, and sometimes part emotional. If you agree with me, fine. If you don’t, fine. But on the stuff I write about, some day, somewhere, someone might want to find out more about the topic. They might Google it and they might run across some of my writing. And those people might say, “hey, that makes a lot of sense. Maybe I should think about this more.” Maybe other people are looking for ways to bolster their beliefs, or to strengthen their arguments against mine.

So that’s what I think a lot of us are doing when we engage with each other in the public sphere. We’re not necessarily arguing directly with each other. We’re creating rhetorical spaces for others to play around in for a while and telling stories others might find compelling enough to use as their own. And unlike the angry ranters, we don’t believe in victory. We just do what we do and hope for the best.

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.

Nietzsche First Editions Digitized

The Princeton University Digital Library (PUDL) has just published a digital edition of the complete first editions of Friedrich Nietzsche: the Nietzsche Collection. I’m writing about it here because I initiated the project proposal and did part of the work to get it started.

As far as I know, the Princeton Library has the only complete set of the Nietzsche first editions outside of the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar. There’s another digitization project based on that collection, but it’s been going since 1998 and is still far from complete, and as far as I can tell no it’s made no progress in the year or so since my initial proposal and the publication here. This digital editions includes his early published articles in the journal Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie and includes the full issues of those journal volumes so that his work can be read in context.

If you want to know how it got to Princeton, here’s an excerpt from the original press release in 2001:

“Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is widely regarded as one of the most revolutionary philosophical thinkers. The Princeton University Library recently acquired one of the finest collections of Nietzsche’s works available in the world today, including first editions of all his books. This valuable addition is made possible, in part, by funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The funds are a portion of the Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities Award given in 2001 to Professor Alexander Nehamas, the Edmund Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities and professor of philosophy and comparative literature.”

And now that valuable collection is accessible to everyone.

The Law of Small Numbers

From an early Daniel Kahneman article referenced in Thinking Fast and Slow about how the poor instincts of researchers selecting samples can lead to undersampling:

“The law of large numbers guarantees that very large samples will indeed be highly representative of the population from which they are drawn. If, in addition, a self-corrective tendency is at work, then small samples should also be highly representative and similar to one another. People’s intuitions about random sampling appear to satisfy the law of small numbers, which asserts that the law of large numbers applies to small numbers as well.”*

Hint: it doesn’t apply. Based on the experience of reading numerous LIS studies and surveys, a lot of librarians implicitly believe in the law of small numbers. Of course, I might have just read an unrepresentative sample and they really don’t.

*Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Belief in the Law of Small Numbers.” Psychological Bulletin 76, no. 2 (August 1971): 106.

Part 2 in P2P Review: an Elaboration

Today the Library Journal published the follow up to my previous column about information literacy as an unnatural state: Education is no Salvation. In that one I’m trying to explore the motivated reasoning and cognitive bias literature a little more with the goal of showing what we’re up against when educating people to be “information literate.” Definitely still a work in progress.

The question I’m now asking myself is why. What difference does it make if we’re more aware of cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, and all the tricks the mind plays? For the most part I’m content with Aristotle’s maxim that humans by nature desire to know, but librarians tend to be a practical breed, and the question I’ve often gotten when doing anything theoretical is what difference it will make in practice. Right now, I don’t know, but every practice is based on some theoretical construct, usually one we apply unawares.

In providing some context to the last column, I used the phrase “scholarly habitude” to describe what I think is one of the aims of higher education, at least in the traditional arts and sciences. It’s not a list of things we can do, but a state of being, a frame of mind, something along those lines. In some ways I’m going back to Aristotle and the notion of virtue ethics. Scholarly habitude captures better than “information literacy” the sense that being a scholar or academic researcher isn’t just about having a set of rules to follow. It’s also about being a certain kind of person: intellectually curious, skeptical, requiring evidence for at least some beliefs, etc. These traits aren’t necessarily abundant in people.

I’m thinking about this mostly in terms of teaching undergraduates how to research and write scholarly essays, which most of them are expected to do at some point. An example of one approach I mentioned in today’s column: the student who has something to say and wants some scholarly sources to support it. The exact opposite way that people should approach research, but the way that is the most natural and in accord with how the human mind seems to work. We make snap judgments and then try to justify them. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in Thinking Fast and Slow, our “System 1″ comes to a conclusion very quickly, while our slower and more thorough “System 2″ is usually happy just to accommodate System 1 without further prodding because it’s also lazy. As Michael Shermer puts it in Why People Believe Weird Things, “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

The wrong way to approach research on an unfamiliar topic is to have an opinion and then look for sources to justify it. The right way is to look for evidence and follow the evidence where it leads. There’s an academic analogy for this, but I’m not sure how far I want to pursue it. It’s similar to the distinction between theology and religious studies. I don’t want to say theology isn’t scholarly, just that it’s not really in accord with current information literacy standards in some ways. Theology can be defined as faith seeking understanding, meaning the theologian believes something to be true and then seeks to understand and justify that belief. Although I’ll leave open the possibility that some people do, in general people don’t hold religious beliefs for rational reasons based on evidence that could withstand public scrutiny. That’s why most religious people tend to practice the religion they grew up with and few convert to a different religion. Children growing up in a religion didn’t rationally choose to follow that religion, although later on many of them seek to understand their faith in a rational way. Hence, theology.

Religious studies, on the other hand, takes a different approach. We can use the insider/outsider distinction. Theologians study a religion from the inside, while scholars of religion often come at religions from the outside, trying to understand those religions without necessarily practicing them. They approach the available evidence and try to make sense of practices that might seem bizarre to outsiders, and to outsiders all religions have their bizarre practices. Understanding a religion as an outsider partly means explaining why strange practices don’t just exist because they’re practiced by crazy people. “They eat the body and drink the blood of who again?” “What kind of loving god would forbid bacon!?” “Your religion says I can’t publish a picture of this guy? WTF?” I’ve noticed lots of people like to make fun of Scientology without considering what they’re own religion looks like to people who don’t practice it.

Or a slightly different analogy, a bit broader. The traditional foil of theology is philosophy, and during the European Middle Ages philosophy was considered the handmaiden of theology, at least by the Catholic Church, and they were the intellectual standard that mattered. During the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophy broadly conceived came into its own again, and philosophy became the queen of the sciences. Every study that wasn’t motivated by religion could be considered philosophy, and indeed what we now call natural science was called natural philosophy in the 18th century. That’s why we now have PhDs, doctorates of philosophy, for disciplines that we don’t consider to be philosophy by contemporary standards, because they’re all involved in the same Enlightenment driven enterprise: to discover and disseminate knowledge about the world. The way to do that is approach the world with as few preconceptions as possible and see what you find. That approach explains why we (or perhaps “we”) no longer believe that demons cause epilepsy or the earth is the center of the universe. Academics follow the evidence, unless they’re economists or philosophers, because those people just make stuff up.

If we use theology/ philosophy analogy, what we’re trying to do when we try to teach students about academic research is move them from a theological mindset to a philosophical one, where the preconceptions, uninformed beliefs, and cognitive biases don’t motivate all of their reasoning. Writing what they know isn’t a good idea, because they don’t know very much, their experience of the world is limited, and their experience of scholarship even more so. Those preconceptions and biases instead should become objects of investigation themselves. That boundary has to be crossed before they can begin to examine evidence in the way information literacy standards suggest. Part of a good liberal education is about breaking down your past self to prepare to develop a better self.

So where does this leave library instruction? If all these cognitive biases and preconceptions are completely natural, extremely difficult to overcome, and probably impossible ever to completely overcome, how does this affect us practically? For one thing, it should lower high expectations. If you were unaware of all the ways the mind obscures and distorts reality for our benefit and how difficult making the philosophical leap really is, and you were already frustrated how little you could get done in the hour you might spend with a class, this news should lower your expectations and perhaps explain your frustrations. If you thought a little library research instruction is going to have a remarkable effect, you should probably change your opinion.

Then there’s the question, what the heck do librarians do instead, or in addition? I don’t have any ideas on that yet, but I’m convinced so far that librarians play much more of a support role in this enterprise than some think we do.

Plagiarism and Library Research Guides

A couple of weeks ago I had an unusual request. A librarian wanted to use one of my Libguide pages as an example of citing sources in research guides. It seems the dean of the library or someone had expressed concern that the librarians weren’t paying enough attention to plagiarism within Libguides and wanted a presentation to raise consciousness.

I have to say, it’s not a subject I usually think about. As far as I can tell, librarians have always had a culture of sharing about research guides. It’s not like we’re doing original research here. There are only so many ways to describe the research process or annotate a database. And though we seem to have become the citation police, librarians aren’t the plagiarism police, at least not on my campus. There are other academic units for that. While I’ve tried to assign credit when I blatantly copy or adapt something, I’ve given permission to everyone who’s wanted to use some of my Libguide material to do whatever they like with it, and I’ve never bothered to check whether people were citing or linking back to me. Now that I’m thinking about it, I wish Libguides could be published with some sort of Creative Commons license.

Eventually, I tried to find some examples of plagiarism in Libguides to see if this was widespread. It wasn’t hard. All I had to do was search Google for PLAGIARISM LIBGUIDES. The first guide that came up was this one with a page on avoiding plagiarism. That one has a section beginning, “Each day we take ideas from others without acknowledging the original source.” That’s probably true. In this case, there’s also a sidebar with a warning that begins, “Changing the words of an original source is not sufficient to prevent plagiarism.” That’s an unattributed warning, I might add, although based on the 73 results that come up in Google for that phrase, the source seems to be a document from Turnitin. Ooops.

And we get some interesting results if we search for the phrase “Each day we take ideas from others without acknowledging the original source.” That phrase, along with an entire section explaining plagiarism, shows up on at least three other Libguides, none attributed. Looking at the four, it’s impossible to tell who was first, or if all four are plagiarizing some third document.

So, plagiarism in Libguides definitely happens, and it’s ironically amusing that guides are plagiarizing each other to warn about plagiarism. Should we worry about it or try to do anything about it? I’m thinking probably not. While it might bother me to have an article or blog post blatantly plagiarized, I just don’t have the strong feelings about library research guides. Unlike with other types of writing, with research guides we’re all in this together, and using stuff that works for research guides helps everyone. It’s important for scholars to attribute ideas and phrasing for their sources so they don’t pass someone else’s ideas off as their own. But with library research guides, there just aren’t that many original ideas. The Libguides platform itself is built on the assumption that we want to easily borrow stuff from other guides, especially within our own institution. But perhaps I’m missing something and this is somehow a big deal.

Some Context for the Latest P2P Review Column

My latest Peer to Peer Review column in the Library Journal came out today, Information Literacy as an Unnatural State. This is my first effort to pull together ideas I’ve been writing and thinking about information literacy, the persistence of pseudoscience, and cognitive bias for the past year and a half. Possibly there will be some ancient philosophy in there eventually as well (e.g., Stoicism and philosophical Daoism), but I’m not sure yet. What we think of as information literacy, and indeed the entire academic enterprise, is deeply unnatural, and that instead of thinking about IL as a set of competencies, we should think about it some other way. I’m not sure what way yet, but the idea I’m playing around with I’m calling “scholarly habitude,” meaning roughly that the difference between the information literate/ scholarly person isn’t the ability just to do certain things, but a set of habits or frames of mind relative to the world, and that it’s much harder to achieve than reading through a set of competencies might indicate. I’m also not sure yet what specific role librarians would play in developing those habits.

Anyway, the LJ column is a tentative first step to something that might grow larger over time, so if anyone has any questions or criticisms, I’d appreciate them. The more and earlier the better.

On the “Sting”

The latest buzz in the OA community seems to be the story of the so-called sting of  OA journals, large numbers of which accepted a bogus paper with little to no peer review. The Chronicle article captures the story well. The journal Science, which published the “sting,” claims it exposes the “dark side of open access publishing.” I guess the dark side of subscription publishing has been well known for so long it’s good other dark sides are exposed. Critics have complained about the quality of the study/sting itself and the fact that it targeted only open access journals, even though (shockingly!) subscription science journals can be just as susceptible to flawed peer review, including Science itself.

I’m still trying to figure out what all the hubbub’s about. Okay, so only open access journals were targeted (including several owned by Elsevier and other subscription science publishers). Okay, a whole bunch of the publishers on Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers turn out to be predatory publishers. All you have to do is start exploring some of those publishers to figure out they’re hardly reputable.

Putting aside the potential bias of the subscription journal Science trying to spin this as a sting that shows how subscription journals are more trustworthy than open access journals, isn’t it beneficial to know just what dubious OA journals are in fact little more than scams? Beall himself might have an anti-OA bias and believes that the subscription Big Deals have been a big success for libraries (although I still don’t believe the numbers back him up on that), but that doesn’t mean he’s not doing the world a service by identifying suspicious publishers. Identifying suspicious OA publishers is good for the OA movement.

The only way this could be harmful to the OA movement in general is if someone claimed that this “sting” somehow proved that the OA process is inherently flawed. That would be a stupid and unsupportable claim based on the evidence at hand. In fact, despite the fact that every other Indian citizen seems to be creating a dubious OA journals, numerous OA journals didn’t fall victim to the bogus article. Is anyone making that claim?

What we can learn from this episode is that there are a lot of shady publishers trying to make money. We live in a world where Elsevier published fake medical journals for profit. Does it really come as a surprise that lots of enterprising people want to find a way to make a profit from a flawed system of scholarly communications? But just as the mission of science isn’t to support Elsevier’s bottom line, neither is it to support questionable OA publishers around the world. They should be outed and avoided. Maybe the bigger lesson is that wherever profit is involved in scholarly communication, someone’s going to try to make a profit, whether it’s Elsevier or some desperate guy in India with access to the Internet.

Radical Collaboration

For an ACRL committee producing a report, I’m investigating a category called “radical collaboration.” That basically means collaboration among academic libraries in relatively new ways, with collection development or public services or anything else.

If anyone knows of any examples of new types of collaboration among academic libraries, I would greatly appreciate it if you’d let me know, either in the comment section or via email at rbivens@princeton.edu.

Thanks very much.

Review: Jesse Shera, Librarianship, and Information Science

If you’re not familiar with the thought of Jesse Shera, you should be, and an easy place to begin that familiarity is Jesse Shera, Librarianship, and Information Science by H. Curtis Wright. This was originally published as Occasional Research Paper no. 5 by the School of Library and Information Science, Brigham Young University in 1988, and is now reprinted with a new introduction and index by the Library Juice Press.* Since the library school at BYU has been closed for 20 years, I’m assuming this has been out of print for a long time. Welcome back.

Some might call it a biography, and a review of the first edition in 1988 criticized it as a “run in attempt” at a biography. However, biography is the wrong word to describe the book. Yes, we find out a little bit about Shera’s childhood history and early manhood and a little bit more about his early career in libraries. However, the bulk of the study isn’t about Shera’s life, but his thought, specifically his intellectual journey from believing information science provided the theoretical foundation of librarianship to his belief that “symbolic interactionism” instead provides that foundation. This is combined with an extensive, possibly exhaustive, bibliography of Shera’s 57 years of publications. Of the 120-or-so page book, roughly half is the lengthy essay on Shera’s thought and half the bibliography. The combination makes this an indispensable volume to begin a serious study of Shera.

Early exposure to librarianship in the 1920s convinced Shera that librarianship as it had traditionally been practiced was a cramped and overly practical affair, and he spent the rest of his career trying to reform the profession, at first from the inside, later as a professor of library science at Chicago, and finally as the Dean of the library school at Case Western Reserve. During the 1940s and 1950s, Shera came to believe that the theoretical salvation lay with information science and technology. He was a cofounder of the reorganized American Documentation Institute, and cheered on the impressive gains of information science during the period. Eventually he changed his mind, saying much later that “twenty years ago, I thought of what is now called information science as providing the intellectual and theoretical foundations of librarianship, but I am now convinced that I was wrong” (41).

He changed his mind because he came to believe that librarianship is a humanistic affair involved with human communication, knowledge, and ideas. Information science is no such thing. While information science can provide useful tools and improve processes, it can never be the theoretical foundation of a field primarily involved with humans communicating ideas. “Information science . . . deals with only a part of what the librarian does” (45). Regardless of the prevalence of information science and technology useful to librarians, Shera believed that “the social purpose of the library remains unchanged–to bring the human mind and the graphic record together in a fruitful relation” (44). Thus, while librarianship might make use of science, it isn’t itself a science, and it has little to do with the information in information science.

At this point in the argument it might be useful to define terms for those unfamiliar with the debate. Most librarians believe we’re in the information business. We even have desks that say “information” on them, so that everyone knows what we do. And, in a sense, we are in the information business. However, the “information” in information science isn’t the same thing as the “information” that librarians trade in. (For a lengthy discussion of what “information” means to information scientists, I recommend James Gleick’s The Information. For a totally unrelated adventure story about a woman who trades in information in the sense librarians deal with, you might try Taylor Stevens’ The Informationist.) Here’s a key paragraph from Wright:

It was librarians, Shera reminds us, who “eagerly seized information science as potential supports to their . . . professionalism.” But information science, he says, has “misinterpreted [Claude] Shannon and [Warren] Weaver’s specialized use of the noun information and assumed that it related to the communication of knowledge rather than the transmission of signals.” This has created a genuine problem for libraianship, because Shannon was interested solely in creating a theory of pyhysical signals for describing “the message-carrying capacity of a symbol, a telephone wire, or any other medium or channel of communication.” (47)

Information science is concerned, according to Shera, purely with the transmission of signals, while librarianship is founded in human interactions and is concerned with ideas and knowledge as well as information. While the efficient transmission of signals or the storage of information in the IS sense is a necessary part of librarianship, it’s not as sufficient part.

Shera’s finally believed that “symbolic interactionism” should provide the theoretical foundation of librarianship. Symbolic interactionism is a theory borrowed from George Herbert Mead. Supposedly, unlike information science or systems theory, symbolic interactionism “investigates the psychophysical interaction of the empirical order and the ideative order in human beings by studying the relationship between the physical symbol and its symbolic referent” (55). While I accept the humanistic nature of librarianship, I wasn’t convinced that symbolic interactionism as such provides a theoretical foundation of the profession, and there wasn’t sufficient argument in the book to persuade me. It is perhaps the one flaw in the book that Wright, a friend and former student, provides little critical distance from Shera, because precisely at this point I would have preferred a little critical analysis in addition to the clear explanation of Shera’s thought.

However, that wasn’t the purpose of the book. There was enough to explain what Shera believed and to some extent why, and ample resources in the bibliography to follow Shera further if I cared to argue with him. So, overall, a satisfying volume, a quick read, and a passionate introduction to Shera’s thinking. Anyone concerned with what librarianship is or should be would profit from reading the book.

*[Disclosure: Library Juice Press published my book Libraries and the Enlightenment.]