The Optimism of Criticism

I was recently called “a provocateur” by a friend in the industry, a description I nodded at in the moment but ultimately disagree with. Some of this perception of my being provocative surely arises from that fact that I am generally critical of a number of directions the scholarly and scientific publishing community and its commercial entities (both for-profit and non-profit) are pursuing — funder- and author-paid publication events and journals; Silicon Valley mimicry without attention to the appropriateness or consequences; conflicts of interest that are tolerated or ignored; and initiatives proclaimed as essential by people who have never worked a day in their life inside an editorial or publishing office, and who are only seeking to disrupt, co-opt, or corrupt what could be a more smoothly evolving and improving process.

Generally, criticism is viewed negatively, as if it’s rude or inappropriate. I disagree. I think criticism is ultimately optimistic. Jaron Lanier, in an interview with Kara Swisher on her Recode podcast, put it nicely:

. . . criticism has . . . optimism built in, complacency does not. Complacent people are pessimists and kind of useless and destructive. So I think in the very act of criticizing it I’m expressing a hope that we’ll find our way out.

This touches on an important secondary point — complacency. Much of what allows bad ideas like having funders drive patronage through publications, or technologies to spy on users, is complacency — the uncritical belief that everything will be all right, that there is no need for alarm, that nothing can be broken or damaged.

The pessimism of complacency is what some disruptors count on, and why these lazy disruptors get upset when critics arise. Thoughtless disruptors don’t want others to think. They want others to see things their way, and to abide by their worldview.

The recent meltdowns at Facebook show this all too clearly. Critics — including former executives, former board members, and former investors — raised alarms to Mark Zuckerberg years before the 2016 election, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the recent hacking of user accounts. Yet, these critics — their optimism about Facebook fixing itself not recognized — were dismissed and minimized, to Facebook’s detriment. The company lost hundreds of billions in value, and last week two of its most promising executives quit over disagreements with Zuckerberg and his unwillingness to be criticized.

What is the optimism inherent in my criticisms of scholarly and scientific publishing?

  • That readers will remain the focus of publication, not funders or authors

  • That a business model with a major conflict of interest — author-pays or funder-pays — will not become dominant, and will actually fade away

  • That predatory publishers, enabled by this very business model, will go away as the model fades

  • That innovation driven by recurring subscription revenues will continue, and that publishers will regain a level of confidence in innovation as a way of evolving into the future

  • That large technology companies won’t be able to dictate terms of engagement with audiences

  • That more publishers will be allowed to work independently, another important benefit of a market driven primarily by subscription revenues

  • That editorial offices will have the funding they need to absorb and get on top of the myriad new challenges with digital and data publishing

  • That readers will be able to trust our information more than they do now

  • That young professionals will be paid well, have long careers, and will bring new ideas into our profession, rather than being shunted into low-paying paper factories or outsourced because of funding caps imposed by bureaucrats

  • That students will see the value of pursuing the intellectual and professional rewards of a career in publishing, editing, and communication, and that there will be enough money to entice talent away from finance, computer science, and other “hot” industries

Those are a few of the optimistic ideas informing my criticism of various exploitative, conflicted, and thoughtless initiatives in scholarly publishing. Criticism and optimism are tightly connected.

So, here’s to thinking critically in the hopes that things will get better! If that’s provocative to some, then they were surely banking on complacency.