Use Gossip to Understand Scholarly Publishing

Yuval Noah Harari memorably describes in “Sapiens” how humans dominate the planet for one simple reason — we gossip. This allows us to constantly check in with and on each other, casually learn who we can trust and who we can’t, and ambiently discover opportunities while we collectively alert one another to threats. This constant flow of information makes us a formidable and dominant species.

Can scholarly and scientific publishing, for all its trappings, be easily understood as sophisticated gossip? You be the judge.

Each paper is essentially a “look what I found” notification, a “pssst” to get attention.

Journals are gossip hubs, with editors trying to find the latest gossip to satisfy an audience who likes rumors of a particular sort.

Journals are scored and evaluated based on how well they gossip. If a lot of other gossips mention them, they get higher scores. If not, they get lower scores.

People who want to be gossiped about like to get mentioned where people see and trust what they consider to be the best gossip — the glamor gossips. Being told your gossip is second-rate hurts.

If someone tells a fib, the group expresses concern. If the fib turns out to be a lie, the red badge of bad gossip comes out, and follows the lie everywhere. Sometimes, the liar is told never to gossip again.

When someone has a new thing to gossip about in our world, other gossips are asked to evaluate whether it sounds like good gossip or bad gossip.

Gossip often ages badly, so there’s a hunger for fresh gossip. Sometimes, it is fun to look at old gossip, though, because it turns out some things are still gossiped about as if they’re new. And some of the old gossip about leeches and stuff like that is still pretty gross and weird.

Some think people outside our groups want to hear our gossip, and believe that making our gossip accessible to these outsiders is a top priority. No matter what, it’s going to be hard for them to understand what our gossip means. It’s going to be like going into a town you’ve never visited and listening to the gossip at the market or the library — a lot of it may sound familiar, but you won’t know the specifics or much of the context.

Some people write up gossip digests and present these reviews of gossip, which can be very useful if you don’t have time to traffic in all the gossip. But there’s nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth, ultimately.

So there you have it — impact factor, peer review, retractions, citations, review articles, open access, and more, all through the lens of gossip.

It’s that simple. But you didn’t hear it from me . . .