GOOD SCIENCE(tm): Is the Elsevier Boycott well-founded and rational?

Interesting thing–the Elsevier Boycott I linked to a post or two ago has had some questions raised about it, and a critique or two from sympathetic scholars (warning: Comrade PhysioProffe is prone to using very adult–that is to say vulgar–language, and hilariously vicious hyperbole).

The first linked critique, from Rick Anderson, Associate Dean of Scholarly Resources & Collection in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, points out, and holds forth on in the comments, the misapprehension and capriciousness that he feels undermines the premises and therefore justification for the boycott. There’s some grousing in the comments about how academics could be so irrational as to cling to their belief (in this case about the boycott) rather than “the evidence.” Of course, I would presume that they would, as scientific rationalists, grant that we should not trust their counter-argument at face value and verify it for ourselves. And then, of course, once we’ve embarked on that research project, there’s the question of how the answers were derived, what questions were asked, by whom (i.e., watching for potential bias), what the data source and quality of the data were, how it was analyzed…  My point is *not* that the “truth” or facts are unknowable, but rather that developing a truly well-informed, rationalist conclusion is an exhaustive proposition if one were to be proper about it. It isn’t (or shouldn’t be) surprising that different (rational-esque) analysts, looking at nominally the same data, may still disagree as to its overall implications. And at some point, it thus would come down to “What is the dominant trend in the evidence?” mediated by “How trustworthy do I find the sources and analysts?” (and “How does this evidence appear in light of previous data and trends?”)

While science is distinct in its ability to go beyond “call to authority” for its verification (that is, the good thing about science is it offers a way to get around “it’s true because I said so”), it is not distinct from other human endeavors in that at some point, you kinda gotta take someone’s word for it. We do it all the time–few of us vigorously check the sources and derivation of every article we read or idea we consider, because if you did you would never get anything else done. (This is similar to political scientist John Kingdon’s idea of the “infinite regress” of ideas.*)

That was a preemptive justification for my call to authority, that is, having read Cosma Shalizi’s blog for a number of years, and developing my own gauge of his qualities as an analyst and scholar, I am inclined to take his word on Elsevier–backed up by my own time-limited research. Dean Anderson raises some good points,** and I will be on the look-out for further information reinforcing his critiques (contra this article’s points on how humans tend to reason, or so I think to myself). But the sum total of

represents a strong a priori reason to back their analysis. I am willing to be convinced otherwise by counterevidence, but more of it will have to come my way. Taking the word of one researcher and several of his commenters over the information I’ve gathered myself and the positions of my peers would be…  irrational.

*”An idea doesn’t start with the proximate source. It has a history. When one starts to trace the history of a proposal or concern back through time, there is no logical place to stop the process. As one respondent sagely pointed out, ‘This is not like a river. There is no point of origin.'” Kingdon, Agendas, alternatives, and public policies 2nd edition (2003), p. 73.
**He also raises a seemingly “bad” one. Or more properly, a seemingly circular one. That is, he asks “Why Elsevier?” When commenters point out that it could have started with another journal, he agrees and asks “So then, why Elsevier?” Even granting the debatable proposition that Elsevier is not distinctly bad in its practices, repeatedly asking the question of “Why start with it?” when the answer is plausibly “Because it has to start somewhere” becomes ridiculous. After all, assuming the complaints are legitimate, the fact that no one publisher may be distinctly bad is not a logical argument for not starting to boycott any publisher. And of course, boycotting all publishers would be so unfeasible as to undermine its own goals. Which, again, would be irrational.

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This entry was posted in Economics, Elsevier (Academic Publisher), Follow-ups, Media Criticism, Open Access, Philosophy of Science, Science Publishing & Scientific Journals, Taking Action. Bookmark the permalink.

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