Open access journals. Part 3.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”– Exodus 20:16 KJV

“In war the first casualty is the truth.”– attributed variously, in slightly different forms.

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”– Winston Churchill

In Knives Out, a very popular mystery film currently making the rounds in theaters, one of the pivotal characters – the nurse, Marta – cannot lie without vomiting. 

It’s not clear that any real person, living or dead, has ever been so endowed (or afflicted) with this gift (or curse). In fact, the Ninth Commandment hints that our proclivity to shade the truth or lie outright when convenient is essentially universal, and age-old. Truth has therefore always been under siege.

But modern-day information technology, and the accompanying explosion in the influence and reach of social media, have combined to transform the vulnerability of truth, in new ways that threaten its continued existence. In the past, truth might often simply fail to see the light of day – snuffed out by darkness. Today truth is instead often overwhelmed by the glare of competing half-truths and utter falsehoods. Fake news, which might once have been considered an oxymoron, has become an actual thing – even earning its own Wikipedia entry. The power of IT-fueled social media can and does often pose an existential threat to hitherto generally-accepted truths or reality.

Which brings us to open-access journals. Current enthusiasm for making scientific journals open-access, because “information wants to be free,” fails to acknowledge information’s frailty in a post-truth world. To be accredited, to be verified, to be safeguarded so that it can endure, truth has always required help. Historically, peer-reviewed journals, whether published by science societies or by for-profit publishers, have (just barely) managed the task. But now, information gatherers have grown in numbers and the growth of knowledge has picked up speed – outstripping the ability of peer review to establish priority, verify data and logic, and distinguish between the new and what was already known, between what is truly novel and important, and what is merely incremental or repackaging. And that’s before we get to the tasks of protecting data and knowledge over extended periods of time from cyber attacks and distortion. 

Turns out, the (only partially) tongue-in-cheek Churchill quote is closer to the actuality. Information doesn’t want to be free. It wants to be protected. It’s the lies that want to be free. 

And in today’s world, and going forward, information will only be protected at increasing cost.

Who should bear that cost? Society can’t afford to put it willy-nilly on the backs of charitable donors and foundations. However well-meaning, such individuals and institutions can at best provide only intermittent, short-term, low-levels of attention and funds. Governments must find ways to step up to the responsibility.

Postscript: Science societies, facing demands for open-access, are today thrust in the position of J.R. Spradley’s mule:

J.R. Spradley, a NOAA political official from the Reagan days, once said in a similar situation he was reminded of a mule they had down on the farm. The mule was a terrific worker, helped them get everything done, but ate too much. They began to train the mule to do more and more work around the farm on less food…but just when they’d succeeded… when they’d gotten the mule to work all day for no food at all, it went and died on ‘em.

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