Re: Recent Comments by Albert Henderson

From: david henige <dhenige_at_LIBRARY.WISC.EDU>
Date: Wed, 4 Oct 2000 10:44:29 -0500

Indeed I do have the right to believe whatever I choose to. However, I
tend to feel obliged to confine such beliefs as much as possible to
those things for which there is either substantial evidence or prima
facie plausibility. Otherwise, it seems to me more useful to keep an
open mind.

In the past few weeks I've been invited to believe a whole lot of things
that satisfy niether criterion--for example:

that commercial publishers have now--have always had--the best interests
of their consumers at heart even whil selling their products at so high
a price that dissemination of them can only be restricted as a result

that "the norms of science require objective criteria" to progress--now
more plausibly stated as "the goal of science and scientists [not to
mention other scholars?] is generally to use objective methods

I don't want to get too bogged down in epistemological issues, but just
what *is* an "objective method" and when and how is it arrived at?
Copernicus, Kepler, and Brahe all tried--or said they tried--to decipher
the universe objectively, but came to radically different conclusions.
Critics of Wegener's plate tectonics theory claimed to be more objective
than he, but his theory has ruled the day for thirty or forty years.
Purveyors of quantitative history marshal numbers from every which
direction without considering their accuracy or reliability and then
claim to have adopted "objective" methods.

If I dwell on this, it is because I see a major part of the problem here
as one in which there is too much black and white--the preferred colors
of "objectivity." As a result assertions replace argument and argument
replaces evidence. If we are not being told that higher prices reflect
higher quality--as well as quantity--we are being urged to believe
something very much like that.

We are also being told that the annual reports of the commercial
publishers will answer the questions we most want answered. Please!!
Annual reports, like letters of recommendation and political speeches,
are targeted *bits* of information aimed at specific audiences with
specific purposes of their own. No historian or other investigator
seriously interested in the operations of *any* company would be content
to rely on them for anything but as exempla of propaganda. Did the
annual reports of the tobacco companies tell us what we needed to know?
Or did it take a series of court orders, each resisted to the last
ditch? Claims like this tell me that Albert Henderson and I are really
arguing past one another, but then again it is not him that I am trying
to influence.

Have I defended libraries against the absolute and relative decline in
purchasing power over the past several decades? What librarian has
not? However, we probably lacked a commercially sponsored forum in
which to make our cases and we constantly being told that the costs of
running libraries would soon drop to the cost of a few hundred terminals
with a few people to fix them from time and time. Most of us

Still, I will concede that we have not done enough to make a strong
case, and here it becomes something more complicated than Henderson
would have it. How would this case be made? Should we have told our
funding authorities that more and more journals were being published at
higher and higher prices, so please give us more money? This sounds an
awfully lot like the kid away at college belaboring his strapped
parents. Should we instead have acted like stewards and started--long
ago--to make a series of sometimes-hard-sometimes-not choices about
duplication and cancellations. If we had, the world of scholarly
communications would be a better place to pass time in. As I read
Henderson, however, the culprits are those who refused to give us more
and more money, acting *in loco parentis* instead of those who insisted
on taking more and more of it.

Henderson asks: "Do [I] think journals are harmful to [my] health?" I
would add a couple of words ("exorbitantly-priced" before "journals" and
"intellectual" before "health" and then answer with a resounding YES.
It is no longer possible for a scholar to acquire an up-to-date reading
of his/her field or of any other field. Partly this is because the rate
of publishing is proliferating far faster than our capacity to
assimilate the results. As Pogo put it, "the enemy is us." Aggravating
this is the inability of libraries to provide nearly as large a
proportion of various universes as was once the case. Bibliogrpahic
databases give us information about information, but the escalating
price of that information often brings the process to a crunching halt.

Personally, I'm happy to learn that the APS "forgot to raise prices one
year and so needed to raise them ever more the next." This shows an
engaging lack of concern for the bottom line. I think we would all
agree that no commercial publisher has ever forgotten to do this (no new
year without a new price) even though it might then still go on "to
raise them even more the next [year]."

I agree with Henderson that his views should be allowed the same
expression as those with whom he disagrees. I believe that every
journal with pretensions to wanting to influence its field should
routinely--even automatically--allocate space for colloquy. All too few
do and listserves are only a stopgap measure in the long run. Although
they provide immediacy, they are seldom, if ever, able to provide
long-term access to a discussion. But here we are just the same. . .

Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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