Lumpers, Splitters, and Policy Debates in Scholarly Publishing « The Scholarly Kitchen
“There are three types of people in the world: Those who are good at math, and those who aren’t. This nice little joke gets us easily into the world of lumpers, a worldview in which signature similarities are sufficient to define groups. A good portion of the media seems to find lumping attractive and worth perpetuating... When things get political, lumping contributes to polarization — creating teams sufficiently simple and contentious enough to prepare for battle... Splitters make much less of a splash in political discourse. These are people who seek nuance, differentiation, and subtlety when approaching a problem or a population... The lumping problem appeared during the keynote last night at the SSP Annual Meeting. Dan Cohen, an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University and the Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, talked about how the scholarly terrain in the humanities is being changed by blogs, curation, and social media tools. Overall, it was a good talk and crisply delivered, but the underlying premise clearly suffered from the lumping problem — the belief that lessons learned within a very specific humanities community (historians) can be generalized to scholarly and scientific publishers in all domains. Historians live in a different ecosystem, with different productivity and funding drivers, than many other domains in academia. Certainly, it’s to be expected that some things might work there which might not work elsewhere. With the resurgence of open access (OA) debates this past year, and with the technophiles following on their heels, I continue to see lumpers trying to grab the rhetorical reins in scholarly publishing policy debates. These are people who don’t seek differentiation among groups like ‘publishers’ or ‘authors’ or ‘journals’ or ‘books’ or ‘technology.’ I am beginning to believe that this is because when all publishers, journals, authors, books, or technology are lumped together, they make a target. And that target is then used for target practice. Lumping obscures all goals with one goal. How has lumping affected our implicit or explicit policy debates? A few things have occurred to me in thinking through the potential issues. I’ve chosen to group the considerations by the agents we lump together.  Authors ...  Publishers...  Journals...  Books...  Technology... Splitters can often exploit lumpers’ broad pronouncements. When I was at the New England Journal of Medicine, the lumpers behind the NIH public access policy made a statement that all journal content should be made freely available to the public within 12 months of publication. NEJM is a weekly journal. We quickly realized that while a monthly would have 12 issues behind it as this window moved, NEJM would have 52 issues, or more than 4x that amount. We therefore instituted a policy that make NEJM articles free after 6 months, elevating us in the eyes of the partisans in this particular debate while actually leaving more than 2x the usual number of issues behind the firewall. Lumpers also get themselves into policies without realizing how they got there or how the secondary consequences work. Take, for instance, the relatively a priori construction of Gold/Green OA publishing. Now, because everything OA is lumped together as ‘good,’ the difference between Gold and Green is simply a matter of intensity — how good either one is. There is no chance either could be damaging or have unintended consequences. Yet, as splitters like me have pointed out, profit-making, standards-setting, audience-finding, and quality-raising have all potentially worked not as predicted by the OA movement. That is, Gold OA can be highly profitable, yet standards around publication have not risen because of OA journals, audiences are more confused because of the flood of papers OA has unleashed, and the overall quality of the literature (usability, reliability) has not increased. By splitting out these aspirations — quality, standards, and audience orientation — we find a different focus than just ‘an OA world,’ the goal that obscures other, perhaps more important goals.
It’s important to define the terms of a debate — crucial, perhaps. Right now, the lumpers are defining the terms of too many policy debates in scholarly publishing. Perhaps it’s time for the splitters to take a whack, if only to see if they can do better.”