Archive for the ‘criticism’ Category

Michael Geist points to a Globe and Mail article about the open access movement. I would have liked more from the interview with University of Toronto’s head librarian – the two words about subscription costs (“It’s alarming”) probably distill a 20 minute conversation –  but it is good to see this in the popular press. It is also nice to see the humanities get a mention in a conversation about open access.

Yes, academe is in my blood…

That’s why I will take issue with two statements that appear in the piece. They come from both sides of the open access debate: the academics and the publishers. Let’s start with the academic perspective:

Prof. Guédon [professor of comparative literature at the University of Montreal ] predicts that attitude will change over the next five years as academics see the benefits of getting their work to a wider audience. “We don’t want to be in an ivory tower. We want to be relevant,” he says.

True. But open access is not a solution to the old problem of academic elitism and disengagement. Open access could improve academics’ work visibility beyond the ivory tower, but it probably won’t. People outside universities just aren’t interested in scholarship, and won’t be perusing SSRN, PLoS or PubMed Central on their lunch break.

The lesson: Access has nothing to do with relevance. Unless you write something The Public want to read, you stay in the ivory tower.

Even so, I can see some ways open access will encourage non-academics to use journals.

  1. Scholarship will transmute into culture. Journalists and authors will have increased access to subjects of interest to them and their audiences. Whether or not academic work will receive shoddy interpretation in the popular press is another question entirely.
  2. Education will drive interest. As more and more people attend universities where professors introduce students to open access resources, the ease of research will encourage graduates to consult topics of interest to them.
  3. Open access gives authors incentive to write on topics of wider interest. Public access to journals is an open door. Invite people inside. Do this by framing research within controversies, because conflict is inherently interesting. Do it by writing approachable prose. Do it by connecting your esoteric subject to a genuinely important question. Communicating why you love your subject can’t hurt.

Now it’s the publisher’s turn:

Mr. Velterop [director of open access for Springer] insists that open access will never have the clout of traditional houses. It’s like the difference between a Marks & Spencer suit and an Armani, he argues – journals cost a lot because the peer-review process is expensive, time-consuming and complicated.

The dinosaur publishers are right to be worried. They have a losing business model relying on the clout and prestige of brand names – a losing strategy when an academic can get their stamp of approval from a recognized alternative of similar quality. Reputations change as traditions wither and are replaced. How appropriate, then, that the publisher would turn to the fashion world for an analogy.


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Here’s her worry:

I have concerns about the notion that blogging will soon become the choice method of academic communication, or, worse yet, the notion that blogging ought to replace traditional forms of academic publishing.

No one is suggesting blogs will or should replace traditional academic discourse. Journals are still alive and well – which is one reason the open access movement is gaining steam, even in legal scholarship.

If anything, blogs bolster the abilities of scholars to do good work in traditional forums – journals, conferences and classrooms – because blogs are conversations with peers, students and (scariest of all) the general public.

This exposure isn’t trivial. If readers like what you say on a blog, they are more likely to read your longer pieces – articles that might otherwise remain obscure and unread even by specialists in the discipline.

It’s also false that blog writing is inherently inferior to journal articles:

If blogging replaces more traditional forms of academic discourse, we lose the ‘sober second thought’ and in depth analysis that comes with researching and writing a peer reviewed paper.

Blogging can’t have in-depth analysis? Not so. That’s up the the author.

It is true that most blogs – even those by academics – are not composed of 50 page treatises where a few original ideas are buried by dozens of footnotes. That’s just as well. Shorter commentaries and serialized essays have value. They can improve writing skills, muse aloud, gather feedback from other scholars, and create communities of academics. As an example, see Brian Leiter’s new legal philosophy blog.

Even better, blog posts can seed larger projects. They offer a form of peer review – something many critics, disillusioned authors and judges say is lacking in legal scholarship, despite the best efforts of 2L student editors who valiantly fix professors’ footnotes.

All this, and on a more timely basis than offered by traditional journals’ publication schedules.

Which leads me to my next point: We need more Michael Geists.

Blogging allows experts to give sage commentary on the news of the day in something more than a sound-bite on the evening news. In blogs, law professors have the opportunity to educate the public about the law, especially in areas of controversy (as with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Leo Teskey case). Insofar as blogs have political clout and the attention of media outlets, they also give law professors the opportunity to raise alarms, create awareness about developing legal issues, and spur legal reform.

Try doing all that in a law review article.

For further reading about the pros and cons of academic blogging, here’s a quick round-up:

Those who disagree with Prof. Billingsley can take a look at one of my first posts to Thought Capital: How to Write an Academic Blog. Law professors, your audience awaits…

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Responding to my post, How to hack the new CBC website, Netvibes sent me an email indicating they’ve created a page full of CBC feed content. Subscribers can personalize it as they wish.

You can do much the same thing with iGoogle.

Reaction to the redesign in the blogosphere has been tepid but illuminating. So far, there is broad consensus about getting rid of promotional blocks on the site. Here’s the roundup:

It hurts, but I’ll mention another failure of CBC.ca that is particularly wounding:

Even though the CBC today launched its new web portal, CBC Aboriginal, it has failed to link to it from either its main page or the news page. You have to drill down via into an In Depth feature on Aboriginal Canadians to find a link to it buried in a sidebar, or discover it (as I did) though an independent media advisory.

Why is this important? Today is National Aboriginal Day in Canada. It’s an obscure official holiday, and most Canadians are probably unaware of it. CBC.ca isn’t helping to change that, and appears to be unaware of its own initiatives.


To end on a happier note, I’ll direct you to the CBC Blogwatch, which links news items to blogger reactions.

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In an earlier post, I said that centralized, national repositories like PubMed Central perform the important service of making scholarship easier to find. I neglected to mention and recommend two resources that allow researchers to search sets of open access repositories. Both of these use the Google Custom Search Engine, which limits the scope of a Google search to specific websites.

Here they are, with deep-links to pages where you can search for articles:

  • OpenDOAR (Open Directory of Open Access Repositories)
  • ROAR (Registry of Open Access Repositories)

You’ve not heard of them but know about PubMed Central? You’ve just made my point.

Visiting either of these, it will quickly become clear that these sites are mostly concerned with the nuts and bolts of the open access movement. Helping researchers find open access materials isn’t the first priority, and that is unfortunate. These directories, if they hope to recruit a wide following, should put more focus on serving up archived papers.

The same goes for you, Directory of Open Access Journals – although of these open access directories you’re the site with the cleanest design.

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There is some modest political debate behind the scenes about whether or not Canada should have the equivalent of PubMed Central, an open access repository for peer-reviewed biomedical science publications. The UK has already done so with UK PubMed Central.

Enter Steven Harnard, whose post to American Scientist Open Access Forum was picked up by the excellent Open Medicine Blog.

Harnard’s essay is less an argument than it is an injunction: Those who fund or host research should require scientists to deposit results in their institutions’ open assess archives. Centralized archiving should be avoided because it confuses researchers and therefore hurts the open access movement.

While I’m on board with the first point, his other claim doesn’t make sense. If there are psychological and administrative barriers to open access archiving, they surely apply to both types of repositories.

More to the point, aside from discouraging researchers to self-archive – a claim for which I can find no supporting evidence – what’s wrong with PubMed Central and similar national repositories? Don’t they do a good job at promoting open access? It is my experience that, at least among younger researchers, resources like PubMed Central create expectations that articles be easily found and openly accessible.

The reason for this is simple. Scientists like PubMed Central because it is the WalMart of medical science. It’s an easy-to-search portal linking to easy-to-access content. Better still, its collection is so comprehensive that it provides a measure of assurance something important hasn’t been missed.

Until there’s an easy way to topically search across distributed depositories, centralization is a good idea. Open access isn’t useful if you can’t easily find the information you want – hence the popularity of Google (which isn’t always the best search tool).

It makes sense that open access should not be voluntary. While researchers love using easily searched and openly accessible archives to fill their bibliographies, they are slower to deposit their work in an open access forum once it is published. If those funding and hosting the research care about its visibility, open access should be a condition of funding.

To make things easier, institutions and academic societies should provide administrative support to make open access publication easier for their researchers. They should also require their researchers to archive their research in the open, wherever an audience might be expected to look for it. This includes:

  1. researchers’ own websites
  2. universities’ faculty, institute and library websites
  3. grant funders’ own repositories
  4. government’s central archives and national libraries (e.g. PubMed Central, Library of Congress)
  5. topical archives (arXive)
  6. academic associations websites

Loading them with RSS feeds would be a bonus.

It is easy to see that the proliferation of repositories has the potential to make things more confusing, and it may especially threaten interdisciplinary ventures when researchers might not be aware of one another. That’s why in Canada and elsewhere, government has a role to play in the creation of centralized archives and indexes which make it easier for information to be found.

While I hope that open access spreads from the medical sciences to other areas of knowledge – including the humanities – I doubt Canada will now take up the challenge. The nation seems to be against access to knowledge both inside and outside its borders.


I received an e-mail asking to clarify some terminology.

PubMed is a web-based search interface allowing open access to citations and abstracts in the MEDLINE database (among others). It is searched using the Entrez search engine.

PubMed Central, on the other hand, is an open access repository of peer-reviewed articles.

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Ronald Bailey at Reason Magazine quotes a passage from Adam Smith’s 1759 text, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and finds remarkable similarities with what modern neuroscience has to say about altruism.

It’s nice to see the Enlightenment making itself known in the press, but he goes a bit far when he says:

Now neuroscience is confirming Smith’s insights into the neural bases of human morality.

No. There is a difference between 18th century moral psychology and neuroethics.

Smith had no insights into the neural or biological bases of human morality. He was interested in the human experience of sympathy, its frailties as a product of our imagination, its causes and effects, and the way we judge the propriety of passions felt by other people. Like most armchair treatments of human nature, his overlaid a conceptual analysis upon a mix of introspective and behavioural observations.

The philosophically interesting stuff happens when Smith makes a connection between innate moral feelings and moral rules. In addition to suggesting our natural sentiments bias our judgements, he argues that moral sentiments create generalizable moral rules.

It is thus that the general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of.

What is agreeable to our moral faculties, is fit, and right, and proper to be done; the contrary wrong, unfit, and improper. The sentiments which they approve of, are graceful and becoming: the contrary, ungraceful and unbecoming. The very words, right, wrong, fit, improper, graceful, unbecoming, mean only what pleases or displeases those faculties.

This view conjoins moral naturalism with moral realism, but it relies on moral sentiments being infallible products of divine origin.

A more thorough treatment of moral psychology, one which which posited a specific ‘moral sense’, can be found in Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

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Henry at Crooked Timber has a post called The Political Economy of Bibliographies in which he asks the sensible question: why do social science publications have different house styles for citations?

It’s a good question, but I’m going to focus on something else he says, because it gives me the opportunity to do something unusual – make a radical suggestion.

He says,

[L]awyers likely do have good reason to have those long confusing footnotes bristling with references.

No, they don’t.

They are just participating in bad habits of misdirected scholarship.

The problem is an artifact of overwrought legal scholarship where breadth of research materials replaces depth of cogent analysis. I blame authors’ overactive sense of precedent, and student law review editors who are forced to ignore poor writing skills. The result: papers devoting more page space to citations than to the authors’ own ideas.

Perhaps this could be changed by an annual award for the law review article with the fewest footnotes?

While it can be useful to a researcher when an article they read has a citation for every statement, that’s only the case if the notes are of good quality. Most are not.

Footnotes tend fall into five groups:

  1. Trigger citations, which appear early in the paper and link readers to essential texts that have provoked the article.
  2. Plagiarism avoidance, identifying the origin of quoted and paraphrased material.
  3. Exploratory notes, where the author has license to make tangential comments on the topic or literature.
  4. Padding pointers to sentences written by someone else saying exactly the same thing, usually in no greater depth than that of the citing paper. This may be an over-cautious defense against plagiarism, in which case their prominence tells me legal scholars are mostly recycling other academics’ ideas, stringing together statements that may as well be cut and pasted from journals and reports.

The first and second are essential, the third is disposable, and the last is noxious clutter.

In a different context, judges have good reason to not like the footnotes that appear in lawyers’ facta. The lawyers cite things that don’t count as usable precedent, or reference well-known cases that are easy to find.

The formatting of legal citation is similarly distraught, and that’s where my radical suggestion comes in.

Journals should get rid of uniform citation style guides, apply a Principle of Parsimonious Citation, and use open access to get the job done.

Whew. That wasn’t easy to say, and goes against deeply entrenched editorial instincts. But it comes from realizations that don’t beggar common sense, and is an argument to trim citations to their bare essentials:

  1. Just give useful information. Readers just need a simple set of information that allows them to find a reference. Anything else is noise.
  2. Completeness is overrated. Thanks to search technologies, we usually don’t need full citations to track down a reference. Even the simplest citations return unambiguous search results. When a Google search won’t get you the information via the journal’s home page, commercial databases will serve it up without much fuss even if you only know the title of the article. So, in most instances all you need is a variant of: [Author’s name; Title of document; Date of authorship]. Toss in a localizer to identify paragraph, page, or section and the reader has everything they need.
  3. Open access does it better. It gets rid of the need for uniform styles, and makes documents easier to find with less information. It also propels online referencing: why bother with ordering and punctuating defunct volume and issue numbers when a digital object identifier (DOI) will do the job?
  4. Citations demand no syntax. Formats are mostly arbitrary. So as long as citations are consistently styled within a document and don’t confuse the reader, don’t fuss over it.

I don’t expect people to agree with this, especially in a traditional field like the law. Instead, I’d expect complaints to the effect that courts need authoritative citation styles, and that this sets the default standard for legal scholarship.

Not so. Even if there is a trickle-down effect, courts using neutral citations don’t need authoritative style guides to locate publications. Judge’s law clerks can probably find information using standard research tools better than anyone else.

Worries about the ‘officiality’ of the law are just public relations laden with bad metaphysics. It ignores how citations function: footnotes are just about flagging sources of interest and finding them, nothing more.

If we are going to use a uniform standard of citation – either to avoid styles that don’t look pretty, or to guide authors who can’t be trusted to think about this for themselves – it should do four things:

  1. Use neutral citations that identify cases without referencing print reporters.
  2. Be short and intuitive, because there is no reason it should take 208 pages and multiple lectures in a first year law course to master this.
  3. Be fluid, to accommodate a wide variety of documents – and the legacy of proprietary or hard-to-find print volumes.
  4. Be open access, because there is no reason to lock citation recommendations within a book.

While we are at it, why not use the styleguide to improve the habits of legal scholars? Prior to press, tag footnotes with metadata along the lines of ‘Essential reading’, ‘See, no plagiarism’, or ‘Just padding’.


In Canada, it is normal to follow the McGill guide, but LEXUM and CANLII are spurring movement towards more universal standards of citation – see the Canadian Citation Committee.

In the US, judges use either the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation or the ALWD Citation Manual. Their differences are documented at:

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