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Confusing Criticism With Bullying

Jeffrey Beall is feeling bullied. This is unfortunate on several levels.

I was delighted when I read Berger & Cirasella's Beyond Beall's List: Better understanding predatory publishers in the March issue of College & Research Libraries News. Here was a well-balanced critique, lauding Beall for bringing attention to a serious problem, while also pointing to some of the justified criticisms he's received for the lack of rigor in his methodology and his clear antipathy to open access in general. As the title of the piece indicates, the authors recommend going "beyond Beall" to consider additional factors when making a determination about the quality of a particular journal.

I was happy to see it because I worry that some librarians and authors use Beall's list uncritically as definitive.   This article did a very good job of acknowledging the important contribution that Beall has made while putting it into the larger context of issues to be considered.

Beall didn't see it that way. In his petulant letter to the editor in the June issue, he complains about those who seek to discredit him.  He makes a number of interesting assertions, the most peculiar of which might be his claim that pretending that predatory journals don't exist is a "common strategy among academic librarians."  I do wish he'd provided some sourcing for this.  I try to follow this topic fairly closely and I've never seen any academic librarian anywhere make such a claim.

But it was his reference to "feeling bullied" by Walt Crawford (who he doesn't mention by name, but attempts to discredit by referring to him as "an author who writes and self-publishes his own non-peer-reviewed journal") that particularly caught my eye and raises issues about how critical discourse is conducted in our highly emotional and discordant times.

By using the highly charged word "bullied," Beall seeks to pull attention away from the content of Crawford's critiques to his own subjective sensitivities. If Crawford is being a bully, then right-thinking people need to come to Beall's defense, not because he's right on the merits of the critique, but because bullying is bad. By treating the critiques as if they were an ad hominem attack, Beall attempts to deflect attention from the substantive issues.  Make no mistake -- Crawford's criticism was strong and in-depth and surely must have stung.  But it was also rigorous and well-sourced.  Harsh, perhaps, but scarcely "bullying."

In the highly charged contentious playing fields of the internet we see this played out in many guises. In a discussion thread on the Facebook group ALAThinkTank about whether any white male would be acceptable as the next librarian of Congress, one of the disputants (female) castigated another (white male) saying, in essence, that he had no business even participating in the discussion because his privilege rendered anything he might say irrelevant. Certainly white male privilege affects one's views and needs to be taken into account, but even white males may have useful things to contribute to discussions treating of issues involving race and gender.

Similarly, I was struck by a comment in another thread from someone who, responding to some pushback on the point she was putting forward, said, in a tone of high dudgeon "So I'm not allowed to make the case for this?" Since the moderator hadn't deleted the comment it clearly was allowed. What wasn't "allowed" was that she be able to make the comment without encountering strong disagreement.

Alas, there is no clear line between criticism, even strong criticism, and personal attacks. The vicious mysogyny that infects so many online discussions, worse in some sectors, but rarely absent altogether, creates a hostile environment in which any woman might, quite rightly, flinch at even mild criticism, anticipating the vileness that may be in its wake. One can become inclined to treat all pushback as personally hostile, just to be on the safe side. 

The ease and immediacy of online communication seem to encourage this unhealthy conflation of emotion and argument.  When one's statements are questioned or one's opinions disagreed with, it's too easy to respond to the emotion, to feel personally attacked and to fight back, not against the issue or opinion expressed, but against the person.

In those quaint days of yore, when email was considered to be "instantaneous" communication, we sometimes cautioned each other to "write that angry email that you want to send, but then hold it overnight..."  That kind of caution, that sense that my first reaction might not be my best reaction, is eroding in the world of twitter and comment threads and Facebook discussion groups.  Beall's record of responding to his critics makes clear that reflection wouldn't have tempered his response much (although one can imagine that the first draft of his letter displayed an even greater sense of unjustified persecution), but his easy resort to the claim of bullying is very much in keeping with the tenor of discourse of the times.

 

Comments

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Thank you for that. I was so dumbfounded by the charge of "bullying"--which, as you note, didn't name me but could have referred to nobody else--that I didn't even respond. What I've done is try to bring facts to bear on the situation, spending hundreds (literally) of hours in the process. If that's bullying, then we're in deep trouble.

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