The Power of Words

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 We start, and will finish this collection, with argumentation. If my aim has always been advocacy in one form or another, then there is some interest not just in what I was arguing for, but also the way in which I argued it. The very first blog post I wrote in 2007 started with the (naive) aim of defining my terms. The battle over terms like “open”, not to mention “science”, has continued without any real resolution. Nonetheless words matter and I’ve returned to them at various stages. The words that define research policies and institutions will likely always be contested, but that contest for control of meaning is frequently a proxy for the contest for control itself. Open itself, as I discuss in that first post is perhaps the most well known example. “Green” and “gold” have become the rallying points for disputing camps in the open access movement, while “impact” and “quality” represent the battle ground for how we define the values, and value, of the modern research enterprise.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 When I started writing I had a very scientific view of language and a lack of appreciation of the importance of choosing the right words, not just for the sake of precision, or even persuasion, but because the choices we make in terminology have the ability to limit our thinking. As I moved into more direct advocacy work I became much more aware of how the right choice of words could make an idea more transmissible. But it was through increasing contact with humanists and social scientists, especially those with experience of disadvantaged groups, that I started to appreciate how language shapes ideas.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 This evolution is quite explicit in the writing in this section. That first blog post is concerned with precision. The term “Open Science” is essentially rejected, because it cannot be well defined. The idea that a vague term could be useful would not have occurred to me at the time. In “Impact is Re-use” the idea of ownership and control of a term is emerging alongside a deliberate attempt to re-define that term. Arguably one of the more successful ideas I have promoted, the idea that re-use is a close proxy for impact is a theme that runs throughout several of the pieces in this collection.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It is in “Green, Gold, Platinum, Puce” that the concern for language limiting ideas comes through most strongly. These are amongst the most commonly mis-applied terms in the whole scholarly communications industry. Much of the heat in the core debates around Open Access arises from a combination of misuse and the false Green/Gold dichotomy that they implies a choice must be made between them. Needless to say the misuse continued unabated after the original publication of this piece and the shallowness of the debate continues.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The next post comes at the same issue of what we mean by “Open” as that original post, but from a different angle. Here the lens is reversed. Rather than seek to define and limit I try to explain what it is I mean when I use the word “open” as shorthand. The challenge here is not to tie the words down but that the words are insufficient to fully express what I mean. But at the same time as the piece seeks to explain it also has a political context. Written as a response to online debates about “what is Open Access” it is in part an attempt to control usage of that term, to prevent it becoming diffuse in a way that allows traditional publishers to provide limited access and claim it is “Open Access”.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Precision in terminology in this case aligns with my political aims. But seeking control over terminology, control over a debate, also risks creating the kinds of limitations to thinking and innovation that can damage real progress. The most recent post in this section brings elements of all of this together to discuss that even more problematic term “academic freedom”. Freedom is of course a totemic concept, one deployed for many purposes. Academic freedom is strange concept, a political sledgehammer used to silence critics and a crucial component of critical thinking. It is almost always used to demand greater freedom to act, but rarely seen in combination with questions of responsibilities, of what freedoms might be given up to ensure that a scholar studies and speaks with academic freedom. Here the argument is not about definitions per se but about how and where the claims of freedom need to be balanced.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Words can define and limit our thinking, define and limit our politics and our ideas. At the same time precision matters in enabling the productive exchange of those ideas. Some of the most powerful interventions arise from introducing words, using them in new places, or creating new forms for them to sit within. But such soft power, is still power, still aimed at controlling the processes and ways of thinking that create desired action. Perhaps productive politics arises in those spaces where we can move beyond seeking control over the definition and positioning of words and towards debating the real meaning behind them.

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