The Quality Trap? The Risks of Claiming a Monopoly on Quality

It’s difficult to argue with quality. By its definition, it means something that’s good, better and more desirable than its competitors.


The notion of quality applies as much to information as it does to clothes, food or other experiences. Indeed, ‘quality information’ has emerged as an antidote, a solution to ‘fake news’ and the content of ‘predatory journals’.


On one level, the focus on ‘quality information’ is welcome for libraries, in that it underlines the importance of the work they doing in helping users find the best possible information to meet their needs. This can be critical – for example, knowing where to look for the most reliable recent medical research can make a critical difference in medicine.


However, the language of quality is also frequently used as a means of dismissing, sometimes unfairly, whole categories of information producers (notably, bloggers, open access journals, or open educational resources).


Going further, appeals to the idea of ‘quality’ and the need to defend it have become a core element of arguments that serve to shore up existing structures and models in the information chain (here, here, here). This blog explores some of the risks this carries.


Getting it Wrong

A first key concern is that consistent quality is hard to achieve. Even the most careful editorial process will still leave space for mistakes. This is completely normal, especially in the media sector, where deadlines are tight, and there is pressure to get clicks and views.


The best sources will of course rapidly – and prominently – display corrections and apologies – this is good practice. However, this takes nothing from the fact that mistakes are inevitably made.


The problem remains that by making a big deal out of quality, errors are all the more glaring. Too often, claims of quality become discredited, and the word itself loses its meaning.


As danah boyd has underlined in her work on the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, the occasional errors made, combined with an instinct among many to distrust authority, has contributed to a sense of rejection of traditional sources and media, in favour of more radical ones.


In short, it is perhaps a bad idea to base arguments on having a monopoly on quality when it is impossible to guarantee this in everything you do.


Fossilising the System


As highlighted in the introduction, ‘quality’ can be used as an argument to defend existing ways of doing things, as opposed to new and innovative ones.


As highlighted in the previous section, a particular structure or method will not always produce quality. And it follows that a different method may not always produce inaccurate or misleading material. Indeed, by adopting different approaches, it may be possible to do things better. Wikipedia is perhaps the most regularly cited example of this where, even after a few years of existence, it appeared to be just as accurate as the (much more traditional) Encyclopaedia Britannica.


The risk comes when laws are constructed (or reformed) in such a way as to favour (uniquely) pre-existing ways of doing things. Examples include the proposed press publishers right in the EU, provisions that oblige teachers only to use certain textbooks, those that limit payment of public lending rights for eBooks to authors who have a publisher (as in the UK), or reforms that place liability on platforms, or educational/scientific repositories, for hosting content uploaded by users.


Of course, not all of these are even effective means of achieving the goal desired by those proposing them (the press publishers’ right being a stark example). And they underline how difficult it is to legislate for ‘quality’, especially in a field as complex and subjective as information and knowledge.


A Way Forwards


Clearly, becoming completely equivocal about quality is not an option. It is not the case that all articles, all newspapers, are as good (in terms of being relevant or accurate) as each other. And indeed, this is where libraries play such a crucial role in helping people to determine what is useful or otherwise.


While processes, reputations, or other tools (such as impact factors) can help guide these decisions, there also needs to be awareness of their limitations, and the fact that they are only proxies for quality.


The focus, then, should be on making the case for the importance of reliable information, and building the skills to find it. An approach focused on the individual is also far more likely to yield results than clumsy efforts to determine, through law or similar measures, who has a monopoly on quality.