Newly minted Nobel laureates speak out against excesses of scientific publishing


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#2

And good on them for saying so! It's not just academia. Government scientists get placed under the same pressures, because that's part of the marketing that gets them more funding. Require young scientists to publish X times per year, slam a paper through what amounts to a sham peer review, stick the top agency dog's imprimatur on as lead author, and BAM! You can create a 'dire need', a 'pandemic', or all the media blurbs you could ask for - and with an official seal on the whole deal. And better yet, if it's a contentious issue, you can scare the bejeezus out of the editorial staff of a good many journals which might otherwise be tempted to publish opposing papers.

A good example of where this can affect the public was seen with the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Former officers (not a member majority) of that organization can spend hundreds of thousands on public relations and lobbying each year, while simultaneously setting standards of care for entire States Worker's Comp programs (California has been one of those). If the insurers don't like it? Be certain, there will be publication to support their preferences. (And in that particular case, also offer Continuing Medical Education credits for seminars promoting your favored views.) Then, as past President T. Guidotti and others did, get yourself on some working panels at the CDC or DHS so you can help set agendas. Oh, and also campaign for that very ratings-via-cites system Schekman criticizes -

"...But Schekman said it was "toxic influence" on science that "introduced a distortion". He writes: "A paper can become highly cited because it is good science - or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong. ...."

This kind of scenario helped create 'the obesity epidemic' causing hundreds of thousands of deaths annually (later a page 6 retraction), the SARS 'pandemic' that never was, bad reporting of contaminant levels in Baltimore area water supplies, and claims that water-damaged buildings aren't harmful to humans (tell it to the people of post-Katrina New Orleans). A GAO investigation moved that last item over to the EPA over precisely such shenanigans.

At least we could say the NSA scandals were always political at root. But this is supposed to be Science. Problem is, democratizing science doesn't work - it's not a popularity contest. Capitalizing science doesn't work in basic research - science is not a profit center. All any of this does is turn social and career agendas into funding magnets, deflate the basic drives of young scientists entering their respective fields, while basic research suffers, professionals get mis-educated, and yes - people do get harmed as a result.

Higgs and Schekman rock! High time it got said. (Thanks, Maggie! I got 2 new heros today!)


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#4

Yay on him! I've noted several websites deriding him for hypocrisy, since he has been published in those mags, but seriously, for the decision to have any impact at all now, he had to play along until he got into a position to (hopefully) make a difference.


#5

Boycotting top-tier journals is the sort of thing you can do when you've already won yourself a Nobel prize, but for most early career scientists this is a luxury we just can't afford. For better or worse, getting papers into high-profile journals is how you make yourself stand out in a crowded field competing for increasingly scarce grant money.

I think a boycott is ultimately doomed to fail unless there is a corresponding change in the way scientists are assessed for grants and academic positions.


#6

So the profit motive is tainting our most worthwhile endeavours?

Don't come crying to me; I fucking told you so.


#7

There is a really obvious problem which nobody seems to talk about in science today: This notion of scientometrics -- that we can judge the value of science through citation analysis -- is very obviously flawed when it comes to models which derive from competing worldviews. The metric totally breaks down at this level of discourse.

It's really quite sad to see that nobody appears to notice this, because the problem hardly lurks beneath the surface. One need only talk to people online to recognize that people generally believe that there is only one authentic worldview in science -- the "scientific worldview". But, I would guess that experimentalists and people who are tasked with actually coming up with models probably widely recognize that this is complete nonsense, and simply a reflection of the public's failure to recognize the inherent structure of science … Concepts to propositions to models to worldviews (etc).

It seems that no amount of talking about the problem will resolve it, because the conversations just go around and around in circles. Not even Higgs will have an impact -- ironically, because of the dominant worldview. The only way to fix this will be to create new scientific social networks which impose this structure upon the discourse.


#8

But, wouldn't you say that the issue is compounded by research, often done at public expense, being hidden behind the high-dollar paywalls of the journals they published in?

That is, I'll certainly grant that most of the public isn't interested in reading those papers, even if they could get at them. They get their 'science' in sound-bites through the mainstream media. But for those who are interested in the possibility of real discourse, many are simply locked out. If it's ever going to be resolved at all, it's got to start somewhere - wouldn't that be a pretty good place to begin?


#9

And another apparently inherent assumption of this scientometrics malarkey is that nobody would ever make a negative citation, eg, '...not to be confused with the erroneous balderdash of Spazsky (2005)' - tell me that never happens.

Seen Clay Shirky on the unfolding revolution of argument embodied in open-source collaboration tools?

Your point bumped into his in my brain, and made me go, fuck yeah. So you have the stated goal of making some Github clone or fork reflect our current scientific understanding of like, everything, in full detail, so that a cursory browse reveals the consensus (if any), and digging deeper reveals all the argument, all of it, for maximum benefit.

It'd work a treat - we just need to smash fucking capitalism first to make it happen.


#10

I like it!

And yes, citations are used negatively. And, fraudulently. In one particular case, a paper denying the causation of illness in patients who were involved in legal actions contained over 80 impressive-looking citations, and carried as its authors at least one former high-ranking government official. That paper was used to defeat thousands of such claims. The problem? The single experiment conducted as the subject of the paper didn't relate to the claims. But the worst? Not a single one of those cites supported the authors' contention. Not one.

But, judges don't read citations. And neither do lawyers. They take testimony from approved experts (such as, the guys who wrote the paper above). And the organization which paid them to write the paper also made a big play in supporting the use of scientometrics. (Quite aside from the sham peer review it used prior to publication of the piece mentioned above.)

So, it goes a lot further than merely squelching scientific inquiry. The system can, and has been, used to actually do harm to others. And that, too, is part of the larger problem which gets hidden behind those paywalls.


#11

I reckon it's actually pretty damn tough to justify secrecy, except in reference to the fucked-up system we find ourselves in, and its perverse incentives.


#12

Yes, and at its worst, it's stuff we all paid for in the first place!


#13

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