Newly minted Nobel laureates speak out against excesses of scientific publishing

One of the perks that comes with winning a Nobel: Access to the bully pulpit. In the last week, Peter Higgs (of boson fame) spoke out against the pressure to publish — pressure that he thinks prevents younger scientists from taking the time to formulate really groundbreaking new ideas. Meanwhile, fellow 2013 winner Randy Schekman announced that he's boycotting brand-name journals like Science and Nature because of the negative impact that they have on scientific culture.

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  1. 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!)

  2. Kimmo says:

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. Kimmo says:

    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.

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