Open access journals. Part 4.

Google the phrase “the war on science” and a host of links pop up immediately.

Scientists might be forgiven for occasionally feeling beset. But the fact is, there isn’t really a war focused on science. Scientists, technologists, innovators, thus far, are held in generally high regard and tend to prosper worldwide. It’s more accurate to say that scientists are merely collateral damage in a contest so extreme that it feels like war – at least to those of us first-worlders who’ve never had to suffer the real thing personally.

It’s a noisy, clamorous, often vicious competition for attention, for eyeballs, on news and social media. And in this “war,” like real wars, truth is often a casualty. The progression might be summed up this way:

  • stick to the facts
  • supplement the facts with facts-based commentary around the edges, designed to stimulate thought
  • highlight existing uncertainties in the facts
  • actively, deliberately enhance that uncertainty, create uncertainty
  • triumphantly announce, through multiple media outlets, some compliant, others hacked, that black is white[1].

Today, people can get paid for this – in proportion to how far they can work through such progressions, on behalf of politicians and countries, corporations, etc. 

As argued in the previous three LOTRW posts, science is discovering that the protection and life-giving foundation that historically has been protected by peer-reviewed journals may no longer be adequate in the face of this “war.” A metaphor from our field: ocean acidification resulting from fossil fuel use (read “the rise of fake news”) affects marine organisms – ranging from coral and oysters to phyto- and zooplankton) that build their shells and skeletons from calcium carbonate (read “science dependence on journals”).

A cautionary tale comes to mind:

The tower of Babel[2].

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”– Genesis 11:1-9 (NIV)

We all know this story. Interpretations of this tale and variants make for interesting reading. By some views, the story is basically an attempt to account for the diversity of the world’s languages. According to other accounts that add an overlay of the tower collapse, it is a condemnation of human tendency to pride and overreach.

How might a storyteller update the tale to make it relevant to today? What could keep the world’s peoples from realizing our fullest potential? 

Well, it likely could no longer do to center on language per se. Over the millennia, humanity has worked out how to live with multiple languages. And, fact is, the diversity of languages is decreasing. Some, spoken by only a few are dying out as their speakers are absorbed into larger ethnic groups. The now-globalized world tends to have common words for new products, ideas, and technologies. 

In any event, we are so confident on this point that one popular language training tool has cloaked itself in the name: Babbel

Today’s analogous risk? Our society will become so captivated by spin that we allow the reality-based innovation that has brought humankind this far to unravel. One therapy that needs to be applied to society broadly is a widespread K-12 educational effort to help children discover, develop skill at, and enjoy critical thinking. In the meantime, certain institutions, like science and the journals they require, need to be protected.

[1]Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway captured this in their 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt.

[2]A tip of the hat to reader J.M. Hiatt for bringing this to mind.

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2 Responses to Open access journals. Part 4.

  1. Bill:-

    My personal belief is that the scientific “peer-reviewed” enterprise is broken. In too many fields, peer review has devolved into looking for the “right” references and away from vigorous and rigorous criticism. Too many experimental results can’t be reproduced. Unverified and unvalidated modeling edifices are built, and then defended as if they were bastions of truth.

    In my nuclear waste career, I was required to validate work done several years before. My bible in doing this was the NRC’s guidance on qualification of data (NUREG-1298). It recognizes four methods:
    • Confirmatory testing. This is similar to what you described Hooke doing.
    • Corroborating data. Providing data or data sets that support the correctness of the results in question.
    • Evidence that data were collected in accordance with a relevant quality assurance program (in this case, consistent with 10 CFR 60).
    • Peer review.

    By far, confirmatory testing was the most effective. Of course, we can’t do that for every published paper. But what we might do is to require that our journals begin to demand that researchers provide information on the quality of their data – both inputs and results, things like repeatability, uncertainty and so on. We need to find some way to restore the credibility of the research enterprise.

    Peer review is not what it used to be (if it ever was!). I see it all too often as the last refuge of scoundrels – friends approving friends’ papers with limited review but attacking new results (esp. from unknown researchers) which cast doubt on received wisdom. Your series is timely; it perhaps is past time to begin to address these problems.


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