Tuesday, December 10, 2013

And it is a kind of good deed to say well; And yet, words are no deeds.

After this year's Nobel prize winner and editor of glam mag eLife Randy Schekman announces a boycott to (other) glam magazines, several interesting comments appeared through twitter. This pursuit for glam hits close to home since I've seen first-hand the transition of arguments from "it's a sad necessity" to "that's how it should be done, space is limited" -- even without realizing that this scarcity is artificial.

What is wrong with scientific publishing and how to fix it. : gg
Ok, so let’s assume tomorrow morning CNS cease to exist. They close down. How does this solve the issue? It doesn’t. CNS are not damaging Science. They are simply sitting on the very top of the ladder of scientific publishing and they receive more attention than any other journal. Remove them from the top and we have just moved the problem a bit down the ladder, next to whatever journal is following.
I think you might be a hypocrite | opiniomics
I wrote a blog post recently called “We didn’t ask for it”, and in case you missed the subtle nuance (!) of the post, what I was trying to say is that if you’re an established scientist, a tenured professor with hundreds of peer-reviewed papers behind you, and especially if you’re a man, you don’t get to tell people like me that the system is broken, because you’re the one who broke it!!!
I disgree with many points of the text above, but the idea is sound. It's not about pointing fingers (why can't men complain about gender issues? By being born a man you're at fault?), it's about talking the talk and not walking the walk. Which applies equally to politicians alike.
An Alternative to Schekman’s Boycott of Luxury Journals | Telliamed Revisited
Now let’s make a few small changes. I don’t think the words I’ve substituted are any less true than those that Prof. Schekman wrote.  I’ve changed only those words in italics:
“These luxury universities are supposed to be the epitome of quality, training only the best students. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of degree as a proxy for quality of science, obtaining degrees from these institutions often leads to fellowships and professorships. But the big universities’ reputations are only partly warranted. While they produce many outstanding scientists, they do not produce only outstanding scientists. Neither are they the only producers of outstanding scientists.”

So, will Prof. Schekman and his group also avoid luxury universities, and will he encourage others to do the same?
The problem is not the existence of glam journals, it's a system that gives disproportionate weight to them, and our even more unreasonable preference for such venues. So we cannot blame the overhyped magazines for making all kinds of arbitrary demands and creating schizophrenic standards. We crave for them, and we are willing to inflate our claims and to distort the narrative of our manuscripts, to divide our work's ouput into as many papers as we can, to avoid risky research and to follow bandwagon subjects, and to reject other people's manuscript for the quaintest disagreement (as e.g. their failure to inflate the claims and to distort etc.)

BTW, this discussion reminded me that it should be a concern that more and more scientists are not ashamed of parading their economic ignorance (instead of, let's say, recognizing our limitations as we should in all academic areas we have no first-hand expertise). It will certainly hurt us in the long term, first because we start to resemble creationists: refuse to study for fear of perceived consequences, reading instead excuses created by equally ignorant others; rejection of recognizing the field as a science, laying ground for an alternative but "inconvinent" version of the field; claim that knowledge of this 'deeper' version excuses the lack of familiarity with the field; lack of capacity to pass a first-year course on the discipline. Second, because people versed in the discipline may have less incentives to take us seriously (in the same way as we ignore claims made by quacks), and they will just stop listening.
To finish on a lighter tone, two nice tweets commenting on the boycott:

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