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Why is it so hard to trust science today?

trustInSpaceIt’s getting hard to trust science nowadays. There are all sorts of problems cropping around reporting scientific studies:

Yes, reporter Tom Spears combined a geological paper and a hematological paper, plagiarized prolifically and amongst other things, created ‘seismic platelets’ (love it!) – and then submitted the faux paper to 18 journals. Within 48 hours, one journal had accepted it and several others quickly followed – gushing that the paper had been ‘peer reviewed’ and was well received. All wanted a fee of $500-1,000. Nice – that undercuts the ‘genuine’ journals who charge $1,000-$5,000 and with the exception of Nature (and any that have sprung up to mimic Nature’s submission-to-publication process), take months, if not years to publish your paper.

Elsewhere, some ‘genuine’ journals have been busted and over 120 fake papers have had to be retracted thanks to some MIT graduate students. I suspect that is just the tippy tip of a very, very, very large iceberg of fake (and poor) papers in scientific journals and ‘scientific’ journals because these were part of an experiment to see how many would get published!

Is it any wonder that a blog like this exists, questioning media science when the pressure for research scientists is so intense and so expensive to publish, that they will publish papers in journals which sound ‘academic’ but may actually just exist to make money?

When did it become so hard for the public to access scientific journals?

Where has the system broken down? For me, the system appears to have begun to break down in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when the journals all went online. It was probably breaking down before then, but some how, the publishers of most scientific journals really took to the digital realm with dollar signs in their eyes – charging for articles to be published, charging hefty subscriptions for online access to journals and charging exorbitant fees for pay-per-view of articles.

At the time, I was preparing a lot of  scientific talks to present to the public, but not as part of any type of academic research. As a result, between 2002-2004 I needed access to University libraries and their journals (I figure I’ve paid for many of those journals with my tax payers dollars which subsidize universities!). However, 2002-2004 appeared to be a pivotal time with respect to publishing scientific papers. This is what I noticed:

  • In 2002, I had access to all the latest journals as well as all the past years.
  • In 2003 when I needed additional material to refine my talks I found that to access articles in the latest journals, I needed to make a request of the University library to print articles from about half of the latest journals
  • In 2004, I found the library had emptied most of their shelves, with the journals now archived somewhere half way across town. To request an archived journal, I needed to pay a $600/year fee and wait up to 2 weeks for them to retrieve the journal. I could request more than 5 journals at any one time. New articles were now only available online – for free to faculty and staff and for a hefty fee to members of the public.

For those actually working or enrolled at a University, the access is still there, and as long as the University has a subscription to the journals, undoubtedly, the service is better now as many journals are entirely searchable on the University internal system. For the public, some universities and companies may offer an annual subscription which is probably far more than you are want to pay to sporadically access scientific papers, some may not. Undoubtedly, ANY subscription will be of a price which will make you think about access as it is much higher than subscribing to a newspaper. Or you can pay upwards of $25-30 to access a single article online.

It sucks to be a member of the public and trying to read a scientific paper today. And that is why we rely so much on the media – where journalists MAY work for organizations with subscriptions (or not – I often find journalists seem to refer to previous articles by other journalists…), or the good will of some scientists who will make papers available freely on the web.

What does this mean?

The explosion of online publishing of scientific information has occurred at about the same time as an explosion of scientists trying to get published and climb the University Ladder of Success (ie: achieve tenure). Meanwhile, the world has suffered several economic setbacks and scientific funding is endlessly being cut for many branches of science, leading to increasing desperation for money to fund research. During the Scientific Revolution of the 1600-1800’s, science was largely funded by wealthy individuals… today it is largely funded by governments and corporations. Not only are government and corporation getting parsimonious with their money, the government appears to favour funding projects which will support their political agenda’s, and corporations will fund research to that will lead to profits.

However, no one is limiting the number of journals out there, and clearly it hasn’t escaped the attentions of many entrepreneurial people that journals charge to publish and journals charge for access – and they charge a whole lot more than the movie, music and newspaper industry have been able to get away with! By arguing publishing in journals is a ‘niche’ market which the general public are ‘not interested in,’ fees have skyrocketed – seemingly in tandem with quality in scentific research plummeting. I guess it’s not that the quality has plummeted – it’s just that there are so many more avenues to publish today than there were when one could only get published in an ‘elite’ journal with proper peer review.

Ironically, the very people we should be relying on ensure scientific integrity are the scientists who do peer-review papers – and they aren’t paid! So here we have the journal publishers charging $1000’s for a paper to be published, $1000’s PER journal for access and $10’s for access to a single article, and the scientists who should be upholding the integrity of the journal do not financially benefit. I can see why – might introduce bias. However, Climategate rather publicly bought that issue to the public’s attention and demonstrated peer review need not be influenced by direct financial incentives (I don’t care if they were ‘exonerated’ or not – the things said in those emails were extremely damning)! But these same people are also battling to get funding for research and get their own papers published leading to a time pinch. What scientist has the time to test all the results or question all the assumptions in papers?!

How can the quality of scientific publishing be improved?

Questions do have to be asked about the process for publishing scientific results, including:

  • Now that the public no longer has ready access to scientific journals, has that indirectly affected the quality of papers? (Less people asking questions)?
  • Does science benefit with the journals charging very high prices much to print and access scientific results?
  • Should there be some sort of accreditation for journals that makes it easy for non-scientists to recognise a ‘genuine’ journal from a unscrupulous journal, in much the same way there are accredited Universities and non-accredited Universities?
  • Would science improve if Universities moved away from giving professors tenure or other benefits linked to publishing?
  • How can scientists obtain funding to research things which don’t attract the government or corporate dollar?
  • Should the public have a say in how tax payer dollars are spent on scientific research?

The only thing that can be said right now, is the system is nearly broken. Not quite broken, but publishing science is fast becoming a farce in light of the existing circumstances above! No wonder some top scientists are starting to move away from publishing in scientific journals!

Do you have any ideas how the quality and integrity of scientific publishing can be improved? Provide them in the comments below.

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