What would Einstein do?

5791228117_155ed7c23d_m  It really started with this article from the Guardian. Although it’s worth the read, the basic story is that a fake journal article was sent to hundreds of Open Access journals – the sort of place where you can publish without the strictures (often financial) of journals like Nature. The punch line is that far too many journals accepted what should have been seen as false. This set me thinking. What are the dimensions of this issue and how might we start to address them? Even following the few links in the article it soon became clear that there are numerous issues some cutting right to the heart of what we mean by modern research and academic freedom. By extension, this also translates to schools, although of that, more later.

At it’s most basic, research publication is based on a fairly simple progression from research to paper writing to review to (after amendments) publication and dissemination of the ideas contained in it. Much like the idea of the absent-minded professor, this is a caricature in modern higher education systems but it will do for now. The aim is quite simple: work is seen to be of “quality” if it can withstand peer review from people working in the field. It is gets published it has a “guarantee” that the work can be used with confidence because it has withstood criticism. This would appear, on the surface, to be an honest system. However, it has certain flaws that are becoming more obvious as pressures on the system increase:

  • it assumes that the reviewer is dis-interested i.e. has no concern whether or not the paper is published – the aim is accuracy in research and reporting. The pressure to publish seems to be increasing and the temptation, as with any high-stakes activity, is for quality to lapse or be for favourably granted in some instances rather than others;

  • it is often done without payment but it takes time. Some journals are finding it hard to get peer reviewers because of the need to complete an increasing research and teaching workload. Again, there is the temptation to reduce the time taken;

  • it assumes that review then publication is the only model we can use although there is no reason why it should happen. Part of the open access model was to gain publication for papers and let the reader-market determine the worth of the paper. If we ally this argument with the common call for increased speed of publication (which, in the traditional system can take up to two years) we can see a move away from a slow but tested system. Set against this, the common notion of crowd-sourcing validity is shot with flaws; it has taken years for the better models used by Wikipedia to gain acceptance.

Basically, this is where I came into the debate. It interests me (although not as much as the micropolitics of research which is an under-researched area in my opinion!) but is not part of my daily life. I’m more of a scholar – reading and evaluating – rather than researcher producing but then the implications of this are more far-reaching than I suspected. If we start at the point it caught me, the spoof paper was also mentioned in Science Magazine as one of the issues currently facing science (although I’d bet it holds for all subjects). From here, it seems to radiate out in four directions:

  • the rise of science publishing has created a wave of material that is fast becoming impossible to manage. This means good work can be buried;
  • The real issues of performance measuring . This is seen across the board from school exam results and the eternal comparisons between institutions to research universities. There are sound arguments that it’s not actually measuring anything of real worth, more a question of perception; that there are far too many and that reform is needed;
  • Given the system is breaking, how do we fix it? Perhaps on of the best ways forward is to have some ‘universal declaration’ of how research should be seen. DORA seems a good way forward here although there are others looking at a broader range of existing ideas;
  • Big business and government is taking a close look at this. Journal publishing is profitable or else it wouldn’t exist but it also means that your information is only available to those with university access, unless you want to pay about $30 per article. Recently, one of the better known open access units, PLOS, has started to make a profit (I know it’s non-profit but we all have to eat!)  suggesting there is a way you can get it done. This gives us a business model. The US government now wants their research openly accessible if possible. Since tax payers fund it, why shouldn’t this happen? A UK Parliamentary Committee has recently published its findings (vols 1 and 2).

Given all this, it seems certain that change will come soon and that the research community and the wider public will benefit. It won’t be easy because there are entrenched interests in business and government who are happy with the current model. There will also be researchers who might gain/lose but that seems inevitable in any change. As the Science special section on this argues, it’s buckling at the knees, so it is only going to be a matter of time.

So where does Einstein come in and where’s the educational slant? Einstein wrote some of his keynote papers whilst working in a patents office, not a university. Would his papers have been even looked at today, let alone published (I’ve met a fair few who don’t think research outside a university can actually be done)? How would he access research grants? How would he access research papers? It’s not just impact factors that need looking at but the wider research scene. We need to encourage our students into research careers. Perhaps we ought to make it a bit easier and a bit more transparent. There’s a lot more to be done, but at least this would be a start. Perhaps, by encouraging students we could improve our own ideas as well:

“Always listen carefully to the ideas offered by your students. Many times the tendency is to dismiss their ideas as naive and unconventional, but upon further reflection you will recognize fresh, novel perspectives on an issue. This latter line of advice has led to some of the most significant breakthroughs of my career.  A youthful mind that is struggling to understand a process is an ideal incubator for scientific creativity.”  Lundgren


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