Monday, January 27, 2014

Research By Any Other Name

A couple of days ago I opened a hard copy of an organic chemistry journal to the page where I'm listed as a co-author of an article. I was stunned. The boss had surprised me with the news over the weekend, but not even the swagger in my end-zone dance could capture how life changing it was to see my work and my current name in print for the first time. 

Seeing my current name on a paper also gives me chills for a darker set of reasons.
1. I suddenly find myself in the big pond of published research, knowing nothing of it except it operates on one law: Publish or Perish. As I suspected, and other chemists have confirmed, there is a lot more to publishing than that.

2. The past two weeks have shown that there are people in power taking names and retaliating when their actions are questioned/criticized. These people include editors of journals.

3. A scientist's name carries their authority and determines how their research will be received. Most importantly however, a scientist's name identifies them as a set of interactions with other research and journals in the collective memory the world of published research. Journals are run by people in this community of knowledge, usually ones that have been in said community a long time and are therefore very likely to remember the set of research interactions a particular name conveys. While there is great benefit to their experience, everyone has their own memories/versions of events, biases and grudges. This last element presents a problem in all cases, but especially when a more established member of the world of published research direct their hostility to an up and coming researcher who has called out a more experienced researcher for being wrong. Unfortunately, some researchers have chosen their ego and hierarchy over the scientific spirit of learning and I can't help but wonder if this is because of who is calling them out. We have to consider that the face of science is slowly changing (both literally and in terms of the norms that govern it) and it is doing so faster than some people can handle - people that include those that run journals.

At the behest of my friends and mentors, I'm now writing under a pseudonym. 
I'd started Twitter under my future name, and when they saw that I approach people on line the same way I do in real life, they wanted me to be careful. Ironically, the more I move away from my current name, the more I stand out. My current name is ridiculously common. After reading the first paragraph, you know my area of chemistry and unfortunately that narrows it down extremely. The name I'm taking narrows it further. My pseudonym is me hiding in plain sight. Though as Chemtacular, I am in the cross-hairs of everyone I'm responsible to.

In the 6 months I've been on Twitter, I've seen plenty of folks take issue with people writing under pseudonyms., claiming our "anonymity" allows for us to eschew accountability for what we say thus giving us free reign to attack established scientists' work. 

Needless to say, using a pseudonym is not the same as being "anonymous." As Chemtacular, I still own my words. I participate in scientific discourse as a consistent entity but that is still enough to scare some in the old guard. Pseudonyms provide the only space in which we can remain true to science, which point is an open discourse where all claims are (should be) based on quantifiable research. Anonymity doesn't work this way. Anonymity is a disembodied comment, a critique without a name, and while this can be used to hit and run on the internet, it is at the heart of publishing scientific research in the form of "anonymous peer review." By being anonymous, reviewers for a particular journal can determine if the research submitted merits publication, but like all systems this is far from perfect. Oddly the folks that vehemently argue against pseudonyms don't seem to have a problem with anonymous peer review.

Some papers get through peer review, editors etc., but still include some issues with the research and people writing under pseudonyms have been able to call them out without committing career suicide. As far as I know, we become scientists because we never stop learning, feedback provides an opportunity for everyone to learn, so I don't understand where the disconnect is. People with credentials, authority and deeply entrenched in the world of published research missed these issues when the paper was submitted for publication, so whether pseudonymous critics are 'qualified' isn't the problem. The fact that the person/s had to use a pseudonym or risk never being published again strikes me as a much more serious problem. 

In light of the position that the people at Nature have taken on gender issues and one of their editors openly stating that he has a 'hit list', I began to wonder why it was so important to publish in glam journals and how glam journals obtained authority. Being new to science and even newer to the wider forum of published research, I'm taking a look at this situation as any good scientist would: by talking to a lot of other scientists. Rewind a week or so, and you can find this tweet:

Turns out I'm wrong. I took on-line and off line conversations with Twitter folk in the know and pieced together that though people wish it weren't so: in a publish or perish world, scientists need exposure. Glam journals like Nature and Science give the maximum exposure and being published there gets scientists the big grant money. The next best thing are of course the big journals in particular fields. So in my case, I should be shooting for The Journal of the American Chemical Society (that might be glam too, I'm not sure), Angewandte Chemie, The Journal of Organic Chemistry (ACS publication) and the like. Big names in the field publish with these journals and that gives the journals authority. In turn, getting published in a glam/big journal gives scientists authority and access to a lot of grant money. Up and coming scientists want to get in on the validation a glam journal offers precisely because they need the grant money to continue to publish and thus not perish. This makes sense until you remember that journals are run by people with biases and that therefore, up and coming scientists are expected/forced to keep their head down.

My natural instinct is: break the cycle! I agreed with others on Twitter that called for scientists to take their papers elsewhere. One of my very established Twitter connections saw my posts and privately requested I take a second to talk to a specific set of people on the other side of my argument. One of these ended up being a mentor of mine, who had also seen my posts and had an answer ready. They pointed out a couple of things that hadn't occurred to me but are key:

1. People run journals (see above). All journals. And thus taking our work to another journal may not solve the problem.
2. Even if every Nobel laureate took their work to a small journal, by virtue of their authority that would then become a glam journal, and it would still be run by people who had their own prejudices, biases, and grudges.

This didn't change the sentiment of wanting to break this cycle, but I did start to think about it another way.
As far as I know, journals rely on editors and anonymous peer review to get their content. If you're an author you send your paper out to them, with your name on it and it is accepted or it isn't. I was told that this was the worst way to publish scientific research, but it is the best that we've come up with so far. I say that it’s high time for a change: what if the predominant system became a double-blind system? Keep the editors and the anonymous peer review, but have a separate department of the journal assign a random code or number to the particular paper. In this way, only the merit of the research and the true spirit of science remain. When everyone has weighed in, the decision goes to this separate department once again, and they communicate with the scientists.

Clearly this suggestion is far from perfect but it’s a start.*
In fact, I'm sure someone has already come up with this, but have journals tried it? And if so, how many? Did it fail and if so how was the failure determined? Would it be so crazy to try again- presuming of course that better technology and resources are available to do so since the last time it was attempted?

I know that I just got here, but you can't tell me that scientists capable of genetically engineering goats in an attempt to reproduce spider silk can't fix this relatively simple problem. I am not so naive as to believe in a utopia of fairness, but what we have now is ridiculous. At what point is it still science if scientists are afraid of an inquisition led by other scientists?

* It turns out that double blind reviews are a hotly debated way of moving towards “greater transparency” but I've decided to address this in my next blog post. Nature itself has written about double blind studies and I want to make sure that I make a space in which to give proper attention to how the world of published research responds to the start of a potential paradigm shift.  

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