One of the weirdest phenomena engendered by the tawdry incentive structure of academic publishing is the academic spam that we all get, such as this invitation that I just found in my inbox:
Dear Prof./Dr. D. Steinsaltz:
As Co-Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Statistics in Medical Research. I am pleased to invite you to join our editorial board member team or reviewer board team.
Esteemed researchers are invited to join the editorial boards of excellent journals, and it is a mark of prestige that they put on their CVs, etc. This is vaguely formulated like such an invitation, but then goes on with
If you are interested to be the part of the journal as member in editorial or reviewer board then please send your CV along with photograph.
making it clear that they have no idea who I am, and they’re just spraying out these invitations to all and sundry. It’s part of the fungal growth of journals needed to meet the needs for publications to fill other people’s CVs for their academic hiring and promotion. The best part was that this flattering invitation was closed off with a dutiful unsubscribe notice “If you wish not tor receive any such communication in future.” (Which also gave a taste of the standard of writing and editing expected for this journal.)
It reminded me of this line from Tom Lehrer’s outro to the song “Alma” (on the album That Was the Year that Was):
Not long ago I received a letter which said: “Darling, I love you, and I cannot live without you. Marry me, or I will kill myself.” Well, I was a little disturbed at that until I took another look at the envelope, and saw that it was addressed to Occupant.
I wonder how Alan Sokal feels about becoming the new Piltdown, the metonym for a a certain kind of hoax?
So now there’s another attack on trendy subfields of social science, being called “Sokal squared” for some reason. I guess it’s appropriate to the ambiguity of the situation. if you thought the Sokal Hoax was already big, squaring it would make it bigger; on the other hand, if you thought it was petty, this new version is just pettier. And if, like me, you thought it was just one of those things, the squared version is more or less the same.
The new version is unlike the original Sokal Hoax in one important respect: Sokal was mocking social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff physicists say. The reboot mocks social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff other social scientists say. A group of three scholars has produced a whole slew of intentionally absurd papers, in fields that they tendentiously call “grievance studies”, and managed to get them past peer review at some reputable journals. The hoaxers wink with facially ridiculous theses, like the account of canine rape culture in dog parks.
But if we’re not going to shut down bold thought, we have to allow for research whose aims and conclusions seem strange. (Whether paradoxical theses are unduly promoted for their ability to grab attention is a related but separate matter. For example, one of the few academic economics talks I ever attended was by a behavioural economist explaining the “marriage market” in terms of women’s trading off the steady income they receive from a husband against the potential income from prostitution that they would forego. And my first exposure to mathematical finance was a lecture on how a person with insider information could structure a series of profitable trades that would be undetectable by regulators.) If the surprising claim is being brought by a fellow scholar acting in good faith, trying to advance the discussion in the field, then you try to engage with the argument generously. You need to strike a balance, particularly when technical correctness isn’t a well-defined standard in your field. Trolling with fake papers poisons this cooperative process of evaluation. Continue reading “So long, Sokal”
Do you remember the Sokal affair? Mathematical physicist Alan Sokal submitted a fake paper titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to a postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text. Well, it was a real paper, but it was a hoax. It was written as a hoax, cobbling together the silliest tropes he could find about social construction of science and left-wing politics. Once it was published, he used it as a club to beat up on postmodern theory, and the humanities more generally. Many self-satisfied scientists claimed, at the time, that this confirmed all their worst suspicions about the emptiness of academic jargon-spinning in the humanities and social-scientists. The implication — sometimes made explicit — was that the reverse could never happen, that scientists know exactly what their terms mean, and could never be fooled by such a prank.
It turns out, the situation is much worse than that. Springer and IEEE have been forced to withdraw 120 papers that they published in various conference proceedings, and that turn out to have been randomly generated by the software SCIgen. Concerned to assure the public of the reliability of their peer-review process, Springer has now announced a technical solution: SciDetect, software that checks papers to determine whether they have been generated by SCIgen. (If it had been announced today I would have assumed that it was an April Fools prank, but the press release is from 23 March.)
Confirming me in my opinion that the whole system of peer review has outlived its usefulness, and is now living on as a vestigial parasite on the scientific enterprise.
Anyway, Springer has now thrown down the gauntlet, and young computer scientists should rise to the challenge of improving SCIgen, to fool the new software. We may see an accelerating arms race in scientific publishing, a kind of reverse Turing Test, with computers trying to fool other computers into believing that they are computer scientists. In the end, maybe the software will get so good that it will be doing original research and writing real scientific papers.
I am of two minds about efforts to put pressure on particularly bad actors in the scientific publishing field (such as Elsevier) to reform, since the result of that reform would be a slightly less greedy ectoparasite sucking the blood of the research community, slightly more sustainably. I think (as I wrote here) that the whole model of peer review is antiquated and oppressive and (as the British like to say) no longer fit for purpose. Perhaps we should seek to sharpen the contradictions, in the hopes that the academic proletariat will shake off these leeches. We should strive to make all journals like Elsevier, and double the prices.
Mathematician Timothy Gowers started organising a boycott of Elsevier a couple of years ago. I’m not sure how it’s going, but here’s some information about it. And here’s some artwork:
Although, in fairness, I must point out that it wasn’t Elsevier who first tried to lock down the Tree of Knowledge. It was this guy:
Now that Elsevier has taken to making legal threats against academics who publish articles on their own academic web sites, Henry Farrell is proposing a novel strategy that combines the boycott with an embrace of Elsevier’s tactics:
I think that everyone should submit as much of their work to Elsevier as they possibly can. Any article that has even a modest chance of success. People should bear through the revise and resubmit process as many times as it takes. Once the piece has finally been accepted, then, and only then, should they withdraw the article from consideration, and then publish it on their university or personal website with an “accepted by Elsevier Journal x and then withdrawn in protest,” together with a copy of the acceptance email (containing the editor’s email address etc).
One commonly hears that anonymous peer review (henceforth APR) is the “gold standard” for scientific papers. Now, this is a reasonable description, in that the gold standard was a system that long outlived its usefulness, constraining growth and innovation by attempting to measure something that is inherently fluid and abstract by an arbitrary concrete criterion, and persisting through the vested interests of a few and deficient imagination of the many.
That’s not usually what people mean, though.
An article is submitted to a journal. An editor has read it and decided to include it. It appears in print. What does APR add to this? It means that the editor also solicited the opinion of at least one other person (the “referee(s)”). That’s it. The opinion may have been expressed in three lines or less. She may have ignored the opinion.
Furthermore, to drain away any incentive for the referee(s) to be conscientious about their work,
They are unpaid.
They are anonymous. We know how well that works for raising the tone of blog comments.
Anonymity implies: Their contributions will never be acknowledged. If they contribute important insights to the paper, they may be recognised in the acknowledgement section: “We are grateful for the helpful suggestions of an anonymous referee.” Very occasionally an author will suggest, through the editor, that a referee who has made important contributions be invited to join the paper as a co-author. More commonly, a paper will be sent from journal to journal, collecting useful suggestions until it has actually become worth publishing.*
No one will ever take issue with any positive remarks the referee makes, as no one but the authors (and the editor) will ever see them. Negative comments, on the other hand, may get pushback from the author, and thus need to be justified, requiring far more work.
Normally, the author will be forced to demonstrate that she has taken the referee’s criticism to heart, no matter how petty or subjective. This encourages the referee to adopt an Olympian stance, passing judgement on what by rights ought to be the author’s prerogative.
Of course, I don’t mean to say that most referees most of the time don’t do a very conscientious job. I take refereeing seriously, and make a good-faith effort to be fair, judicious, and helpful. But I’m sure that I’m not the only one who feels that the incentives are pushing in other directions, and to the extent that I do a careful job, it is mainly out of some abstract sense of duty. I am particularly irritated when I find myself forced to put original insights into my report, to explain why the paper is deficient. I would much rather the paper be published as is, and then I could make my criticism publicly, and then, if I’m right, be recognised for my contribution. Continue reading “The peer-review fetish: Let’s abolish the gold standard!”