Why Tabloid Journals Are a Threat to Science

GG mentioned Carl Wunsch’s renaming of Nature and Science as “near-tabloid journals” recently.  The context and the screed are worth repeating, so we’ll just quote the whole from the 2010 paper in which this appeared which, while discussing paleoclimate reconstructions, applies to many other parts of earth science.  It is well worth thinking about…

Some of the published exaggeration of the degree of understanding, and of over-simplification is best understood as a combination of human psychology and the pressures of fund-raising. Anyone who has struggled for several years to make sense of a complicated data set, only to conclude that “the data proved inadequate for this purpose” is in a quandary. Publishing such an inference would be very difficult, and few would notice if it were published. As the outcome of a funded grant, it is at best disappointing and at worst a calamity for a renewal or promotion. A parallel problem would emerge from a model calculation that produced no “exciting” new behavior. Thus the temptation to over-interpret the data set is a very powerful one. Similarly, if the inference is that the data are best rationalized as an interaction of many factors of comparable amplitude described through the temporal and spatial evolution of a complicated fluid model, the story does not lend itself to a one-sentence, intriguing, explanation (“carbon dioxide was trapped in the abyssal ocean for thousands of years; ” “millennial variability is controlled by solar variations”; “climate change is a bipolar seesaw”), and the near-impossibility of publishing in the near-tabloid science media (Science, Nature) with their consequent press conferences and celebrity. Amplifying this tendency is the relentlessly increasing use by ignorant or lazy administrators and promotion committees of supposed “objective” measures of scientific quality such as publication rates, citation frequencies, and impact factors.* The pressures for “exciting” results, over-simplified stories, and notoriety, are evident throughout the climate and paleoclimate literature.

The price being paid is not a small one. Often important technical details are omitted, and alternative hypotheses arbitrarily suppressed in the interests of telling a simple story. Some of these papers would not pass peer review in the more conventional professional journals, but lend themselves to headlines and simplistic stories written by non-scientist media people. One has the bizarre spectacle of technical discussions being carried on in the news columns of the New York Times and similar publications, not to speak of the dispiriting blog universe. In the long-term, this tabloid-like publication cannot be good for the science–which developed peer review in specialized journals over many decades beginning in the 17th Century–for very good reasons.

 

*Note, for example, that Stommel’s now famous 1961 paper [on thermohaline circulation] was apparently cited only once in the first 21 years after its publication–and that was by Stommel himself. Many important scientific contributions took years to be understood and appreciated. Scientists have also learned how to “game” the citation system.

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