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Going Peerless

Seems like every week or two, somebody is complaining about peer review–it is a barrier to scientific communication, it empowers gatekeepers, it destroys careers, etc. Now GG doesn’t buy into that (baby and bathwater territory, in his view), but perhaps as an exercise, what would happen if we outlawed peer review?

So you write up some science and want it shared with other scientists.  Let’s consider your options: email, blog post, paper server, journal.

So to start with, you email all the colleagues in your field with your paper–how does that go? Probably your email looks like spam to a bunch, but maybe you have cultivated connections well and several colleagues read the paper and want to incorporate its results in their work. How shall they cite it? Should they include your article with theirs, a kind of blockchain sort of thing? Hmmm, this doesn’t sound promising…

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Mining the Data Dumps

GG is hunting around for some information related to the little trainwreck series of posts, and has noticed some issues that bear on the broader business of (upbeat music cue here) Big Data.

Now Big Data comes in lots of flavors.  Two leap to mind: satellite imagery and national health records. Much satellite imagery is collected regardless of immediate interest; it is then in the interests of the folks owning it that people will find the parts of interest to themselves.  So Digital Globe, for instance, would very much like to sell its suite of images of, say, croplands to folks who trade in commodity futures. NASA would very much like to have people write their Congressional representatives about how Landsat imagery allowed them to build a business. So these organizations will invest in the metadata needed to find the useful stuff.  And since there is a *lot* of useful stuff, it falls into the category of Big Data.

Health data is a bit different and far enough from GG’s specializations that the gory details are only faintly visible. There is raw mortality and morbidity information that governments collect, and there are some large and broad ongoing survey studies like the Nurses’ Health Study that collect a lot of data without a really specific goal. Marry this with data collected on the environment, say pollution measurements made by EPA, and you have the basis for most epidemiological studies. This kind of cross-datatype style of data mining is also using a form of Big Data.

The funny thing in a way is that the earth sciences also collect big datasets, but the peculiarities of them show where cracks exist in the lands of Big Data.  Let’s start with arguably the most successful of the big datasets, the collection of seismograms from all around the world. This start with the worldwide standardized seismic network (WWSSN) in the 1960s.  Although created to help monitor for nuclear tests, the data was available to the research community, albeit in awkward photographic form and catalogs of earthquake locations. As instrumentation transitioned into digital formats, this was brought together into the Global Seismographic Network archived by IRIS.

So far, so NASA-like. But there is an interesting sidelight to this: not only does the IRIS Data Management Center collect and provide all this standard data from permanent stations, it also archives temporary experiments. Now one prominent such experiment (EarthScope’s USArray) was also pretty standard in that it was an institutionally run set of instrument with no specific goal, but nearly all the rest were investigator-driven experiments.  And this is where things get interesting.

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Post-Poster Blues

GG stumbled onto a story about remaking scientific posters describing work from Mike Morrison, a PhD psychology student.  His video on the weaknesses of scientific posters and his suggested solution is well worth watching. Many recommendations are classics, essentially boiling down to KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). GG is interested in investigating something of the origins of the problem described and how, in earth science, things might not be quite as amenable to his solution.

First up, how did we get to the poster hall of doom, anyways?


Part of the poster floor at the Fall 2016 American Geophysical Union conference.

Posters are actually a fairly recent innovation (so the NPR story line about changing a “century” of conformity is nonsense). Professional meetings started as everybody getting together in a single room and, often, each reading their paper to the rest of their society (the early issues of the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America not only included the oral presentation but the Q and A afterward). Splitting into multiple oral sessions followed in time. When posters first showed up at AGU in the 1970s, they were in a small room and were a definite side show (GSA came later).  Some of these were presentations that people otherwise couldn’t present (maybe they missed the meeting, or had breaking results that were too late for inclusion in the regular program), but some were materials that simply didn’t lend themselves to oral presentations.  Big seismic reflection profiles and detailed geologic maps were often such materials.  “Posters” as seen today didn’t really exist: printed materials were tacked up in whatever form was handy; layouts were impressively fluid. So initially a lot of posters were things actually better shared in that format.

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Review Relief

GG has been telling (begging?) folks for some time that all he really wanted was for somebody, somewhere, to review his book The Mountains that Remade America (latest count remains 0).  The old saw that any publicity is good publicity seemed to make sense, and even when reviewers aren’t terribly fond of a book, they rarely would discourage you from looking at it.

But now GG sees some advantages in anonymity courtesy of a review of Jared Diamond’s latest book. Diamond, being now a name brand non-fiction author, is not to be overlooked, which means that a review must appear for better or worse.  And worse it is. It would be hard to find a review more negative than this one. Reviewer Anand Giridharadas hammers Diamond for numerous factual errors, for substituting apocryphal stories for research, for forcing facts to fit his theory, and for being woefully out of touch with barriers facing minorities and women in many cultures. It is, frankly, devastating.

Perhaps this is just water off Diamond’s back; his bank account is probably in a pretty healthy state regardless. You could hope his publisher (Little, Brown and Company) is wondering if fact checking such high profile texts might be a good investment. But GG is now taking some small measure of solace that at least he didn’t get a review that would have made him want to crawl under a rock.

Is Open Access a Race to the Bottom?

Recently the libraries of the University of California system finally pulled the plug on the predatory pricing policies of Elsevier. All GG can say is, finally!  [Note: GG has not reviewed or published with Elsevier as a matter of principle, only making the mistake of agreeing once to a review by accident]. What does this mean?

According to Marcus Banks, writing at, it means that pure open access is the way out of this. His text implies that the costs of publication are so low that it is ridiculous to have such expenses, and he implies that prestige publications are really a sham for fleecing the scientific public. The sooner that academics realize that the open access journals are just as good, the sooner all will be right in the publishing world.

OK, now maybe GG has read a bit more into this essay than is really there, but there is this sense that all publishers really do is collect money off the backs of funding agencies for no good reason. And this logic can lead to a terrible decay in journal quality.

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Changing Subscriptions

Once upon a time, having a “subscription” meant that things would come to you until either the term of the subscription ran out or you cancelled the subscription. The stuff that had already come, whether issues of Teen Vogue, the record of the month or volumes of an encyclopedia, were yours to keep. But in the world of the academic library, that model is vanishing, and with it potentially are large parts of the academic literature.

In the paper past, an academic library’s subscription to a professional journal meant that the library got paper copies of the journal that they could then place on shelves and allow people to read. As budgets might tighten or interests wane, libraries would cancel subscriptions–but those journals they had purchased remained on the shelves unless purged to make room for other material. This model is essentially dead.

Instead publishers have shifted to the software definition of “subscription”–which isn’t really a subscription at all. Just as to use Adobe’s Cloud package of software requires you to have an active subscription, so does getting access to all the issues of Science that you had subscribed to over the years. And if the journal decides to go to predatory pricing? Your options are nil. That money you poured into the journal all those years means nothing. In general, libraries are not allowed to make local copies of all the content they are subscribing to.

In some ways there is an even worse side to all this.  Publishing once meant that there would be lots of copies of your work out there.  One library burns down, another is vandalized–it doesn’t really matter as there are plenty of other copies of the work out there. Now, there is essentially one. Admittedly there is more than one copy of all the work–most publishers subscribe to the LOCKSS model or the CLOCKSS model for preserving their materials–but the terms of use are still restrictive. An academic publisher might go belly up and have their archive bought by a private firm that then charges a fortune for access. Or maybe a vandal degrades all the copies of the works in the online archive. It takes little imagination to envision a wealth of knowledge effectively evaporating.

Arguably this is one of the best facets of a true open access policy: the freedom to copy materials means that there can be multiple archives.  University archives can legally maintain and share copies of work produced at their institutions. Research groups can maintain thematic collections of articles relevant to their focus. (Note that current open access policies do not necessarily allow this: much as you can view some movies online so long as you watch the ads, some open access materials could require you to access the original portal and, perhaps, see advertisements there).  In a sense, this can return libraries to their original function: instead of mere portals for providers, they return to being actual repositories of knowledge. So while we may have permanently lost the meaning of “subscription,” we can recover the true meaning of “library.”

The Inadvertent Replication Crisis

Many of you no doubt have heard of the lack of reproducibility studies in some scientific fields. This has led to condemnation of publications that have rejected or discouraged papers attempting to reproduce some observation or effect.

Now this is not such a big deal in solid earth science (and probably not even climate science, where things are so contentious politically that redoing things is viewed in a positive way). Basically, for most geological observations we have the Earth, which remains pretty accessible to pretty nearly all of us.  Raw observations are increasingly stored in open databases (seismology has been at this for decades, for instance). Cultural biases that color some psychological or anthropological works don’t apply much in solid earth, and the tweaky issues of precise use of reagents and detailed and inaccessible lab procedures that have caused heartburn in biological sciences are less prominent in earth science (but not absent! See discussions on how fission track ages are affected by etching procedures, or look at the failure of the USGS lab to use standards properly). We kind of have one experiment–Earth–and we aren’t capable of reproducing it (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy not withstanding, there is no Earth 2.0).

No, the problem isn’t failing to publish reproductions.  It is failing to recognize when we are reproducing older work.  And it is going to get worse.

AS GG has noted before, citations to primary literature are become more and more scarce despite tools that make access to primary literature easier and easier. This indicates that less and less background work is being done before studies are moving forward: in essence, it is easier to do a study than prepare for it. The end result is pretty apparent: new studies will fail to uncover the old studies that essentially did the same thing.

Reexamining an area or data point is fine so long as you recognize that is what you are doing, but inadvertently conducting a replication experiment is not so great. Combine this with the already sloppier than desired citation habits we are forming and we risk running in circles, rediscovering that already discovered without gaining any insight.