There is a sort of odd melancholy portion of the literature that exists in science, a sort of paper or papers that are almost the valedictories of scientists as they stand back from conducting science. A lot of them really don’t belong in the literature per se, as some are a jumble of thoughts, hunches, recriminations and other odds and ends. Let’s call the whole collection codgertations. Frankly, they need their own home in the literature; to see why, let’s consider what some have looked like (no, GG is not going to name names; he is grumpy, not cruel).
At the more useful end of the spectrum are thoughts on seminal problems in the field that reflect experience of years but an inability to push through to completion, perhaps because of conflicts, physical disability, time, funding, etc. These are the seeds of proposals future, proposals these authors will never write, and so these can be gifts of insight to younger researchers who may have overlooked these problems.
Somewhere in the middle are kind of incomplete papers, stuff that’s been hanging out in a drawer (or a floppy) for many years that finally is being shoved out into the world to justify the effort made in keeping it all this time. Some of these are papers that were superseded years ago by other work; some are on things fairly tangential to ongoing research. Others just don’t quite get anywhere. None are really damaging anything; they maybe are just taking up space.
The worst flavor of codgertation is the self-celebrating review of one’s greatest hits, the very worst being stewed in a vat of recrimination for past injustices, allowing for debasing the contributions of others. These tend to assert rather than derive or infer and come across as lectures from angry old people who can’t be bothered to properly cite the relevant work or logically support an argument. “I’ve been in this field forever,” they seem to say, “and this is how things really are!” Right Grandpa, can you go back to watching Wheel of Fortune, please? Or yelling at those kids on the lawn?
What cements all of these is that they aren’t really typical scientific papers–and it is worth noting that only a fraction of practicing scientists ever write anything like any of these. But those that do are often counting on the deference of junior colleagues to allow them their say, and truth be told, there is indeed value in some of these papers. And we might actually be losing insights from those less egotistical senior scientists who choose not to write such unusual documents because they perceive that they don’t really belong. But if you review one of these papers, you can go nuts in trying to come to grips with egregious self-citation and a faint grip on the current literature, loosely connected topics, poorly supported logic, and other flaws that would sink a typical paper. Really reaming a paper written by such a senior scientist can seem disrespectful, yet letting it go as “science” feels dirty. So GG is suggesting that perhaps some journals should allow a new form of communication which (you presumably have guessed) would be termed “codgertations.” [OK, as the comment below notes, that is rude and self-defeating; the commenter’s suggestion of Reflections or GG’s Valedictories would be more appropriate.] The beauty of this is that we could capture the good without having to hammer the bad. We’d encourage those on their way out the door to share some wisdom even as we know we’ll have to accept some scolding. And we wouldn’t be caught between honoring our elders and defending our literature.
A comment on an earlier post got GG reflecting on just what counts as the professional literature. Some 20-30 years ago, things were pretty clear. Professional literature was what was published in journals and certain professional books (like AGU monographs and GSA special papers). These were reasonably well indexed and accessible to academics. Then there was the gray literature: stuff that was sort of out there. This included theses, field trip guides, meeting publications, and reports of various flavors. To some degree books were a little less than ideal. Finally there was proprietary stuff, things like industry-acquired reflection profiles and analyses that sometimes were allowed to see the light of day in some compromised form (e.g., location undisclosed). Although these are earth science materials, there are comparable things in other fields.
How is this holding up?
Hot on the heels of the Nature paper complaining about reliance on bibliometrics measures of success we have an Inside Higher Ed piece similarly bemoaning how simple metrics corrupt scientific endeavor.
And so what else showed up recently? Why, two new bibliometrics measures! One, the Impact Quotient, frankly does nothing but replace one useless measure (the Impact Factor) with a highly correlated one (the new Impact Quotient). The other is the s-index, which is a measure of how often a worker cites his or her own work.
We are going from trying to figure out something new about how the world works to making sure that everybody knows that we found out something new about how the world works, with the potential that the “something” has become increasingly trivial….
To nobody’s great shock, Adobe recently announced the end of the Flash plug-in for web browsers in 2020. Given the number of iDevices that don’t support Flash and the growth of tools that keep Flash from running, the writing has been on the walls for some time.
Now supposedly this does not mean the end of ActionScript and .swf files and such not, but it feels like there is an issue that is being overlooked. Interactive pdfs would seem to be potential victims of the death of Flash as, at present, you have to use .swf materials within pdfs (that is, there is no way to include HTML5 in a pdf) and there are indications that the display of these within Acrobat and its kin might require the Flash plugin to be present. Is the .swf format and capabilities likely to be maintained if Adobe’s Flash-creation tool Animate CC is more widely used to generate HTML5?
Why bring this up? Read More…
GG has defended peer review a few times as a means of limiting the damage from flawed papers. It is a positive good for science despite its limitations. But we are quite possibly in the waning days of peer review.
What has inspired this dystopian view? GG is an associate editor and has been for many years, and it has gotten ridiculously hard to get reviews. The growth of multi-author papers means that the number of conflicted potential reviewers has grown, limiting the reviewer pool. More and more, potential reviewers are choosing to not even respond to a request for a review–which eats up more time than a simple “no”. Others are giving the quick “no,” which is better, but still extends the reviewing process. Others are agreeing, but then decide the task is more onerous than cleaning up after a sick dog; months can go by with no response or just a hurried “getting to it now”. Sometimes there is never a review. Meanwhile, authors justifiably fume at the long times their papers are in review. At some point, the system will simply break down: authors will opt for venues not requiring review or using some form of post-publication review.
There are two culprits: the tremendous volume of papers, and the increasing demands on the time of reviewers. The first is driven by a mindset that every grant must yield papers–and in some circles, that is, every grant must yield at least a paper a year. Incrementalism drives identification of the least publishable unit. Toss in a growing trail of reviews as papers pinball down from the most prestigious journals to less desirable destinations and you seem to have an unending stream of requests for review. The final straw is the decreasing availability of funds, which paradoxically drives an increasing number of proposals which, once again, demand review.
On the flip side are the demands on reviewers’ time. First, these are the same people writing all those proposals and papers, and that takes a lot of time. But as universities have tightened their belts, more menial tasks are foisted on the faculty, from dealing with routine administrative paperwork to emptying their trash cans. Also, there is more pressure for public outreach, which takes time. Not to mention the allure of social media like Twitter and Facebook and (um) blogs. (GG views blogging as recreational, FWIW).
The obvious solutions are unlikely. Odds are low that more money will soon fill the coffers at NSF, or that outreach components for grants will be reduced. Once a university operates without trash collection in offices, it is unlikely to restore it when it can instead invest in amenities to attract the shrinking number of undergraduates.
There is only one knob really in our control, and it is our expectations of what our colleagues should be doing. Ask “what impact has your science had?” rather than “how many papers did you publish last year?” and maybe we could stem the tide.
Of course, that might require reading your colleagues’ papers. Which (sigh) takes time….
…this is what you will get from the Grumpy Geophysicist if asking for a review for your journals:
Sorry, I am part of the anti-Elsevier resistance. Elsevier’s practices in both their extortive pricing and their inflexible and aggressive assertion of their ownership of anything carrying their copyright (as all <journal name here> articles do) prevents me from participating in the extreme monetization of scientific work as practiced by Elsevier.
While GG does not object to scientific societies holding copyright (as they are generally protecting the content from exploitation rather than for monetary gain, and their policies are subject to the wishes of their membership), he does object to copyright ownership being in the hands of a for-profit (and very profitable) company. We discussed a lot of this recently here.
GG feels bad in saying stuff like this, because the person asking is somebody essentially volunteering their time to help publish the journal. Making their job harder isn’t really pleasant. But, well, maybe they hadn’t appreciated how editing an Elsevier journal might be different than a society-run one. And maybe this might help them question their participation.
Or, it just angers a colleague with GG. *Sigh*.
An interesting article in The Guardian on the rise of the profit-oriented part of scientific publishing. One part of the article describes how companies like Elsevier and Pergamon make so much money: “It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill.” How much money? Try revenue of $24 billion. Elsevier’s profit margin: 36%.
Now some scientists have argued that journals are outdated and provide no added value; GG has argued this isn’t true. But with the existence of non-profit publishers, does it make sense to feed these very profitable monsters?
Well, no. Worse, many scientists don’t seem to understand that their science is no longer theirs once it is in one of those journals.
Some of us have sworn off of Elsevier journals, not reviewing for them or publishing in them (though we sometimes get dragged in by colleagues). That is walking away from a lot of poor journals and a few really good ones. In the days of paper journals, this was a clear choice. Even now, Elsevier’s tactics even for open-access have driven some away. But close examination of what societies are doing suggests that avoiding vendors many view as unscrupulous is getting harder and harder.