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Dear Elsevier Editors…

…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*.

Don’t be a rube

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Now some scientists have argued that journals are outdated and provide no added value; GG has argued this isn’t true.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.

Read More…

When you have a hammer…

…all the world is a nail.  And the currently popular hammers are things like Twitter and Instagram and Tinder.  While some have long advocated the first two as important tools for scientists, the last has been used as a model for scanning through preprints.  Lots and lots of preprints. The Science story on this says “A web application inspired by the dating app Tinder lets you make snap judgments about preprints—papers published online before peer review—simply by swiping left, right, up, or down.”

Nothing says “science” like “snap judgment”.

While GG lambasted an effort to capture social media-ish solutions as a means of post-publication peer review, how about tools to let you find what cutting edge science is appearing? That Science report on social media linked above says that is what social media is good for.  Um, really?

GG studies the Sierra Nevada.  Try going to Twitter and searching on #SierraNevada.  Bet you didn’t think there were that many people so fascinated with taking pictures of beer bottles. Add, say, #science. Chaff winnowed some, but very little wheat. Add #tectonics. Crickets.

The idea of this new app (Papr) is that if only you were able to see lots and lots of stuff quickly, you’d find some gems to explore. Really?  Students complain bitterly about a firehose approach in the classroom, and the solution here is, um, a firehose? (To be fair, it appears the app developers are not necessarily expecting great things here).

Forget that.  What we want and need are tools to reduce chaff, not accelerate it.

What we need is something akin to Amazon’s suggestions tool.  Imagine visiting the preprint store to get a couple of papers you know you want.  One maybe is on a topic you care about–say, the Sierra Nevada.  Another maybe deals with a technique, say full waveform tomography.  A third uses some unusual statistical tests. You download these and the preprint store suggests a few other preprints based on the full text content of the papers you got. Why that instead of keywords? Keywords have a way of being too picky. You might call work “tectonics” and GG might call it “geodynamics” and thus the keywords searches might pass by each other. But if the text is still talking about changes in elevation, changes in lithospheric structure–those are less likely to get overlooked.  If this tool is smart enough to recognize quasi-synonyms and phrases, all the better.

Such a tool grows more powerful the more you work with it. While on that first try, you will also get recommendations on papers overlapping in non-interesting ways (say, applications of the techniques in paper 1, the geographic area under study in paper 2, and the measurement types in paper 3), the more you interact with this, the better it gets.

Here’s the sad thing: the tools to make something like this have been around for decades.  The best spam filters (like SpamSieve) use a form of Bayesian filtering based on message content in addition to black- and whitelists. Earth science got much of its literature into a single “preprint store” long ago in GeoScienceWorld. And yet here we are, swiping left again and again and again….

Citation Statistics Smackdown

Sorry, it isn’t that dramatic.  But in updating various web tools, GG noticed dramatic differences between his supposed citations between Google Scholar and Web of Science. In the past he has assumed the difference was because Google was capturing junk citations, but today decided to actually look at what is going on in detail.  Which may or may not interest you, dear reader….

The raw starting points for Web of Science is here, and for Google is here. At the very top, GG’s h index is 21 with Web of Science, 27 with Google (a significant difference for those who love those things, just a numerical quirk for others). The most highly cited paper has  252 citations from WoS but a staggering 338 in Google. Although this is tedious to work through, there is clearly a lot of fodder for comparison, so let’s dive in.

An oddity of Google’s citation listing comes into focus quickly: sorting on date only yields the last 15 papers.

Google overestimates citations in at least one situation: it repeated the citation to papers in the Chinese Journal of Geophysics, linking to both the English language version and the original Chinese html version of the papers. Another goofy thing is the Google will mess up from time to time and assign a citation from a previous paper in Nature with the article that starts on the same page as the citation. For instance, Google has an immunology paper citing the Zandt et al. tectonics paper. Google does end up with some number of duplicated citations: several preprints are counted along with the actual publication. Also some Chinese and possibly Russian papers are counted twice, once as Chinese versions, once in English versions.

Mostly, however, the difference is in theses and books, items Web of Science explicitly does not track. Since some theses contain papers published elsewhere, some of these are duplicates. More embarrassingly, there are some term papers on the web that are taken as citable materials.

What is the balance, though?

Of the 331 references identified overall, only 5 in Web of Science were not in Google.  Two were chapters in the Treatise on Geochemistry, two others were in GSA Special Paper 456, and the last was a G^3 article. So of the remaining 326, 247 were in WoS and so 79 more are in Google. Since 338-326=12, there are 12 outright duplicate entries in Google; what of the 79 other additional entries?

Five did not cites the Zandt et al. paper at all; these were outright mistakes.  Combined with the 12 duplicate entries, 17 of the 338, or about 5%, of the Google citations are simply wrong. The duplicates are sometimes multiple language versions of the same paper, or a preprint showing up as a separate item.

  • Theses: 28
  • Books: 16 (including 8 from GSA Memoir 212, which WoS should have had)
  • Foreign language (Chinese and Russian): 12 (Some of which might be duplicates or not even cite the paper at all)
  • “News” Journals (GSA Today, Eos): 6
  • Real journals missed by WoS: 6 (which, if you add the 8 from GSA Memoir 212, are 14 references that WoS should have had).
  • Miscellaneous: 6. A term paper was in there, a meeting abstract, an in press paper.

Which do you take to be more accurate? The 252 in WoS should clearly be at least 258 and probably over 260 with the GSA volumes that are supposed to be counted these days.  The 6 GSA Today+EOS science articles probably deserve inclusion, though the EOS articles are shakier. On the other side, the 338 reported by Google should be no higher than 320 (338 – 17 – 6 + 5). Theses are something interesting in this count, as they represent some kind of original research, but these days most thesis work worth anything is published.  If you take that view we are down to 292, 26 above the 266 WoS probably should have had.

This leaves as seriously gray at least 8 books, 12 foreign language papers, and the 6 news journals. So arguably the uncertainty on a citation count is in the 10-20% range.  If we say the correct number is 279 +/-13, the 252 of WoS is 27 low and Google is 59 high.

What does this mean, aside from apparently we can’t even count integers? Perhaps a first-cut approach would be to take as a closer approximation to a “true” measure of citations by going a third of the way from WoS to Google numbers (true = WoS + (Google-WoS)/3, or true = 2/3(WoS) + 1/3(Google)).

An Alternate Fact History

While those of us in the sciences bemoan factual illiteracy, it might be worth recalling that widespread distribution of factually-challenged material is hardly new.

What is a bit distressing are the kinds of things such behavior leads to.

A few choice snippets:

The Mexican-American war was largely a creation of the Polk Administration, which desired to separate California from Mexico while absorbing the independent nation of Texas. In essence, by claiming a southern border for Texas at the Rio Grande that was well south of that understood by Mexico, Polk was able to claim American had been attacked in the U.S. This was challenged by, among others, Rep. Abraham Lincoln (W-IL). U.S. Grant, in his autobiography, lambasted the war as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” And yet the nation, guided by Polk’s sophistry, initiated a war for territory.

Arguably the Civil War represented a nadir in sharing of facts, from a fiercely partisan press across the country to southern states that intercepted and destroyed Northern newspapers. Lincoln’s relatively mild stance on slavery (that it could not be allowed to extend into the territories) was twisted by southern papers into extraordinary claims such as he would force interracial marriage. Perhaps the most damaging “alternative fact” came after the war, when the myth that the war was over state’s rights instead of slavery made a glorification of the Confederacy possible and popular.

The later “yellow press” of the late 19th century has often been fingered as causing the Spanish-American War, largely through exaggeration but also through the creation of fictional facts that induced Americans to enter into war.

McCarthyism was, at its heart, the creation of fictional crimes by real people, allegations that were utterly unsubstantiated.

Certainly more recently we’ve seen alternative facts play out, as the tobacco industry made up stories to counter evidence that smoking was a health hazard.  Similar but less obvious efforts were made by the paint industry to slow the banning of lead-based paints and the fossil-fuel industry to discredit concerns of global warming. These efforts went beyond a straightforward advocacy for their industry to try to discredit scientific evidence about their industries’ products.

The most damaging alternative fact was the German right-wing myth that Germany did not lose World War I on the battlefield, but that the military was “stabbed in the back” by a new republican government backed by Jews. This helped fuel the rise of the Nazis in Germany (which, it is worth recalling, had considerable electoral success before usurping the republican government). It also fed a hatred that spawned the Holocaust.

Note that episodes of hysteria in the face of ignorance don’t really count.  So things like quarantining doctors returning from Ebola outbreaks or parents not inoculating their kids aren’t a response to fake news (which is a false story put out to achieve some agenda) per se. Such episodes do exploit the same emotional reactions that fake news is often designed to evoke.

And so alternative facts/fake news are hardly a recent invention, and recent invocations about crowd sizes or job creation numbers are certainly some the most innocuous applications of such misdirection. But it is clear that the creation of-and widespread belief in-false stories are tied to a lot of human misery. We all need to be on guard against emotionally satisfying (but untrue) stories that lead us to beliefs that are untrue and lead us to actions that are immoral or counterproductive.

Scientific Publication Essentials

In examining options for peer review, GG has come to see that clarifying what he thinks is a scientific publication is worth a small digression.  Here are the ingredients:

Science: Should be self-evident that a publication has at its core some possible scientific advance supported with observations and/or analysis of existing observations.

Peer review: Let’s break down the elements here.

Peer meaning some other scientists (more than one, please) familiar with the techniques, datasets, reduction approaches, and/or literature relevant to the paper at hand. Not whoever finds a webpage and opens an account so he or she can celebrate or lambast the paper’s conclusions.

Review: Not comments, not ratings, not flame wars, but methodical examination of the paper. Before publication.  In private. Because nobody likes to be exposed in public, authors are far more likely to correct mistakes and adopt changes when all understand the manuscript is still a work in progress.

Publication. Not a posting, which is scientific propaganda; a publication.  Such have editors who try to make the peer review be fair and appropriate and completed in a reasonable time.  Such have organizations that assure that the publication doesn’t vanish when a web server dies or a faculty member retires. Ideally (but too rarely these days) there are also copy and graphics editors to make sure that the paper is clear.

Citable. Meaning a paper reaches a final form and is then left in that form. To build on science done before, you have to know what it is.  If we shift to papers that change every time a new comment appears or as a new data point is added, we lose the roadmap for scientific papers.  Even retracted papers need some marker in the literature so we can see what banana peel was stepped on. Hey, that work was based on v 2.1 of that paper, but did the v. 3.0 version make it incorrect?  Who knows? Imagine reading a paper on the cosmological constant that predated Einstein erasing it from his papers after having deciding that the cosmological constant was a big mistake. You’d have no idea what was going on. Yes, this mean mistakes survive in the literature–but mistakes can have value too. But so do correct ideas sometimes thought to be mistakes. And sometimes bad ideas in one application are good ideas for other applications.

This is not to say there is no value in alternative forms of scientific communication; it is merely to say that such forms should supplant and not replace the core memory of science. Indeed, it could be that alternative forms of communication could lower the burden on publications, making the current problem of getting reviews less challenging. But pulling out one of the core elements listed above will cripple future scientific work.

This isn’t to say the modern system is perfect (it isn’t); it is to say what elements are making a positive contribution. Probably the biggest disagreements would be with publication and maybe peer review. The problem with an absence of publication is that peer review then is either absent or a wide-open mishmash more apt to produce  flame wars than real insight. (Note, do not confuse “more apt to” with “must always”). Also, if carried to an extreme (e.g., publishing science as a blog), the science will vanish when the source does. As for peer review, we’ve been there before and so  GG will just point at this and this and this…. suffice it to say that the problem is not the ideal but the implementation of peer review.

Peers Review

GG has been skeptical of many suggestions about peer review over the years, things like post-publication review, public peer review, publishing via blogs, or outright elimination of peer review. But the latest wrinkle might bear some thought.

Editors for the journal Synlett decided to try something a bit different, something they describe as intelligent crowd review.  In essence, this is creating a forum populated by some range of experts (they recruited 100) and then tossing a submission into the forum and letting the experts do what they will.  Overall they got results faster and with greater insight than traditional peer review.

Why is this?  As the Ars Technica article on this suggests, in this environment, reviewers can just focus on what they know backwards and forwards.  Yeah, that is a fair introduction, or, no, that equation is inappropriate. So you dive in (maybe as lunchtime entertainment), shoot all the fish in your barrel and leave the rest of the manuscript for others.

The biggest advantage of this proposal is in reviewing complex multi-disciplinary papers where a reviewer either has to say “I can’t review this part of the paper because it is too far out of my expertise” or has to bone up on material he or she is unfamiliar with. Either of these tends to slow the review process down. Given the increased emphasis and visibility of such research, embracing such an approach might be a boon to editors and authors alike.

Of course there are problems that would have to be solved. Avoiding conflicts of interest could get challenging; this might get harder too if an author specifically requests certain individuals not be granted access to a submission. The system apparently requires the editor to assemble the resulting crowd review, which could in some cases require the editor to fill in gaps. Whether such a system would breed a new kind of burnout remains to be seen.

But this might be one of the better hopes for getting out of the peer-review rut we are presently in.  It is certainly worth careful consideration.