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Publish or perish: science, the Web and society

July 5, 2009

I’ve been reading Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World by Eugenie Samuel Reich. This passage struck me:

Here’s an assistant professor I interviewed who did not yet know whether he would get tenure—be given a permanent position: “In my department, there are some older faculty who look at the implications of your work and try to judge its long-term impact. But more and more people just look at the number of times you get cited.” The effect of the trend, he said, was pressure to move into hot, fast-moving areas of research where publications would bring more attention to his group and accumulate citations, rather than the kind of science that he was most curious about and that he believed would have the most lasting value.

Does that sound familiar? It looks like our ever-more-speedy cycle of relevance is almost as applicable to scientific journals as it is to Twitter. Science is just like the Interwebz! Which is scary, because the next thing we know, Figure 3.1 will be a LOLcat.

In all seriousness, it is a little frightening to think that science is determined by the same trends that influence what clothes we wear — and even what news we read, which is scary enough as it is. But of course science is subject to trends. It’s done by human beings — how could it not be? We like to think of science as purely objective. It scares us, rightly, that we could make decisions on improving our health or reversing climate change based on something that could possibly be touched by human error.

But the solution isn’t to bury our heads in the sand. If we ignore a problem, there’s no way we can possibly fix it. I don’t think scientists are necessarily ignoring the problem (though I’m sure some are, and university PR departments certainly are). But we journalists publicize sensationalistic headlines and breathless ledes about scientific “breakthroughs.” We explain things poorly — some of us try to explain things we never really understood to begin with. We members of the public eat up junk science like so many potato chips. We propagate distortions and myths that we “heard somewhere.” We’re all to blame.

Just in case you were becoming complacent.

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