Science: Behind the scenes

I’ve collected a few weird stories from the world of science that are interesting. They’re not science stories about discoveries and research but they’re science stories about what goes on behind the scenes.

Spam and mailing lists

Let’s start with an amusing tale. We’ve all got spam before and scientists are no exception. Fed up with the constant spam from one particular journal, Dr. Peter Vamplew submitted a fake article, originally written by David Mazières and Eddie Kohler, that expressed his frustration. The article was 10 pages long and merely consisted of the sentence, “Get me off your fucking mailing list” repeated throughout.

Side note to Scholarly Open Access; why are you editing the word “fuck”? It’s entirely obvious what the word is, so, if you’re going to write it, be grown up enough to write the full word. If you really think it’s too offensive to publish in its entirety, then why include a screen shot where it’s repeated 12 times?

The really incredible part of the story is that the paper was accepted! How is that possible you ask. The journal is a scam, relying on the pressure on scientists to publish papers to drive otherwise smart people into its waiting arms. The next step would be for Dr. Vamplew to pay $150 for the paper to be published but that’s obviously not going to happen. Hopefully, someone will get in touch with the editor of the journal, demand an explanation and have the journal shut down. Until then, Dr Vamplew is still stuck on their mailing list!

Since at least November 2013 (as far back as I can see them in my email’s trash) I’ve been receiving spam invitations to the World DNA Day conference in China. I believe they harvest email addresses from scientific publications but it’s possible that the conference is still genuine. The first thing I did was Googled it and found an advert for one of them in Nature, a highly respected journal. I took that as a sign that they were spammy but genuine and replied:

Dear Jessica

Thank you for the invitation but I will not be able to attend.

Sincerely
Jason

I’m not going to quote the entire, rather long, reply I received but this was how it started:

Dear Jason Bosch,

This is Jessica. How are you?

I’m writing to follow-up my last invitation letter as below, would you please give a tentative reply? Thank you very much.

Needless to say, I’m still receiving invitations to the conference. If I hadn’t stopped at the Nature advert I might have found this exchange earlier. The conference spam was at least in the right field, today I received an email inviting me to submit to the Global Advanced Research Journal of Economics, Accounting and Finance. No doubt because of my strong interest and history of activity in the field of economics…

Peer review

Then there are two pieces that were just recently published in Nature which are worth a read, both dealing with peer review. For those who don’t know, peer review is the process in science where, before publication, a paper is sent to other scientists in the same field who read it and check if there are obvious flaws in the methodology and reasoning. If there are problems, then it is rejected; if there are not then it might be accepted for publication.

The first piece makes the claim that open access and the lack of printing costs for online journals is putting too much pressure on peer reviewers due to the sheer number of papers submitted. There are some good comments below the piece that question whether it has anything to do with online publications or open access but the author makes some good suggestions near the end regarding a two-tier publication system. In such a model, certain papers would not be subjected to peer-review before publication, like replications, and would rather be subjected to post-publication review only. It’s an intriguing idea and one which could work if scientists continue moving to blogs and other forms of social media.

The second, and much longer, piece deals with issues in the current implementation of peer review. I’m not going to say too much about it because it’s really worth reading the original but suffice to say it describes a large scam where scientists recommended themselves, under other names and email addresses, to review their own work and the challenges both of finding reviewers in narrow fields and in verifying their identity.

Open access and the cost of knowledge

In almost every one of the pieces linked above, you will find mention of open access journals. Those are journals where the authors pay the publication fees and the article is free for anyone to read. In the traditional model, the papers are accepted for free and then everyone else has to pay to read them. I’m on the side of the open access model and think university library budgets would be better spent paying for the university’s publications than for subscriptions for other people’s publications.

Access to research is incredibly expensive with some publishers operating with profit margins of 30-40%! You can compare that to some other businesses here. Not only has that research often been paid for with public money (yet with the public unable to see it) but you have to wonder about the ethics of it.

One of the most important parts of a scientific paper is clearly stating your methodology so that your work can, at least in principle, be replicated. I highly doubt it would be accepted if a paper refused to share its methods until you had paid a large fee or published a conclusion but kept their results hidden. Yet references are used to justify the research done and the methods used, even to the point where the method might just say, “We did X using the method described by so-and-so.” At that point the method and the reference are the same thing and, if the references can’t be easily accessed, how is it different to withholding your methods?

I will admit that not all of my articles are open access but that was mostly due to not having the funding to pay for open access. The costs of publication should, ideally, and in an open-access-only world, be paid from the money now used for journal subscriptions and/or be included in the research funding.

Some people are more active in their support of open access. Last year I wrote a post about Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while facing charges that could lead to a $4 million fine or 50 years in prison just for downloading scientific articles to share online. A similar case is happening again.

Diego Gomez, a Columbian student, is facing charges of up to eight years in jail for sharing an article online. That is obviously ridiculous and counter productive. The whole point of science is to increase our knowledge. We need to then share that knowledge so that we can address the problems that face the world, whether it’s conservation, medicine, biotechnology or any other science. There is a petition to help speed that future time along and although it’s not much, we can at least hope it will accomplish something.

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