Peer Review: Kathy's Questions

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Sun Jan 21 13:45:23 EST 1996

On Sun, 21 Jan 1996 U27111 at UICVM.CC.UIC.EDU wrote:
> berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA (Alexander Berezin) wrote on 19 Jan
> 1996 10:22:48 -0800:
> >Constructive Solution: put a limit on how many comments are
> >allowed from a given person per year (say, 5). Than people will
> >be choosy about what they want to comment on in a given journal.

> People will not comment at all... or write useless comments.
> There will be no true criticisms of other people's work... this is
> a dream.
> Scientist's will barely admit things they find wrong in another's
> paper in private... let alone say it in public.  We are all too
> 'civilized' for that!

Don't worry about the above. The (small so far) experience 
with open comment journals (e.g. Brain and Behaviorial 
Research) shows NO shortage of comments from readership.

And if somebody's work won't be commented ... well too
pity. But at least he(she) will learn about it early
enough to look for alternatives. 

> These days... I am more and more convinced it's a matter of
> changing attitudes or tossing those with the 'wrong' attitudes out
> of the system.
> And I am not talking MacCarthism here either.  Finger pointing or
> what have you. (which is why I generally avoid naming names... it's
> just not the people I have worked for or seen - it's all over.  And
> naming names does not clear up the problem of why we have these
> type of people in the first place). [BTW, I am not making up any of
> the numerous examples I have given either... as some personal email
> has suggested!]
> Anyway, it's more of a matter of setting up a system which can
> recognize those with the proper attitudes of putting the pursuit of
> truth *first*, above self-interest and allowing for those who feel
> otherwise to fall out of the system.
> You see... currently, it's the other way around.  Those of us who
> do feel this way (and have the proper attitudes for conducting good
> science) are being 'pushed' out.  We need to somehow reverse this
> in order to give this idea of yours a chance.
> Because I highly doubt you will get much constructive feedback in
> such a system as we currently have?  I really doubt it.

It depends what you mean by 'constructive feedback'
(e.g. anonymous reject of your paper, often with 
irrelevant or no comments, - is it 'constructive
feedback' ?). I think that present (APR) systems
hinders, rather than encourages, feedback. this is
one (though not the only) major flaws of APR. 

> Plus... it is really such a waste of time having to even debate
> such issues in the first place.  This will slow the process down
> (even though, if it actually worked, would speed it up from what we
> currently have?)
> And just think, even if it did work... we would have people who are
> competitors in the same field finding fault with each other's work
> just to find fault and take their competition to a whole other
> level - also slowing the process down.
> Finally, this idea of yours is caving into the premise that
> scientific standards have drifted so far away from what they should
> be that we even need to do such a thing!

No, I am not necessarily buying that 'in earlier times
things were better'. People are always the same. In 12 century
Omar Khayam wrote: "Poets [meaning intellectuals of the
time ] have a habit of gettin together in a circle to spit on
each others". What we need (and the ONLY thing we CAN) is 
to change the SYSTEM, not the people. All those who tried to 
change PEOPLE overe the course of history consistently 
failed (need examples ?). No, classes on ethics won't do 
the trick.   

> No... it's all boiling down to a lack of morales, ethics and
> standards in our community.
> -    Ethics is being handled by this idea of teaching it more in
>      schools and institutes developing their own code of conducts.
> -    Standards aren't even being addressed at all!  And we are
>      currently a community without standards.  Which is very self-
>      evident in how we are loosing the ability to even properly
>      perform the 'basics'
> -    And morales... this has taken the biggest beating.  For the
>      current morale leader we have is Gallo for others to follow
>      after!
> I don't know Alex.  I tend to agree with your anonymous writer who
> thinks it has to be nipped in the bud at the learning level and to
> cut the size of the field community down.
> But I just don't know how to do this in a timely manner where we
> can truly address the devastating effects of a world wide pandemic!
> Do you realize that we, here in the US, are working with an NIH
> budget of over 9 billion dollars per year!  And no matter what
> arguments we have had in this NG concerning the progress of science
> (or the lack there of)... nobody can sit here and tell me that we
> make enough progress to justify 9 billion dollars a year!  No way.

> It just doesn't add up.  And yet we want even more?
> When a good portion of this is waste due to funding slop, fraud and
> misconduct (which is another debateable topic... even back during
> the Baltimore affair, scientist have been arguing that these are
> 'rare events'... and so it's an old, as well as an useless
> argument, especially when we lack a system of self-policing as we
> currently do?  To use an advisory's own comments back to 'em...
> there is no scientific bases for this belief that such events are
> 'rare'!  Where we have much to offer to the contrary).
> Thus, where do we go from here?
> Out of curiosity... are there meetings for such discussions?  I
> know JAMA, here is Chicago, has had a few meetings on Peer-
> Review... with some interesting studies, comments, coming out of
> them.
> But are there meetings anywhere on Ethics, Conduct, and Funding?
> And places where people are sitting and talking about such things
> as we have here for some time now?

Yes, there are (meetings). I and some of my colleagues 
attended some of them. But they (meetings) all run by the 
establishement and you (we) are normally seen as fringe 
bugs on such meetings (or for the most part, you are
not going to be seen at all). Glossy speechers from the
existing Nomenklatura, and that's all. Usually some
body like 'Minsiter of Science' attends, to have all the
proper lickings done back and forth. I have about a
cartoon of their reports in my basement. 

Only specially dedicated groups can [ perhaps ? ] make 
some difference. However, unless some momentum builds
up, you can't count even on this (presently, I don't).

The only process which DOES HAPPEN however, regardless 
of all our discussions and views, is that for people 
'out there' (general public) there is quickly going 
errosion of the public image of science and loss of 
respect to scientists as social category. There are
many signs for is which I omit for length reasons.
Is is good, bad, or whatever, I leave to each one
to decide on the own. 

But this is the process which we (scientists) created, 
do (almost) nothing to arrest it (and do a lot to 
accelerate it), and pretend that we are to keep the
business as usual. Many, of course, attempt to blame it 
on others (nobody likes blaming themselves), 
on 'scientifically illiterate public', 'corrupted 
and/or greedy politicians', etc. But I think, these are 
just good excuses not to start tough job from the
inside of the science community. (and the job is
tough indeed).  

Good luck to all of us.      

> Just curious.
> -Kathy

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