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Nature muddies the water

As a science writer I’m well used to picking my way through the minefield of embargoes on papers not yet published. I know, too, of possible risks to scientists as well as journalists, when quoting from preprints or even reporting results presented at a conference. Publication can be cancelled.

You’d expect clear guidance from leading journals on that subject. How bewildering then, to read an editorial “Scientific climate” in today’s Nature (vol. 478, p. 428). It’s on the subject of the Berkeley Earth / Richard Muller furore noted in my recent posts. The editorial’s sub-heading is:

Results confirming climate change are welcome, even when released before peer review.

… Where “climate change” is to be understood, I suppose, as “catastrophic manmade global warming”. Other points from the editorial are, as I construe them:

  • The welcome is the stronger because the Muller results can be used against the Republicans in the USA.
  • But Muller really should not have publicised his work as he did.
  • Muller is wrong to claim that Science and Nature forbid the discussion of unpublished results – Nature only opposes pre-publicity.
  • All that said, it was fine for physicists to give pre-publicity to apparent evidence of neutrinos travelling faster than light.

What on earth does all that mean, to scientists and journalists who are just trying to tell their stories promptly? Here are three extracts from Nature’s instructions to authors concerning embargoes, which can be seen in full here http://www.nature.com/authors/policies/embargo.html

Material submitted to Nature journals must not be discussed with the media, except in the case of accepted contributions, which can be discussed with the media no more than a week before the publication date under our embargo conditions. We reserve the right to halt the consideration or publication of a paper if this condition is broken.”

The benefits of peer review as a means of giving journalists confidence in new work published in journals are self-evident. Premature release to the media denies journalists that confidence. It also removes journalists’ ability to obtain informed reactions about the work from independent researchers in the field.”

… communicate with other researchers as much as you wish, whether on a recognised community preprint server, on Nature Precedings, by discussion at scientific meetings (publication of abstracts in conference proceedings is allowed), in an academic thesis, or by online collaborative sites such as wikis; but do not encourage premature publication by discussion with the press (beyond a formal presentation, if at a conference).”

What the new editorial means, in my opinion, is that the politicisation of science has now penetrated right through to the workaday rituals of publication. On no account must you publicise your new work prematurely, unless you do it to bash the climate sceptics or the Republican Party or supporters of Special Relativity or anyone else the editors happen to dislike today. In that case they’ll forgive you.

Why is science so sloooow 2


Updating Magic Universe

WHY IS SCIENCE SO SloooOW? — continued

The modest output of major discoveries compared with a century ago, despite the huge increase in the scientific workforce, was the theme of an earlier post on this subject, which you can see here https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/why-is-science-so-sloooow/ . A relevant extract  from the Magic Universe story on “Discovery” included this paragraph about the use of peer review to resist the funding and publication of novel research.

As a self-employed, independent researcher, the British chemist James Lovelock was able to speak his mind, and explain how the system discourages creativity. ‘Before a scientist can be funded to do a research, and before he can publish the results of his work, it must be examined and approved by an anonymous group of so-called peers. This inquisition can’t hang or burn heretics yet, but it can deny them the ability to publish their research, or to receive grants to pay for it. It has the full power to destroy the career of any scientist who rebels.’

Lovelock made those remarks in a lecture in 1989, but the situation remains grim. This month the life sciences magazine The Scientist has interesting articles on peer review.

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Why is science so sloooow


Updating Magic Universe


Despite the vast increases in the number of researchers and their funding, can anyone claim that the major discoveries of the past two decades are noticeably more glittering or more rapid than those of a century ago? The first two columns show discoveries selected in Magic Universe, and the third has the seven choicest from Breakthrough of the Year in Science magazine.

A provocative story in Magic Universe has the title “DISCOVERY: why the top experts are usually wrong”. It is largely about the battles that many discoverers still have with the scientific establishment. As for the point in the subtitle, it is childishly simple:

As there is not the slightest sign of any end to science, as a process of discovery, a moment’s reflection tells you that this means that the top experts are usually wrong. One of these days, what each of them now teaches to students and tells the public will be faulted, or be proved grossly inadequate, by a major discovery. If not, the subject must be moribund.

More subtle (I hope) is the evidence adduced for the harm science does to itself by its highly organized resistance to discovery. That’s why I have compared the big advances of the 1990s with those of the 1890s to show there is no sign of acceleration.

The only aim in this Update is to check that the 1990s were not an anomalously unlucky decade. To generate a new list of my own might take weeks of study, so I’ve resorted to Science magazine’s annual “Breakthrough of the Year” for 2000-09. In order to match the seven items per decade used earlier I’ve left out the three least impressive “breakthroughs” (2004 avian influenza, 2007 global warming, and 2009 Ardipithecus ramidus).

Dear reader, you can add or subtract whatever you like, but I don’t think you’ll find we live in any sort of golden age of discovery. So why not?

I mention in Magic Universe that the needless delays and inefficiencies of current science give more time for the world at large to adapt to the consequences of discoveries. But that is not a policy democratically prescribed by taxpayers who fund the research. Having checked (to my own satisfaction) that it doesn’t need revising, I shall simply repeat what I have about science’s self-harm, within that “Discovery” story.

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