Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Publication controversy

This post is likely going to tick off everybody. You've been warned.

Some of you might recall the interesting furor that arose after a paper published in Science claimed that researchers at NASA found a bacterium that could substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA. I mentioned it briefly here and here. One of the major critics of the paper was microbiologist Rosie Redfield, who also happens to be an advocate of "open research," wherein the public (including other scientists) are free to make comments and/or criticisms of her work while she's doing it. Accordingly, she recently posted her formal critique of the work to the arXiv.org website and invited an open peer review of the manuscript on her blog.

The latest Genome Technology has an interview with Redfield, and this bit caught my eye:
GT: Why refute the paper so publicly?

RR: It was this sense of outrage. As one of the thousands and thousands of scientists who would love to get a paper published into the journal Science - which is very competitive - and who are all struggling to do careful, meticulous work in the hope that we will do something important enough to get published in Science, I was really offend[ed] by how terrible this paper was and that Science published this really deeply flawed paper, which fell far below the standards of all the scientists in the country. That was the personal feeling about it.
I can totally sympathize with that. In my quest to have my work published, I've been rejected by several prominent journals and some not-so-prominent journals. Two recent rejections of the same manuscript are particularly annoying, but that's how it is. Like it or not, science is a meritocracy of sorts. Publication is not a right, it's a privilege that has to be earned. So when you see something published that doesn't really measure up or somehow slipped through the system, it can be really galling.

Meanwhile, over at Panda's Thumb, Nick Matzke is in an uproar over the publication of a book called Biological Information: New Perspectives (BI:NP). In his usual blunt style, Matzke is upset because "Springer gets suckered by creationist pseudoscience." For those of you who don't know, Springer is a well-known academic publisher, the kind that puts out books that cost hundreds of dollars that almost no one will ever read. (May I add, if you think he's upset now, wait till he gets a list of the contributing authors. He might go into an apoplectic seizure.) According to Matzke,
The major publishers have enough problems at the moment ... it seems like the last thing they should be doing is frittering away their credibility even further by uncritically publishing creationist work and giving it a veneer of respectability. The mega-publishers are expensive, are making money off of largely government-funded work provided to them for free, and then the public doesn’t even have access to it. The only thing they have going for them is quality control and credibility – if they give that away to cranks, there is no reason at all to support them.
I'm not interested in discussing the merit of the work published in BI:NP, but I am struck by the interesting parallel between Matzke's and Redfield's complaints. From the information I have, the content of BI:NP has largely to do with natural selection, population genetics, and evolutionary biology. Yet it's being published in an engineering publication called "Intelligent Systems Reference Library." Other titles in the series cover subjects like how to solve math problems with software, robotics for assisting wheelchair navigation, and artificial neural networks. So it's a computer engineering series, not really something that would normally publish on pop genetics and evolutionary biology. I suppose technically, "biological information" falls within the extended periphery of the "Intelligent Systems Reference Library," but the publication of BI:NP leaves me a bit unsettled.

On the one hand, I understand that the authors of this volume probably believe that they cannot get their work published in conventional biology journals, because of their controversial, anti-evolution conclusions. I completely sympathize. I would love to be able to have some of my creationist ideas intelligently read and critiqued by knowledgeable individuals, rather than dismissively scoffed at by "howler monkeys" (you gotta be a real oldtimer to remember that reference). On the other hand, I'm a firm believer in the value of peer review and scientific publication. If a work is rejected, there's probably a reason for the rejection that we should take seriously. Scientific publication isn't just some political game, where friends get published and enemies get punished. It's not an inalienable right either. If we don't respect the process of peer review and publication, then what's the difference between a scientific publication and a propaganda piece? The price tag?

So I'm feeling unsettled, and I'm prepared for all sorts of rants to be directed my way. My email's listed below. Have at it.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.