Scientific reputations and clashing worldviews

February 22, 2012

Two weeks ago, Brian Kraatz and I attended one of Edward Tufte’s workshops on presenting data and information. I’ve been meaning to blog about that, and still plan to when I get time to breathe. But something came up then that has been stuck in my head ever since.

Tufte was addressing a mixed audience of several hundred, including people in computer science, marketing, business management, education, IT, writing, publishing, old media, new media–a pretty darned diverse cross-section of people involved with or interested in the exchange of information, from tattooed college students to rumpled retirees and buttoned-down suits to straight up hippies. One recurring theme in the day-long workshop was the way that Tufte held up scientists as the gold standard of rigor and honesty in reporting information. He frequently said, “You should aspire to do this, because it’s what scientists do.”

This always made Brian and me share a bemused smile; it’s a little weird to hear one’s chosen profession held up as a model for all the others. But it was also a useful reminder of the ideals scientists hold (some more successfully than others), and it was gratifying to hear our colleagues spoken of as role models rather than mad scientists, immoral tinkerers, ivory tower goofballs, or other less savory stereotypes.

In science, reputation is everything, and it is roughly synonymous with “integrity of data”. Papers have a life of their own and have to stand effectively forever; I routinely cite work that was published in the 1800s and have cited a paper from 1774–a publication older than my country. So scientists tend to make a distinction between a scientist’s reputation as a person and his or her scientific reputation. Most scientists don’t really care if Bob Scientist has a gambling problem or turns into a drunken mess at conference banquets–or rather, we may frown on these things, but hey, the world is full of jerks. At the end of the day we care a lot more about the quality of his data. As long the work is solid, we can put up with quite a bit in the way of a-hole behavior.

In contrast, once someone has been caught plagiarizing or falsifying data, their scientific reputation is permanently shot. If we can’t trust some of your data, we can’t trust any of it. And if we can’t trust your data then you’re not really a scientist to us anymore; you’re just one more of the zillion sources of spam, advertising, and filth we have to filter out to get to reliable information.

This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. In one of the most important books about how and why science works, David Hull makes the same argument to explain why plagiarism and falsification of results are so rare in science even when they would benefit researchers (at least occasionally and in the short term). The book is Science as a Process, and if you are a scientist or want to understand the guts of how science works, you should read it.

Businesses by and large do not work to the same tolerances of honesty. Thanks to marketing, almost every business, certainly every big business, is engaged in “shaping public opinion” about its products (or, if you like, “lying”). Whatever the reality at your business, the general perception is that in the business world a certain amount of bullshitting is acceptable, expected, and maybe even admirable–as long as it doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

These two divergent worldviews don’t seem to come into conflict very often or very loudly, but they certainly have in the Academic Spring, with commercial publishers at the uncomfortable junction between science and big business. And Elsevier is catching the most hell, at least in part because of its extensive recent history of slimy dealings and immoral policies: the arms deals, fake journals full of “papers” that were really ads for Big Pharma, bribes for favorable reviewslawsuits against libraries for legal use of purchased content, and turning legislators into paid puppets, to pick the most egregious.

Now, ask an Elsevier employee about those practices and you’re likely to hear that they were problems in the past, but they’re fixed now (all except the last two, I guess), so why are we still talking about them? This is business thinking: there were PR problems, now they’re fixed, let’s move on.

Scientists look at the same offenses and see a pattern of behavior–an evil money-grubbing corporate machine out to make a buck by any means fair or foul. In particular, we look at the fake journals and paid reviews and think, “Elsevier falsified its data”. In academia, that is the one unforgivable sin. It is probably a big part of why many scientists are vowing not to have anything to do with Elsevier ever again.

I think this is why the few halting attempts by Elsevier employees to engage with academics have mostly failed: we don’t believe you. No, wait, that’s incomplete, and you really can’t afford to continue misunderstanding this. Is is more accurate to say that your employer’s underhanded dealings have successfully conditioned us to not believe you. There is not a little crack in our trust, there’s a crater a thousand miles wide that goes all the way down to the mantle. And we have also been conditioned as scientists to permanently write off anyone who falsifies data, which your employer has done. So you are coming with the dirtiest possible record to make nice with the pickiest possible audience. No wonder you’re not making any headway.

I’m not writing this to defend the situation or its fairness or lack thereof or to tell you how I wish things were so that you could help me bring about some glorious future. I’m writing to describe your reality right now, because folks inside Elsevier are having a hard time understanding why people hate them so much. And it’s not my responsibility to propose solutions: you got yourselves into this damned mess, funnel a little of that £724 million in profits to some clever people and figure a way out. That said, I’m not above handing out some free advice. For starters, go read Science as a Process so you can start understanding the mindset of the enemy. That won’t heal the rift, but at least you’ll be able to understand our worldview.

Simply fixing the most egregious problems and restoring the status quo–the background hum of predatory pricing and exploitative bundling against which the Cost of Knowledge boycott is aimed–is not going to be nearly enough. It would take a grand gesture to convince us that you’re actually working in our best interests instead of those of your shareholders. Supporting FRPAA is not only your best bet, it might be the only game in town.

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20 Responses to “Scientific reputations and clashing worldviews”


  1. Very nice — and very true about science as an enterprise and vocation. That is what it is after all, a vocation. Trust is so important among us because we all start with the underlying assumption that you are telling us, to the best of your ability, what the data really mean. Falsifying that data, or making stuff up, permanently puts you in the “do not trust:” category.

  2. John Wilkins Says:

    Good to see David Hull’s view of science being mentioned – it’s a great and underappreciated book. David made the point about the distinction between scientists who are altruists and scientists who are dicks being irrelevant – what mattered is that they are *used* by other scientists (he called this, in a homage to Hamiltonian evolutionary biology, “conceptual inclusive fitness”).

    One comment though – when I have spoken to many of the major players in that book, they all deny that he got the details right. Unfortunately none of them agree which details. :-)

  3. Anne Weil Says:

    Wellllll…. if Joe Scientist gets drunk at the banquet and grabs my rear end, I actually DO have a problem with that. Female scientists potentially have a whole different set of difficulties in which the dickishness of someone with perfect data does have professional consequences — for others. You’ve glossed over that for the sake of this argument, or not ever thought of it.

    But other than that, nice post.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi Anne,

    Yeah, I’m sorry, I did gloss over that. The a-hole behavior bothers me a lot, but I am often amazed at how much other people get away with without it having much of an effect on their scientific reputation–which actually reinforces the point made in the post. I don’t condone a-hole behavior or think it should be ignored, it’s just not the battle I’m trying to fight right now. Sorry to have given the impression that it doesn’t matter.

  5. Rob Griswald Says:

    I must say Matt, it’s really unfortunate that you have such a hatred towards Elsevier and academic publishers.

    An initial diagnosis points to a DSM IV disorder , I advise you to seek help as soon as possible.

    Is this syndrome taking over your life?

    From the looks of things you have been spewing this hatred for at least 3 weeks now. Perhaps you should get some rest, go on a vacation or check yourself in for needed psychiatric care!


  6. @Rob Griswald: personal attack – resort to it when you have lost the argument. ;)


  7. Rob Griswald’s ad hominem both underscores the discussion about dickishness and perfectly demonstrates the inability to address the specifics of the arguments that “Big Publishing” has made in this debate so far. Instead, it is proxies (like Kent Anderson’s advocacy) that have made the best (if inadequate) arguments so far.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    “I must say Matt, it’s really unfortunate that you have such a hatred towards Elsevier and academic publishers.”

    … says Rob Griswald, of Reed Elsevier daughter company LexisNexis.

    “From the looks of things you have been spewing this hatred for at least 3 weeks now.”

    Actually, that’s been mostly me.

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    I must say Matt, it’s really unfortunate that you have such a hatred towards Elsevier and academic publishers.

    Two questions:

    First question: if someone lies, and I point out that lie and explain why it threatens my livelihood and the lives* and livelihoods of others, is that hatred?

    *The fake journals were biomedical journals, after all.

    Second question: if you show up here and just call names without presenting any actual arguments, who do you think looks worse, me or you?

    … says Rob Griswald, of Reed Elsevier daughter company LexisNexis.

    Oh dear. This is disappointing, since up until now Elsevier employees commenting on this blog have shown a genuine desire to understand our position and engage in a productive exchange. So let me amend question 2: If you show up here as a known Elsevier employee and just call names without presenting any actual arguments, who do you think looks worse, me or Elsevier?

  10. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    I found this an interesting and thoughtful post. I do want to say that from where I sat Elsevier didn’t see, e.g., The Australasian ‘journal’ incident as a PR problem, but as fundamentally counter to what we believe in. And yes we took action. But I still get the point you’re trying to make.

    I was surprised by your statement that plagiarism and falsification of results are rare. We see quite a lot of the first, and some high profile cases of the latter have made the news quite recently.

    Not trying to start an argument! I found this very interesting reading. Thanks for sharing it.

  11. Matt Wedel Says:

    I was surprised by your statement that plagiarism and falsification of results are rare. We see quite a lot of the first, and some high profile cases of the latter have made the news quite recently.

    Hull’s argument isn’t that these things don’t happen, but that they are relatively infrequent in science compared to similar abuses of power in other fields–dirty cops, corrupt politicians, and so on. University science departments don’t need Internal Affairs units because scientists are generally pretty good at self-policing; science works in such a way that the incentives to be honest are usually stronger than the incentives to cheat. I agree with that because it matches my personal experience, but for the full development of the argument please see Hull’s book.

    And thanks for the kind words, they are deeply appreciated.


  12. Hi Matt,

    I do think there is a difference between the ultimate autocorrections of science as a process in the long run and the immediate politics within science. Someone may have a position of power within the scientific community that allows them to act as a sometimes arbitrary gate keeper. And whereas the real data ultimately prevail, it can be cold comfort if you as a scientist have been rebuffed or blocked from presenting legitimate data in journals and outlets with prestige and reach because of issues irrelevant to the science. Someone can couch their argument about why your paper or research is not up to snuff in scientific phraseology and effectively block legitimate data because of their perceived clout.

    I have published enough peer reviewed articles to show, I hope, that I am not simply making excuses for not getting published. But I do wish that our scientific communities, those involved with paleo and related topics, would go double blind.

    I believe science is a great tool and the best way known to ferret out the “truth” about the physical world, but it is still plagued by politics and behind the scenes issues just like any human enterprise. So I agree with the ideal that Hull expresses, but I want to be careful not to assume we have some model system that works in all realms.

  13. Matt Wedel Says:

    Agreed. Hull doesn’t argue that there aren’t politics in science or that the best ideas always win in the short term, although I think he would argue that better ideas tend to win out in the long run (obviously I agree, or I’d be doing science studies instead of science!). His argument is more about the relative infrequency of outright cheating and falsification of data. If I could, I would just force everyone to read Science as a Process and get the full argument directly from Hull, but then I wouldn’t have needed to write the post.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    “Science studies”?

  15. Matt Wedel Says:

    A postmodernist hell of “discourse” and “critique” in which, as far as I can tell, practitioners mostly argue that scientific results are determined by culture, gender, privilege, and so on, more than by any reference to objective reality–if the practitioner even recognizes the existence of “objective reality”, which many do not. But a useful field for siphoning off poseurs too lazy or cowardly to do actual science and keeping them bottled up talking to each other instead of bothering us. Read on.


  16. [...] Matt has explained in detail why no-one trusts Elsevier any more in an outstanding post that I urge all scholarly publisher employees to read if they don’t understand how things have got so bad.  To (over-)summarise Matt’s analysis, scientists are trained to see dishonesty as a permanent stain, whereas in business a certain amount of dishonesty is expected.  So things like the fake journals are a huge deal to scientists, while the career businessmen at the helm of Elsevier can’t necessarily see what all the fuss is about.  Because of half a dozen big things and a thousand small things, Elsevier has lost the trust of both librarians and researchers. [...]


  17. [...] we come back to the central issue, which is trust.  Elsevier is a science publisher, which means that most of its customers are scientists.  [...]


  18. [...] issue at hand.  Those on the other side clearly have a lot more to work with: Mike Taylor and Matt Wedel are recommended reading on the specific subject of Elsevier.  Leaving aside the arms dealing, [...]


  19. [...] that context, there’s no doubt that a sequence of bone-headed manoeuvres by Elsevier (some recent, some going back a few years) have cast them as the Bad Guys — an effect so strong that independent financial analysts [...]


  20. […] can do is take it on trust from the publishers that they’re playing fair. And unfortunately, they have violated that trust repeatedly. There’s no trust left for the big legacy publishers. On the occasions when they do play […]


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