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 reviews, lawsuits 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.