December 25, 2012

On Bullshit (in science)

More and more is being written about the reproducibility of biomedical research, including prominent recent editorials in the Guardian, New Yorker, and Atlantic.

Perhaps the most famous argument was advanced by Ioannidis in his essay "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False." Ioannidis' provocation is certainly worthwhile in drawing attention to the subject, but the largely phenomenologic nature of his argument does not help to explain the cause of the problem, other than to suggest the existence of flawed human behaviors.

It appears that scientific misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications. Indeed, Retraction Watch and Science Fraud post almost daily notices of published papers that are admitted to have been fabricated.

To what extent is scientific fraud intentional, .e.g. a purposeful act of deception, as opposed to an incidental outcome of otherwise purely selfish human behavior? The latter is a common human vice, such as empty talk that is intended to impress. Colloquially, this is called "bullshit," but the vulgar nature of this term should not distract from its serious consequences in academic scholarship.

Philosophers have grappled with the nature of bullshit, and Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" is essential reading on this subject. In particular, the definition of bullshit is "not that it is false but that it is phony." Since bullshit is created "only on account of [its] supposed indispensability to a [selfish] goal other than deception itself," fraud is an inaccurate characterization of the problem that plagues biomedical research.

Instead, scientific bullshit is a more apt description. And as a result, changes to the current practice of science that limit the importance of impact factors, personal mythology, and self-promotion, and not vexatives about truth, integrity, or ethics codes, are likely to be more effective. Otherwise, I am afraid they may be just a bunch of hot air.

January 12, 2012

Time to terminate the "Research Works Act" which aims to terminate public access to publicly-funded science?

The Research Works Act aims to terminate the NIH Public Access Policy which ensures that results of publicly-funded research are publicly available. Michael Eisen has raised attention to this issue, including an eloquent nytimes op-ed essay.

I wrote to Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the sponsor of the bill, with these concerns, and below is her reply.
Dear Dr. Kentsis:
Thank you for taking the time to contact me about your opposition to HR 3699. As someone who represents thousands of researchers, research institutions, and publishers, and a strong advocate who helped double NIH funding, I appreciate the opportunity to respond. 
First, I think it’s important to point out that this bill does NOT impact research reports and raw data generated by government-funded research. This information would still be available at no cost to the public. Reports that suggest that these NIH funded research papers (prior to peer review) will not be available for free are wrong. Authors still retain the ability to share data, reports, and other forms of research findings derived from the taxpayer-funded research. However, once a publisher has worked on a manuscript, spent private funds to improve it and has peer-reviewed it, under this bill, the government would not be able to take that work-product and disseminate it for free. The information, the manuscript, and the data can be made available for free before they receive any private investment. 
The purpose of HR 3699 is to support the continued investment and innovation by private-sector publishers in scientific, technical, medical and scholarly journal articles and to advance the public interest in the important peer-review publishing system that helps ensure the quality and integrity of scientific research. 
The importance of peer review cannot be overstated. It is the system by which experts give informed comments on papers in highly specialized fields of science. It is essential to providing independent, informed, objective assessments to maintain the quality of scientific articles and ensure that science develops independently of ideological and political interests. Because peer review happens and fixes problems prior to publication, we never hear about the false or erroneous research that would otherwise make it into journal articles. 
Moreover, the publishing industry has invested in providing public access to scientific journal articles. Patients can get free access to information on new research through various publisher programs including PatientINFORM. Anyone can go into research libraries for free access to the articles in which publishers have invested substantially to ensure their high quality. 
Two-thirds of the access to PubMed central is from non-US users. In effect, current law is giving our overseas scientific competitors in China and elsewhere important information for free. We are already losing scientists due to a reduction in funding for federal research. This policy now sends our value-added research papers overseas at no cost. 
Finally, as people continue to struggle during these difficult economic times, it is important to be mindful of the impact of various industries on job creation and retention. New York State is home to more than 300 publishers that employ more than 12,000 New Yorkers, many of whom live in or around New York City in my district. New York City scientific publishers represent a significant subset of the total, and more than 20 are located in Manhattan, publishing thousands of scientific journals and employing thousands of New Yorkers. This bill saves American jobs. No industry could survive a model whereby they invest private dollars and are then required to give it to the federal government to disseminate the final product for free. 
Once again, I appreciate your taking the time to contact me. 
Member of Congress

This response speaks for itself, particularly the last 2 sentences, which invert the logic of public access to publicly-funded science to suggest that the "final product" of our science belongs to commercial publishers.