Sunday, August 16, 2015

Cracked explains what is wrong with science - or tries to

Sometimes I really wish people who try to write very confidently about a subject would at least make a token effort at trying to research the topic first. Or, failing that, perhaps because they don't have the time, at least try not to sound so damn Dunning-Kruger about it.

The listicle website Cracked recently tried to explain why science is broken, in six bullet points (hat tip: RationalWiki):

6. Publication bias towards positive results.

5. Scientists not having to make the data underlying their studies available.

4. Scientists having to pay publication fees, which creates perverse incentives and restricts access to publication venues for scientists from poorer countries.

3. Big publishing companies earning obscene profits by charging journal subscription fees in addition to publication fees, thereby restricting access to the results of research.

2. Scientists being forbidden from giving out reprints of their papers because they signed over the copyright to aforementioned publishers.

1. Predatory journals publishing nonsense science.

Except for the first point (#6), all of this is either misleading or self-contradictory.

At least in my area there are subscription based journals and open access journals. In the former case, the problem is that people without institutional access or in poor institutions cannot access the publications, which is bad (#3). In the second case, the problem is that scientists from poor institutions cannot publish, and further that there are perverse incentives if journals earn more money for accepting sub-par articles; and that is also bad (#1, #4). But this post makes out as if both is happening at the same time. It isn't.

It is a classic trade-off situation. Because somebody has to pay for publication somehow, you have to pick one of those problems, whichever you think is the lesser. Unless somebody can convince the voting public to make all journals tax-financed open access non-profit public utilities. I would totally be on board with that, but good luck.

What is more: you can't hand out a copy (#2)? Nonsense. The copyright agreements always include a clause allowing the author to ... hand out copies. We constantly do that. You send me an email requesting one of my papers, you get it. That's how we worked fifteen years ago, that is how we work today. How can somebody write a post like that cracked one without understanding this simple fact?

Finally, #5 is just wrong in my area. You couldn't get a paper published without showing a data table, having your data matrices and trees submitted to TreeBase, or having your sequence data submitted to GenBank - whichever is the most appropriate to your specific case. Maybe there are areas where it doesn't work like that, but systematic biology definitely does not have that problem, so one can hardly say that all of science has it.


  1. I can see how saying "SCIENCE IS BROKEN!" is much more dramatic than saying "There are a few problems with the business model of some scientific publications".

  2. Click bait I think it is called these days. But yes, it can be seized upon by those who have an interest in claiming that empirical evidence can be ignored...

  3. I think the key thing is -- as you imply -- that the norms in your field aren't necessarily the same in every field. As far as copyright, reprints, and preprints goes, it's always seemed interesting to me how wide the gulf is in publishing culture between physics and chemistry when they have so much in common. By saying that, I know that I'm treating both disciplines monolithically which, I'm sure, is unfair, but the feeling I get is that physicists (in general) are free to publish preprints on arXiv; that is simply something that chemists don't and, I assume, generally can't do. My only first hand experience of wrangling with this kind of thing was in seeking permission to reproduce a figure: I contacted the original author -- who had created the graphic -- in order to request permission, and he referred me to the journal as, he said, he no longer had copyright over that particular figure. Perhaps that was an exception, and not the norm in chemistry; perhaps that was a misunderstanding on his part. But perhaps not?

    Obviously Cracked gloss over any differences between disciplines, and present 'science' and 'scientific publishing' as monolithic creatures. And, as the comments have said, that does benefit them by being more dramatic and thus, perhaps, a little better for their ad revenue than a more nuanced article; however, I do think that as a call-to-arms for scientists, and as a quick and easy way of raising the issue among laypeople, it's not bad. Indeed, it wasn't a badly researched article, and they do provide a couple of sources for some of the things that you find contentious: reprints, for example, might be explicitly allowed by the copyright agreements in your field, but the impression that I had in chemistry was that it was merely tolerated and, indeed, the Washington Post article that they linked ( ) supports the assertion that it's certainly like that in some fields: broadly tolerated, but strictly enforced when it suits the publisher. If you have explicit reprint allowances in botany(?) then that's something that others need to adopt as soon as possible (not just to cover our arses, but because having rules -- like "no reprints" -- and then not enforcing those rules just irks me for reasons too long to go into. Too long even to be included in this mammoth comment).

    Lastly, I have to admit that I was going to take issue with you linking it to those with "an interest in claiming that empirical evidence can be ignored", but then, to my horror, I saw the headline. I have many, many problems with that headline, but I like to hope it was carelessness rather than conspiracy on their part; incompetence instead of malice. If Cracked are conspiring with the anti-vaccine, climate-change deniers then I've no hope for the world; however, the article's criticism of Andrew Wakefield tends to make me think that they are on the right side.

    Apologies for the essay. This is a topic about which I'm particularly passionate, and it's been on my to-do list for months that I get around to replying to this. It's a welcome break from thinking about writing a thesis and, worse, writing some long-overdue publications.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate that there are huge differences between fields of research, which is part of the point I was trying to make.

      But what got me most about the article was that it wasn't even coherent. Again, either there is a significant publication fee or there is a fee to read the article. (If there are page charges and subscription fees, which I have seen in very rare cases, I would strongly suggest looking for a different journal.)

      Lastly, I was not implying that Cracked is trying to promote pseudoscience. Merely that there is a difference between saying "modern science has this really big issue, and this is how we can solve it" and saying "you can't trust science anymore" or, as their URL goes, "modern science has turned into a giant scam". Making it easier for cranks and charlatans to discredit science is presumably not the purpose but certainly a side-effect.

      It infuriates me to no end when I think of hundreds of patiently working colleagues who research invasive plants, resolve evolutionary relationships, publish newly discovered species, or improve the conservation management of rare plants being summarily dismissed as part of a scam by a click-baiting writer who, I presume, wouldn't know a scientifically sound study design if he walked into it.