Retiring Scientific Ideas

I thought I’d wade in and start writing a blog about science and the errant wisps of thought that float around. I’ve been following a few blogs for a while, and whilst I like the commenting idea, I often find I’d rather write about it afresh. Seeing as how I now “do Twitter”, this seemed like the next level – please comment constructively and tell me I’m talking rubbish.

There’s been much talk over a wide range of topics within said blogs, from “cats and dogs”, to “harassment”, to “how to publish science”. I have views on all these subjects, and I guess I’ll try to condense them down into a single meandering waft.

It all came together when I happened upon the edge.org news item regarding the next big question: “WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?”

Given the previous Edge questions, such as “WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?” and “WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?“, I initially thought this new offering a bit under-existential, but felt it brought some of the previous discussion topics I mentioned earlier into focus.

Cats and Dogs

Mick Watson recently opined on Ewan Birney’s driving factors in personal scientific attitudes, quite conveniently compartmentalised into two four-legged analogies. Whilst broadly generalising scientists into two distinct categories is easy, the reality is not that simple, and being “catlike” has distinct downsides in scientific outlook. It’s a common preconception that PI’s and bioinformaticians are “cats” – powerful, independent, gate-keeper like entities. “Dogs” are viewed as group workers, following the direction of the pack. As Mick says, there are times to be a cat and times to be a dog but on the whole, scientists need to be both. I would disagree, in that scientists need to be dog most of the time, unless the situation warrants cat-like behaviour. Fierce unwavering catlike independence is great for moments of personal development and the motivation to carry on with a problem when everything is screaming at you to drop it (which is why the link is made to bioinformatics – coding is a labour of cat-like love). Fierce unwavering catlike independence is also shitty for a myriad of reasons: it often comes across as arrogance and science has more than enough of that already; it’s counter-productive in project-based discussions when consensus is essential (labouring a viewpoint is commonplace); it stifles interoperability on a personal and practical scale; it breeds resentment of other cats and promotes sectarianism. This widely-posted PLOS article outlines these pigeon-holed behaviours, where all the types described are “cat-like” traits. Luckily, the article also describes how to be more dog in each instance. As a self-professed dog lover, I’m probably biased in this analogy.

Harassment

We’ve all read the recent descriptions and subsequent outpourings of mutual support for the victims of sexual harassment in the scientific world, demonstrated as naming and shaming of the perpetrators. Whilst I’m not going to add my 2 pence here as to why sexual harassment is so completely horrific (because my feelings are more than ably summarised by people far more eloquent than myself) it raises an issue for the greater whole. Why does science have the problem of harassment in the first place? Why the continual propagation of not just sexual harassment, but ideas harassment? Furthering knowledge is no more a gender exclusive pursuit than is the ability to tie shoelaces, or carry out the most basic of bodily functions. History could be, and most surely is, to blame, but I’m pretty sure we don’t live in the 40s anymore. So, I’m not talking about scientific debate – this is natural disagreement with a view to pushing one’s envelopes. I’m talking about personally denigrating someone for their scientific viewpoint. This came to a head with the ENCODE debacle. Whether you like 80% functional as a figure or not, and whether you like the notion of “big science” or not, the dumbing down of those involved in the project by others was, in my view, an utter dick move for science. What better way to make the field of science look and feel like a disagreement at a child’s ballpool birthday party to those “on the outside”, than to publish an article with the tone of a sarcastic ageing relative that you can’t get rid of at Christmas? The shame is that the content of the article is generally sound, and does bring to mind the discrepancies of funding availability for smaller science projects in this world of “big data”, “big science” and “big ideas”. Which brings me nicely on to…

How To Publish Science

The ideology behind science is the dissemination of findings based on empirical observations, but this empiricism is not essential for promoting scientific discourse. I couldn’t care less if Randy got a Nobel and shunned the very same “glamour” journals he used to disseminate knowledge – his message, in time, will remain the same: “you don’t need a journal’s impact factor to help your career“. Sure, he’s had the benefits of hindsight, success and publicity to make that point. Some don’t like his eLife-bolstered open access stance when coupled with the silver-spoon hypocrisy it’s based on. I couldn’t care less. Casting stones seems to be rife, with people staking claim on their open access dedication being initiated earlier and with far more vigour than hapless dinosaur Randy. This is the hipster way, and it’s based on the same desire to seek “glamour” that drives impact factors.

Similarly, one thing that exposes the nasty side to being bent over the impact factor barrel are the stories of science group managers demanding that papers from the group only be published in journals with an impact factor of and above a certain score. This promotes closed world behaviour in postdocs and RAs, and is tantamount to harassment. Science gains no intrinsic value by having a shiny wrapper on it, and even worse still is the persistence in the notion that by publishing your science in a non-glamour journal means your science is somehow worth less. Given the monumental fubars in the closed review process whereby trojan papers have made their way into these gold standard publications, the beauty in modern day science dissemination is that Twitter, open access publishing and open peer review (arXiv, F1000, PeerJ, PubPeer, etc) are becoming actively embraced by new researchers and outwardly recommended by research leaders. This truly is the way forward for good science. However, albeit well and good, the problem resurfaces when attempting to rationalise your research outputs to funding bodies and tenure panels without the archaic traditional measurements of scientific success . This is not the way forward for good science and needs careful consideration in future. I was genuinely worried that some people I have discussed this with are fearful that if they don’t publish their work in these glamour journals, their career will suffer. This is a horrible existence in a modern scientific arena.

So, what scientific idea is ready for retirement? Sectarian Closed Science.

Sectarianism and closedness needs to die in science, and I’m both disturbed and heartened in equal measure by the precariously balanced see-saw of the world around scientific endeavour. We’re teetering on the edge of something shame-facedly simple yet vital, and that is science for everyone. Scientific careers that are recognised for what the science is, not where it’s published. Science that is freely available for discussion and debate, from sofas to auditoriums, without fear of personal attacks. Science that excludes noone.

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