THE SEEDY WORLD OF SCIENTIFIC PUBLISHING

 Teens that take abstinence vows are still likely to get STDs. Aspirin can treat pregnancy-related disorders. Heart drugs harm your kidneys. Genetically modified crops are bad for nature. Weekly sex makes people just as happy as a $50,000 raise. Laughter is good for your health.

What do these items have in common? They're all findings from recent scientific studies, the kind that we read about every day in the newspapers, in articles beginning "A new study shows that..." These opinions from supposed experts generally set off a rush amongst the public to cut down on heart pills, take more aspirin, or give up their abstinence vows. But a recent editorial in a leading academic publication suggests that many 'experts' routinely doctor or outright fake the research that is behind the headlines.

Mogens Henze, editor-in-chief of Water Research, a major scientific journal, reports that scientists submitting research to the publication routinely try to trick editors and reviewers in order to get sub-par work written up. Henze's article, entitled "The Ignoble Art of Cheating in Scientific Publications", notes that would-be authors have been caught cutting and pasting passages from previously published papers and in some cases outright stealing publications, changing the name on the research, and submitting it anew. Henze also notes that scientists regularly include friends or relatives as authors on a paper, even when these individuals had nothing to do with the research.

What would drive these ostensibly upstanding professionals to forgery? One reason is that universities and research centers increasingly display a "publish or perish" attitude--scientists must produce a long list of published papers or else they lose their funding and often, their jobs. A sure sign of this "more is better" mania was reported in a recent Physics Today editorial where Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, chairman of mechanical engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, highlighted the case of one engineering professor he met who had published 52 papers in a single year.

As far back as 1974, however, the American Psychological Association noted that this focus on quantity has steadily reduced the quality of research, with scientists becoming "content with rapid, mediocre investigations where longer and more careful work is possible." Gad-el-Hak puts it more bluntly, saying that research institutions, which used to value the "impact of a candidate's scholarly work", have "deteriorated into bean counting." Such an environment, he notes, has driven scientists to "publish en masse," whether the work is good or not.

A symptom of this publishing rush is the sheer number of scientific journals being produced today. Recognizing researchers' desperation to get written up, presses have moved to capitalize by starting up thousands of new journals, each cranking out tens or hundreds of papers a year. Entire publications are now dedicated to "harmful algae" and "food engineering"; the field of fluid mechanics, a very specialized branch of engineering, is the subject of more than 250 English-language journals; and Elsevier, the world's largest journal publisher, currently boasts over 1,800 titles in fields ranging from molecular physics to microbiology.

The fact that there are so many journals in need of researchers' submissions (and subscription dollars) has made it much easier to get published, even for second-rate work. As Mohamed Gad-el-Hak notes in his Physics Today editorial, "Of course, shoddy work always existed and competed with good work for journal space. But with the deluge of new journals, enough shoddy work is now being done to fill whole journals. Hopping from one journal to another until something is eventually accepted for publication is fast becoming a pastime for some researchers."

This journal-hopping strategy has benefited several fringe scientific movements over the past few years, with proponents using obscure journals to lend credibility to dubious beliefs. In 2003, Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics authored a report purportedly showing that the Earth did not get warmer during the 20th century, thus challenging the idea of climate change. The pair got the work published in a small journal, Climate Change, whose editor was known to oppose laws restricting greenhouse gas emissions.

Publication in a journal, no matter how obscure, immediately gave the research weight in the public eye and the report became a rallying cry for U.S. politicians opposed to climate change legislation. Republican senator James Inhofe called it a "powerful, new work of science" and convened a Senate hearing to consider the research, while the Bush administration went to great lengths to add mention of the paper to all EPA documents on climate change. Soon afterward, however, leading climate scientists published an article in a more reputable journal, Eos, slamming Soon and Baliunas' work. Eventually, even Climate Change's editors admitted that the paper's findings "cannot be concluded convincingly from the evidence provided." Three of the journal's senior staff ended up resigning over the incident.

More recently, proponents of "creation biology" have used the little-known journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington to lend credibility to theories on intelligent design. A paper published in the journal by Stephen Meyer of Seattle's Discovery Institute concluded that evolution could not have created the diversity of life seen in the geologic record, and that intelligent forces must therefore have been responsible. Religious groups were quick to jump on the fact that intelligent design had been supported by a peer-reviewed journal, and it's expected that creationists will now use the publication as a "scientific" basis to challenge the teaching of evolution in schools. It subsequently came to light, however, that the editor who approved the paper for Proceedings is also on the editorial board of a creation biology study group at Tennessee's fundamentalist Christian Bryan College. The Biological Society of Washington soon afterward issued a statement saying that the paper had been "inappropriate for the pages of Proceedings."

Thus, it appears that even so-called independent experts often have an agenda other than pursuing the pure truth through research. Something to think about when newspapers start trumpeting results from the latest groundbreaking study.

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Posted 04-11-2005 3:50 PM by Doug Casey
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