Put Down The Fucking Crack Pipe

Jul 05 2008 Published by under Conduct of Science

Editors of scientific journals play a very important role in the scientific enterprise. When scientists begin to develop cutting-edge new ideas, it is key that scientific editors find appropriate peer reviewers to review such new work. However, the recent kerfuffle over the Nature editorial open access smear piece has provided a context in which some journal editors and other closed access buffs are revealing an absolutely staggering level of self-delusion about the real role of editors in the scientific enterprise.


Someone claiming to be "A Former Nature Editor" revealed some seriously delusional thinking in a comment to DrugMonkey's earlier post on this topic:

The difference between editors at this level and PI's essentially comes down to the fact that we do the same work behind the scenes and don't need to jump up and down taking credit for it.

"The same work"!? Yeah, sure. Journal editors are totally like PIs. In fact, journal editors and post-docs should totally take over running the scientific enterprise, and get rid of those lame-ass PIs who are just gumming up the wheels of progress.
Another nice example of this kind of magical thinking comes from a closed access buff named Timo Hannay posting on a blog at the Nature Web site:

By "low-end" I mean relatively low rejection rate and low editorial input.

Notice how this dude unquestioningly equates the "lowness" or "highness" of a journal with the quantity of "editorial input"? This is totally fucking ridiculous. Journal editors do the best job when they identify good reviewers who understand the importance and reliability of a particular piece of work, and then stay the fuck out of the way.
Journal editors distort a field, and lead to a misallocation of resources, when they attempt to substitute their own judgment for that of real scientists. A good example of this is the fact that the "high-end" neuroscience journal Neuron has a functional imaging quota imposed at the editorial level, and publishes at least one fMRI phrenology paper every issue. It is sad to see laboratories chasing methodologically and conceptually bankrupt rainbows like functional imaging because journal editors know that the popular press can easily gin up a "gee whiz" buzz around this kind of research.
This is no necessary logical relationship between delusional thinking about the role of journal editors in the scientific enterprise and being a closed access buff. If anyone has any ideas about why editorial magical thinking is manifesting itself particularly in the current discussion of open versus closed access, please weigh in in the comments.

20 responses so far

  • Greg Laden says:

    I was especially revolted by Hannay's comment. PLoS, it seems, is an articulate enterprise. A credit to its kind. Perhaps some day worthy of praise, but in the long run happier living with its own kind.

  • pinus says:

    Is the phrenologyerr fMRI quota a real phenomena, or just something gleaned from the fact that every issue has at least one imaging paper?

  • DM says:

    And just when I think maybe I got a tad too ranty...
    fMRI smack....hmmm

  • neurolover says:

    "It is sad to see laboratories chasing methodologically and conceptually bankrupt rainbows like functional imaging because journal editors know that the popular press can easily gin up a "gee whiz" buzz around this kind of research. "
    You know this is the laboratory's (i.e. the PI's) fault, not the journal editors. You're coming down hard and heavy on the journal editors because they're playing a competition where the journalists wanting to report on the article and give it press in the NYTimes plays a *too* important role in their decision making process. And, presumably the NYtimes is to blame, because they're responding to the gee-whiz desires of the populace, and presumably the populace is to blame because they prefer pretty pictures to deep science.
    But the bottom of this entire pyramid is the lab, which can certainly not do the kind of science they shouldn't do, starving the entire publicity/for-profit publishing/stupid science beast.

  • Eventually the journals which lean more to subscription/paper distribution models are going to have too look at what is happening to newspapers and print magazines; how their distribution costs are affecting profitability (and newspapers are folding or being bought out by cost-cutting moguls) to see the future of their industry. They are going to be relics soon if they don't look at changing their business model to include open-access.

  • juniorprof says:

    A good example of this is the fact that the "high-end" neuroscience journal Neuron has a functional imaging quota imposed at the editorial level, and publishes at least one fMRI phrenology paper every issue
    He shoots, he scores!!

  • neurolover says:

    "A good example of this is the fact that the "high-end" neuroscience journal Neuron has a functional imaging quota imposed at the editorial level, and publishes at least one fMRI phrenology paper every issue"
    Jealous are you? Honestly, I can't tell you how much this sounds like super-duper-whining. You're complaining about the characteristics of a club you have absolutely no obligation to join. If you think the glamor mags make decisions that are bad for science, stop sending your papers to them, and stop judging others by whether they've published in them. Send your best stuff to PLoS Biology. If you don't, you're all just a bunch of whining whingers who are complaining because the club didn't let you in (or didn't let you as often as you'd hoped).
    disclaimer: I am most definitely not an editor, but do have a passing relationship to phrenology, aka fMRI.

  • PhysioProf says:

    whining whingers

    Lolz!
    (Just out of curiosity, and not being from the UK, does "whinger" rhyme with "wine" or "wing"?)

  • Stephanie Z says:

    "Syringe," if I recall correctly.

  • bsci says:

    PhysioProf,
    I usually expect a bit more logic from you. Neuron receives paper submissions that involve fMRI. They send those out to reviewers and the reviewers decide whether the articles are worthy of publication in Neuron. I suspect fMRI papers have roughly the same if not a higher submission to publication ratio compared to other methodologies, but feel free to present data to prove me wrong rather than spout conspiracies about phrenology quotas.
    The MOST heavy handed form of editorial control would be to say that an entire subsection of a field isn't appropriate for a journal. In fact, I think this occurred in "Nature" where they pushed all fMRI papers to Nature Neuro for a few years and didn't have a single methods or applications fMRI article in the main journal.
    I'd be glad to debate you on the appropriateness of the use of fMRI and where it does contribute beyond phrenology, but that's probably worth another thread if you care.

  • pinus says:

    I would love to see an online debate about fMRI, it would be interesting to see both sides.
    Personally, I find any field where a 'leader' tells me that 95% of the publications that use the technique are garbage is suspect.

  • juniorprof says:

    When fMRI can begin to distinguish inhibitory from excitatory neurotransmission signatures I will begin to pay more attention. For animal (like rat) fMRI there are techniques which I find quite useful like Manganese-enhanced MRI. This particular technique theoretically can show calcium influx in neurons (because Mn can pass through VGCCs and remains in cells afterwards) and can give you a pattern of enhanced neurotransmission when appropriate controls are done. I also find fMRI studies combined with PET (for ligand displacement) to generally be quite interesting with enhanced interpretative power.
    Its 7-6 (Federer) in the 5th, what an incredible match! GO NADAL!!

  • bsci says:

    I'm not sure who said 95% of publications are suspect. My own opinion is that only 5% of papers in all fields actually give us significant advances. The problem is none of us know which 5% it is and some of the rest lead to people who make those 5% of discoveries.
    As for complaining about fMRI not distinguishing inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmission... When a systems researchers stop trying to present spike trains from 30 semi-random neurons in two monkeys as a universal finding, I will begin to pay more attention. When more patch clampers stop start working with living animals rather than slices ripped out of a postmortem brain, I will begin to pay more attention. When others stop using heavily anesthetized rats to claim findings about conscious human brain function, I will begin to pay more attention.
    Every method has limitations. The issue isn't that we must get rid of the limitations, but that we design experiments to work with those limitations and to recognize those limitations when interpreting data. Sure, there are some bad fMRI studies that don't do this correctly, but this is true for most methodologies.

  • Ace says:

    Jesus! I like this blog and comments on it but sometimes you gotta be more aware of the divisive shit you say. I mean what is it, you're feminists and anti-racist but it's OK to call journal editors failed postdocs yesterday. And now today, is it really necessary to lump thousands of people doing fMRI as idiots chasing a conceptually bankrupt rainbow? Give your fellow scientists some credit!! It's not like those of us who touched fMRI are all now enchanted under some mind-dumbing spell and are all living and breathing for the dat we get into Neuron as part of our "quota"?? Give me a break dude! We are aware that there have been many "phrenology" papers and we're not proud of everything that comes out. But you could have the polite assumption that some of us are trying to address biological questions just like everyone else in science, instead of sweeping an amazing, non-invasive method of studying brain function under the carpet like its alchemy or something.
    And, like bsci said, you just can't address all questions of systems neuroscience as seen through 12 neurons and a computational model that accounts for their activity. Now I ain't dissing this work, why you gotta diss all of fMRI??
    We're here. And we're scannin' - Please do us all a favour and stop the hatin'...

  • Nat Blair says:

    ...When more patch clampers stop start working with living animals rather than slices ripped out of a postmortem brain, I will begin to pay more attention...
    Alright, it's GO time!
    😉
    As you said though, all techniques have their limitations. The challenge is how to get people to truly grok the other techniques and levels of inquiry, and try to make connections to their preferred system.

  • A Former Nature Editor says:

    PhysioProf,
    Have you ever tried editing? I don't like to make assumptions without meeting you, but your comments seem to indicate that you haven't had a lot of experience with the editorial process as it is often run by professional editors.
    I don't want to respond to the more inflammatory words you use, so let me give you an example.
    An editor sends a paper out to three referees. Two of them make negative comments, but they don't seem to have read the paper in depth. They do suggest experiments X-Z that could improve the paper. The third referee thinks this is an important contribution and gives a very detailed and coherent report backing that up. What do you do, as an editor? Does the editor "get the ---- out of the way," as you suggest? Then the paper gets rejected, as 2/3 reports are negative. Or does the editor think about how long it takes to do the experiments and what they'd really add to the work -- using previous publications and previous submissions to their journal and reviews of those papers as a guide, as well as their own extensive scientific background -- then take an hour to write a letter explaining to the authors that they must reject this version of the paper, but they truly think that addition of suggested experiments X and Y would improve it (although they think Z is not necessary and more suited for the next paper)?
    Most professional editors, especially those at what have been called the "glamour mags," choose the second option if at all possible. By this strategy I've been rewarded with a paper coming back a year later which I sent for review again and ended up publishing, making everyone happy. This is why I made the comment (which I should have phrased better) that editors are like PI's -- we give thoughtful evaluation of research projects, and can provide advice and point researchers to other resources in the way of potential collaborators/upcoming publications/possible competition. I of course didn't suggest that PI's should get out of the way.
    I guess what offends me more is your tone and suggestion that there's not room for everyone in all levels of science. Would you have this same rant about grant administrators? How about teachers at all levels? Do you think everyone that taught you biology and chemistry and physiology were "failed scientists"? I get the impression from your comments (forgive me if I stretch too far here) that I am not a "real scientist" unless I am a non-fMRI-using, academic-track-only worker, trying to publish papers while filled with scorn for journal editors and other groups. That, to my mind, is the real delusional thinking.

  • Becca says:

    ( snarky )
    @ A Former Nature Editor-
    With all due respect, I think you are missing the obvious. I don't know if PP has ever tried editing for journals. However, PP clearly believes editing to be completely superfluous. What else explains the style of blog writing?
    (actually, having seen PP's actual blog... comparing these posts to that place, I have the awful feeling PPs posts here are edited to sound less inflammatory... a terrifying thought, that this is PP behaving nicely).
    ( / snark )

  • anon says:

    "Journal editors are totally like PIs. In fact, journal editors **and post-docs** should totally take over running the scientific enterprise..."
    Who said anything about post-docs? Why are you conflating them with journal editors? Or could you not resist the dig, even though that's not what this post is (at least nominally) about?

  • phfuuuudt! says:

    anon, that was a previous PP rant...

  • Pinko Punko says:

    A year later, over the bodies of a bunch of failed post-docs that missed their job windows, or perhaps had to share co-first-author with three other authors, but I bet the paper was simply fabulous with 45 supplemental figures. GOOD TIMES.

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