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Comments on: Missing the point?

We are all scientists

Last Build Date: Fri, 10 Nov 2017 23:00:39 +0000


By: richard

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 00:04:50 +0000

I misunderstood about the dark archive. Sorry. Well, to a certain extent, referencing literature is there to make it easier to find relevant information for the reader and to provide support for the research. Referencing irrelevant papers is always a problem but now one can find out faster what is what. If it really becomes a problem for online articles (i.e. referencing work that does not accurately reflect the science), then there are a couple of ways to fix this. In strong referee journals, the referees can easily tell the authors to get their references in shape. This is much easier now than it used to be, due to online approaches. Checking references was such a horrible chore before. Now it is a click. Make them use worthwhile citations. For lightly refereed papers, this may not be done as much before publication. But it would not be in the journal's best interest to allow this to become shoddy (lots of irrelevant references). Because it could have a huge effect on the impact factor for a journal. Impact factors will remain a useful tool to order journals, even ones online. Those who make sure their customers are happy (by providing high quality articles with great references) will have higher impact. Those who put out shoddy papers with poor references will find themselves much lower on the totem pool. So the market may drive people back to having really great, relevant references. An important aspect of this, when it comes to papers, is that if this narrowing is real and if it really is a bad thing, then the scientific community can develop ways to fix the problem. Because now we know it exists. About the Long Tail. It has always been there because the power log nature of it maps directly to human social networks. We can just see it better now because of the metrics developed for web sites. So, any idea before could only percolate up by working its way through the Long Tail using some defined methods, all social in nature. Publication, presentation, sabbatical, letter writing. These have been the age-old methods for moving up the power log nature of human social networks. Making human connections with the right people, the right publication. but usually the people doing the interacting had to occupy a similar space at similar times. Not with the Web. The Web simply provides another and much more potent avenue to accomplish the same things. The critical aspect, and one I spend a lot of time on, is that there is also an increase in noise and random crud. We need good filters, a sort of Maxwell's Demon, that can let good stuff percoalte up and keep bad stuff down. Rotisserie sounds interesting. Because information can not become knowledge without human interaction and discussion. This can occur online and will be greatly enlarged as we develop better tools. A place for good scientific discussions is hard to find online (some blogs come close). Because it is through a diversity of viewpoints, such as ours, that we will be able to overcome these difficulties. that is how humanshave always solved the complex problems facing them.

By: David Crotty

Tue, 19 Aug 2008 22:20:08 +0000

I'm certainly not concluding anything yet, and I do think you're right--this is definitely an age old problem, not one that sprung up with the rise of online publishing. The question is whether things are getting better or worsening. I would hope, with more and more journals putting their archives online (and more and more doing so open access), that finding and reading the primary literature would be easier than ever. But the study in question seems to be stating the opposite, that people are citing the primary literature less and less, and using more recent secondary sources (and fewer and fewer of these). Any time anyone summarizes someone else's findings, you're introducing a level of bias, and that worries me. I want to read the original findings and understand them for myself, rather than relying on someone else's reading of them. Just FYI, the last thing I wrote for publication cited Haeckel's Gastrea Theory paper from the 1890's, but that' s how I roll. To me is one of the worries of our move online. We're cutting corners, living in a world of instant tweets instead of well-thought out essays that really explore a topic. There's too much "I read it on the internet so it must be true" or at least "everyone else cites this paper so I will too without fully investigating for myself", or at least that's the implication of the study. One interesting note is Rotisserie, which is designed to inspire well-written, thought-out discussions online: I do agree that the internet just magnifies human nature, and that increased access to things is a positive thing. But I worry that (as recent studies have shown), the long tail is becoming longer and more obscure, and the mainstream hits are getting more and more concentrated. Time will tell if this trend continues. Oh, and I guess I didn't explain the dark archive well enough--it's a good thing. The idea is to have places where you can publish, or at least upload, your unpublished data, your experiments that yielded negative results. This will allow others to perhaps get something out of your work, work that you're not going to be able to use for anything. At the very least, it would prevent others from wasting time and money repeating the things you've already done that haven't panned out. As for your Theodoric comments, well, you'll feel a lot better after a good bleeding.

By: richard

Tue, 19 Aug 2008 17:39:00 +0000

As an aside, I am reminded of Steve Martins great character, Theodoric of York, Medievel Barber. "You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach." And: "Wait a minute. Perhaps she's right. Perhaps I've been wrong to blindly follow the medical traditions and superstitions of past centuries. Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a "scientific method". Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance!...Naaaaaahhh!"

By: richard

Tue, 19 Aug 2008 17:36:33 +0000

David, Its why I put the question mark ;-) I think it is a little too early to interpret this observation with any definitive conclusion. You bring up some really good points. However, I think that this sort of thing was present long before online journals appeared. Oddball ideas have always had a hard time beating their way through scientific consensus. Mendel's paper sat unexamined for years. Science has always had a tendency to make it hard for non-concensus things to make their way to the forefront. It used to be that an entire generation of scientists had to die before a new idea would gain real purchase. we do not see that today. In fact, it is almost the opposite, with new ideas and changes happening almost hourly. The main driver for what you describe is based on how human social netowrks are set up. They follow the small-world model where new nodes are added preferentially to the most highly connected. This provides real benefits in scalability and information flow and are how the internet itself is set up. But they create power-law driven connections (a Long Tail), so that the most popular remain the popular. That is how the social network survives. It is not a bad thing since the popular only remain popular if they provide the network what it needs. The people drive the popularity, not the site. So there was really never any chance that the Web would give equal voices to all. Human social networks do not function that way. What the Web can do is provide equal access to all. Now my oddball idea can actually get out there in ways never before possible. Of course it won't be a big hitter but at least it is findable. And if it is actually correct, if it actually describes nature in a better way that current methods, others will find it. We do not all need to be deep searchers. But some people love to do that and they will find the oddball. And they will connect to others. This incipient community can have real power, if the model actually is better, if it represents a better 'Truth.' The Long Tail is fractal and holds the promise that useful ideas will move up the tail, will percolate towards the concensus of the popular. Thus it is possible for the odd to get seen. But it is a different path than a sort of town hall where everyone gets their say evenly. I could be wrong though ;-) But it is through conversations like what you and I have, that would really not have been possibe before the Web, that will help make it work well. Because your concerns need to be addressed. If there is some sort of dark archive developing, then we need to develop tools to prevent it. And we can.

By: David Crotty

Tue, 19 Aug 2008 17:09:51 +0000

I think the point I was trying to make was your basic old-curmudgeon-you-kids-today-need-to-read-the-literature rant. I know from my own research experience the way that results are often twisted (or to be kinder, evolve) over time. You see the original article where the author proposes a possible mechanism. Then a later article cites that one and mentions the possibility. Then a review article cites the second one and states it as a fact. Then 6 papers down the line the unproven hypothesis is now dogma. And that's the problem with using secondhand (and third and fourth, and fifth) sources for your references. Yes, this is just as true in a paper-only world as it is online. But in the online world with instant access to a journal's backlog and direct links from reference lists, there's less excuse for scholarly laziness. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it as the cliche goes. There seems to be an awful lot of thought being given to the idea of a "dark archive" where people can publish negative results, which will help others save time and money by not having to repeat failed experiments. Forget the dark archive, what about already published positive results--if we choose to ignore the deep literature in favor of a small subset of recent articles, then we're likely to end up repeating work that's already been done. The study in question may not show that this is really happening--how do paper citations reflect the scholarship an author has actually done--but it was a conclusion suggested by the study's author, hence my comment. The other issue online is the emphasis on "consensus" rather than "correctness". If a well-connected person with lots of online friends and linkers puts forth their opinion, or cites a paper stating one possible solution (but not necessarily the correct one), the online world tends to reinforce that. You link to it, it raises in Google, I find it easier because it's higher in Google, so I link to it, it gets higher in Google, lather, rinse, repeat. Everyone ends up linking to the same paper, rather than a better paper that isn't as popular or well-linked. I worry that this provides a mechanism for effectively silencing different voices, rather than the open forum we were all promised the internet would be. Kind of a "mob rules" versus "wisdom of the crowds" sort of thing.