June 12, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

If Science Is Superior, Why Does It Need Fixing?

Scientific publishing and peer review is undergoing a revolution, suggesting there has been something wrong. Yes; its lack of transparency is motivating a drive for ‘open science.’

Ever hear of ‘open science’? You will be hearing about it. It’s a growing revolution in scientific publishing and peer review. The term implies science has been ‘closed’ in some sense. Indeed; many scientists are fed up with the lack of transparency in the traditional processes of peer review and publication. And yet those are the very things that supposedly set it apart from all other forms of knowledge generation, according to conventional wisdom.

An article in Nature points out one problem: fake peer review. The anonymity of traditional peer reviewers gives researchers no way to verify that the reviewers know what they are reviewing, or whether they have some bias toward the author(s). This has led to meta-reviews of peer review. Some companies have been gathering data on reviewers, building databases of reputable reviewers to offer to institutions. This is making peer review a type of commercial service rather than a domain for publishers. One company, Publons, has reviewed the reviewers to weed out the fakes. Now it is being bought out by Clarivates, owner of a vast science-citation database.

Publons — which will continue to run as a stand-alone business — is particularly keen to help publishers tackle fake peer review, says its co-founder Andrew Preston. The issue has led to hundreds of retracted papers over the past few years as journals have discovered compromised review systems. In such cases, authors typically suggest apparently genuine reviewers for their papers, but provide bogus e-mail addresses that they or their friends control, and from which they send in their own reviews.

Because reviewers on Publons verify their e-mail addresses when they register with the site, the firm is effectively building a network of trusted, verified reviewers, with details of their peer-review record, Preston points out. “We can solve a lot of the inefficiencies that come out of the anonymous, siloed nature of peer review,” he says.

While this is a promising step toward openness, it is not enough. On The Conversation, Elizabeth Gilbert advocates Open Science. In her piece, she answers five questions about the trending term that implies more transparency in research, data sharing, and public peer review. First, she defines Open Science. Then, she explains why it’s about time.

Open science is a set of practices designed to make scientific processes and results more transparent and accessible to people outside the research team. It includes making complete research materials, data and lab procedures freely available online to anyone. Many scientists are also proponents of open access, a parallel movement involving making research articles available to read without a subscription or access fee.

Some … view the open science movement as a return to science’s core values. —Elizabeth Gilbert

  • The reproducibility crisis (see 11/16/14 and 9/05/15) has made many reformers interested in open science.
  • Limited space in paper journals (the old way) meant that actual data were rarely reviewed. With the internet, sharing of data sets is now feasible.
  • The open science movement is a return to science’s core values. Most researchers over time have valued transparency as a key ingredient in evaluating the truth of a claim. Now with technology’s help it is much easier to share everything.
  • Open science should be the default, but the publishers tend to reward novelty, and old habits are hard to break.
  • Researchers are afraid of being ‘scooped’ if someone steals their data and publishes first. Those fears need to be allayed.

Lastly, Gilbert explains why everyone should be interested in open science:

Science benefits everyone. If you’re reading this article now on a computer, or have ever benefited from an antibiotic, or kicked a bad habit following a psychologist’s advice, then you are a consumer of science. Open science (and its cousin, open access) means that anyone – including teachers, policymakers, journalists and other nonscientists – can access and evaluate study information…. Improving science’s reliability and speed benefits us all.

Is Science Ever Settled?

Dr Ricki Lewis has some strong words about ‘settled science’ in his entry for PLoS Blogs. He begins with a true story about a debate over wolf and coyote evolutionary relationships that has gone on, back and forth, for a quarter century. He launches from that into some thoughts about the nature of science. Lewis particularly dislikes the current trend of labeling anyone with a skeptical view on some scientific debate a ‘science denier.’

The science of wolf origins is clearly not “settled” – for science is NEVER settled. Facts aren’t proven, but instead evidence demonstrated and assessed, from both experimentation and observation. The information from tested hypotheses may be so consistent and compelling that it eventually builds to gestate a theory, or even a law, that then explains further observations. But to get there, science is all about asking questions. As I’ve written in all 35 or so editions of my various textbooks, science is a cycle of inquiry.

The ‘anti-science’ rhetoric is not helpful. As an example, he points to ‘climate change’ and whether people should ‘believe’ in it. “I’ve long had a problem with the term ‘climate change,’ because of course climate changes!” he exclaims. “Why would it ever be static, given weather ups and downs?” And yet those who ask questions risk being labeled “climate deniers.” It’s not only a scientifically inappropriate term, he says, “but one that is offensive to some, with its echoes of the Holocaust.” Lewis wants the freedom to ask questions:

And so those who claim to believe in climate change and vilify those who ask questions might learn a lesson in what science actually is from the elegant discussion of wolf origins.

On a similar note, Jay Richards and two others on a panel discussion recorded by ID the Future recommend more openness in the scientific establishment to openness and debate, and less reliance on the “consensus.” Especially instructive is Richards’ list of ten criteria for when to doubt a consensus. The discussion has been published in 3 parts: hear Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Evolution and climate change both come up in the discussion as examples of scientific consensus that need more openness and transparency.

This is a good time to review our previous entry, “Without Integrity, There Is No Science” (1/16/16).


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