Let’s move beyond the rhetoric: it’s time to change how we judge research

Impact factors were never meant to be a metric for individual papers, let alone individual people. They’re an average of the skewed distribution of citations accumulated by papers in a given journal over two years. Not only do these averages hide huge variations between papers in the same journal, but citations are imperfect measures of quality and influence. High-impact-factor journals may publish a lot of top-notch science, but we should not outsource evaluation of individual researchers and their outputs to seductive journal metrics.

So what can we do to combat this? What’s the solution? Read about it here!

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As a peer-reviewer are you gatekeeping or editing?

In academia, sometimes you need to be a gatekeeper, sometimes you need to be an editor. But knowing when to play either role is important, and can really make a difference to the student/young scientist/person whose work you are editing.

In their ongoing discussion of the role of peer review, Dynamic Ecology has an excellent blog post addressing this distinction.

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The authors would like to thank…

I’m abysmally bad at acknowledgments sections of papers. I just want to write a quick “thanks guys!”

But over at Scientist Sees Squirrel there is a really good post by Stephen Heard about how to acknowledge criticism.

“For critical suggestions and discussion I thank [names]. Not everyone agreed with everything but even that helped (West-Eberhard 2014).”

The post goes on to discuss how, feedback on a manuscript helps the most when it comes from people who don’t agree with you. It makes your paper and your argument stronger.

Also, for those of you who don’t get to the footnote, it also mentions how “constructive criticism” is important, but being a jerk is just that… being a huge jerk:

“*^It’s true that some reviewers don’t understand this. I once submitted a manuscript reporting some limited but (I think) interesting natural-history data. One reviewer wrote, anonymously, that they wouldn’t have given my manuscript a passing grade in their undergraduate Introduction to Ecology course. Nothing more – they didn’t explain what they thought was wrong, or how they thought it might be improved! The editor should never even have passed this “review” on to me; but fortunately, I was too stubborn to give up, and I sent the manuscript to another (better) journal. It was accepted with a few minor revisions, and now I have a funny story to put in a footnote.”

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Academic publishing companies make how much?!

Academic publishing is a 25.2 billion dollar a year industry. I’m not kidding.

Long ago in a land far far away, Forbes predicted that the academic publisher Elsevier’s relevance and lifespan in the digital age was going to be short. “Cost-cutting librarians and computer-literate professors are bypassing academic journals- bad news for Elsevier” the article proclaimed.

But here’s the thing. Elsevier hasn’t been run out of town. In fact, it’s thriving. So are Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley. In fact, Elsevier in 2013 had a higher profit margin than Apple Inc.

Why is this? Brian Nosek, a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Center for Open Science, has an idea:

“Academic publishing is the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs. I, as the researcher, produce the scholarship and I want it to have the biggest impact possible and so what I care about is the prestige of the journal and how many people read it. Once it is finally accepted, since it is so hard to get acceptances, I am so delighted that I will sign anything — send me a form and I will sign it. I have no idea I have signed over my copyright or what implications that has — nor do I care, because it has no impact on me. The reward is the publication.”

Read more about it over at SAS Confidential.

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Junk science

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Birds do it, beetles do it … (Flickr: Henry Burrows)

Last spring, the journal Current Biology published a report describing something new under the entomological sun: A genus of tiny cave-dwelling insects, dubbed Neotrogla, in which females, not males, have penises.

Or, rather, the females have a thing that they stick inside the males. Once it’s in there, that thing inflates and latches into the male with tiny barbs, binding the couple together in a copulation lasting two to three days, while the thing collects a packet containing sperm and a whole lot of (potentially) nutritious protein. What to call the females’ thing seems to have puzzled even the scientists who described it. In the text of their paper, they call it a gynosome (literally, a “female body”); but in the title, it’s a “female penis.”

This synonymy went from confusing to controversial the moment it hit the popular science press, which almost uniformly chose to go penis-first. “Female insect uses spiky penis to take charge” read the headline in the prestigious journal Nature. “Meet the female insect with giant PENIS whose steamy sex sessions last 70 HOURS,” said the Daily Mirror, caps-locked emphasis sic. Most of the stories, even the Mirror’s, got around to using the word “gynosome” eventually, and many went into more detail about how the organ in question wasn’t really a penis as we know it. LiveScience noted it was “a complex organ composed of muscles, ducts, membranes and spikes,” before adding that its size, relative to the body of a Neotrogla female, was “the equivalent of a man who is 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 meters) tall having a penis about 9.8 inches (24.9 centimeters) long.”

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