Dave published an excellent post last week where he compared the academy to the fashion industry for its general lack of innovation and conformist social exclusion. Today I thought I’d play devil’s advocate to Dave’s very well-received piece, which almost always lands me in trouble. In the interest of staving off the expected torrent of personal attacks on my character, let me begin by stating clearly that the views and opinions expressed in this article are not those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this or any other organization. Let’s begin.
Earlier this week I received the following email. One of many that typically goes unread, it had one interesting detail that caught my attention and ironically saved this communication from the trash bin.
Dear Dr. Jonathan N Thon,
We have been through your articles and we are enthralled to know about your reputation and commitment in the field of Psychology. We strongly believe that this potential research in the field of psychology would be beneficial to the people working in this field.
International Journal of School and Cognitive Psychology (IJSCP) invite you to submit a mini/full review manuscript on any topic of your choice related to our journal.
You might be interested in our latest issue.
Papers may be submitted from any discipline related to but not limited to Cognitive psychology, Mental process, Memory, learning, problem solving, Neuroscience, Attention, perception etc.
Please let me know if you require any more information. Awaiting for your reply,
Assistant Managing Editor
International Journal of School and Cognitive Psychology
It’s not typically my habit to so blatantly call out individuals or organizations for holding positions with which I disagree, but this correspondence needs to be publicized. Why? For starters I am not, nor have I ever been, a psychologist. I earned my PhD as a biochemist. I have drifted professionally to become a cell (more specifically, platelet) biologist. I maintain an active online presence and even a cursory Google search for my name would reveal that I have never published a paper in a psychology journal and am not qualified to academically review this field.
What’s worse, is that I’m tempted to believe that were I to submit a mini/full review manuscript to this journal, there is a high probability that it would be published. This is a single (albeit telling) example, but it prefaces a larger problem in higher education.
Academic specialties are by definition niche environments where active participants have more than a passing awareness of the other players in their field. This is why, in part, most of us who have ever submitted a manuscript for peer review have a fair idea of who reviewed it, despite having been blinded to our reviewers, and why the community assembles itself into cliques. The best protection against poor or bogus science in an age where just about anyone can publish in what (at least at first glance) may appear as a semi-reputable journal, is to excessively filter our content.
We do this in many ways, and some are more accessible than others. For lay audiences and newcomers to a field, the most reliable way to separate reputable science from the rest is by relying on the journal’s reputation. Some journals are better than others. Although a lot of papers are retracted from top-tier journals we like to cite and love to hate (e.g. Cell, Science, Nature, etc.), the likelihood that the data published in these manuscripts have been properly vetted and are reputable, accurate and impactful is significantly higher than were it coming from the International Journal of School and Cognitive Psychology (for example).
The other way is by relying on the reputation of the scientist or group. Oftentimes, newcomers will not know who the heavy hitters in their field are and must therefore fall back to their institution or (and yes, it happens) their country. Some institutions and some countries have better reputations for scientific integrity and quality research than others. These also vary dramatically by field, but there are a select few institutions in every country that have established strong reputations across the board. They are typically also the largest, best funded institutions and the two are not inextricably related.
Among the active players in a field there is a tendency to view more favourably work coming out of top groups than that of unfamiliar research programs. This is not a bad thing. Top groups have established their reputation for quality research and innovation over many years, often having made paradigm-changing discoveries that have stood the test of time, and there is a reason why all eyes turn to them when a new finding is made.
Is peer review without its faults? No. But allowing anyone to publish anything because they believe it to have merit is not the answer either. The fallout of peer review is that a lot of good ideas will not get published/funded because they don’t rise to an ever greater standard of proof. The alternative is bad science – and this is arguably worse.