Saturday, November 1, 2008

W(h)ither thee, anonymous reviewership

You'll notice that I haven't posted further on the recent Moritz and Fetz paper (mentioned here). Part of that is due to my lack of time at the moment, but now it is going to remain on the back burner until some mumblings about another paper come to fruition. I don't want to cause, or add to, any drama, but it's time for another "Things being done right now that will seem utterly ridiculous in 5 years" episode. And, no, there's nothing to read into as far as motivations for this post, and I am not pointing fingers, naming names, or hinting at anything. The situation just got me thinking and I just started mumbling the below text to myself...

Anonymous reviewing by published journals

If you are under the age of, say, 30 and have had internet access since 14.4 baud modems, or just a generally techy/onliney type person, anonymous reviewership must seem like the most idiotic way of determining whether a paper is worthy of publication. I'm not talking about the fact that people volunteer to review articles for for-profit companies, like Nature Publishing, for no pay and no credit, I'm speaking about the general spirit of competition and general spirit of the anonymous forum poster. The principle is most easily summarized by the below comic from Penny Arcade:

You can replace "Audience" with "Competing lab (real or perceived)", and the results remain the same. Now, researchers and other 'professional' types understand that mindless ridicule reflects poorly on them, so instead, the choice of words is put in such a way that only those directly in the crosshairs understand the implications.

In the world of publications, unlike Unreal Tournament, you can't receive a review that sounds idiotic and ignore it. This is clouded further by the slight differences in acceptable results and methods between sub-sub-fields. Are 3 monkeys enough for visual research? How about when you're looking at two areas or the brain? Think the editor knows? In many cases nope. And all that a reviewer has to do is point out one or two papers with a higher n, take a few pot shots at the statistical methods, complain about a background reference or two (usually whining about not citing the reviewer's paper), and you have a quick way to delay or kill publication of an article.

But why do this? Because the IFT (from the comic), applies to everyone in any situation of anonymity. Sure the degree of f-wad-iness varies and the language isn't as coarse, but researchers are not above kindergarten playground type rivalries that benefit no one. Maybe it's pride or fear or a nerdier form of Al Queda-esque zealotry, who knows? Two things are clear: It will get exponentially worse over the next 10 years, and it will be one of the major reasons for the destruction of the publication industry as a whole.

Petty rivalries have been in science forever and will probably never disappear entirely. The difference is that the current crop of researchers are used to remaining at some level of respectable discourse, regardless of whether their identity is known or not. The new breed has been raised on anonymous message boards, BBSes, and forums where the IFT has been in full effect. As these folks move up the ranks, that tendency to push buttons will only get worse. The overtly jerky types will obviously be cleaved, but there will always be the contingent that knowingly suppress the IF-ness and focus it in seemingly acceptable ways, along with the folks that 'come into' their IF-ness over time.

Don't think the IFT is a real problem? This week, Electronic Arts, the biggest game maker int he world, announced that they will be tying video game log ons to forum member profiles. Folks that are banned from the forums will also be blocked from logging into their games. That's right. Act like a jerk in the forum and you lose the right to play the game you purchased - and it is probably perfectly legal. Alexa reports that there are about 150 people are linked to the above comic EVERY DAY, and searching for just that single comic page brings up 13,500 hits. (That's not counting reposts, copying the image to other sites, etc.) A similar XKCD comic on the same topic:

Title: Duty Calls
Caption: "What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they'll keep being wrong!"
I had internet access when I was in high school - one of about a dozen people in a large suburban school. Needless to say, the whole idea of the IFT is somehow ingrained in my psyche, as if I can't imagine the world without nutjobs causing havoc only because they can and no one knows who they are. It isn't a new concept, but it is so frequently and strongly reinforced with the advent of the web that comparing it to throwing caution to the wind on vacation because no one knows who you are in Slovenia, just isn't the same.

So, again, how does this lead to the collapse of the publication industry? It's almost a V for Vendetta scenario - an establishment continues on the usual course where one side is suppressed, the other running wild, and eventually this exact problem comes to light. Maybe it is a cancer treatment or some other research paper that leads to significant outcomes that affect a large number of people, but the word gets out that the journal 'suppressed' the finding because an IFT compliant reviewer used the journal as a proxy. I think the average non-scientist thinks that we all constantly collaborate and get along peachy, and once that facade crumbles they'll wonder what other amazing unpublished findings their tax dollars paid for.

Well, that's the grandiose version. The more realistic version is that the amount and type of feedback available from internet based communication tools will become recognized as better than any of these old timey techniques. Seriously, the current model is one step up from sending typewritten transcripts via post. Of course the journals know this, so they'll probably be the ones to spearhead new models of research review.

And the point of all this appears to be that I'm just disappointed and annoyed that the world doesn't work at my speed. :P

Enough rambling. Time to work on the SfN itinerary.

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