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Science's pollution problem

Science Direct covers what looks like a very interesting paper by Arthur Caplan, which looks at science's "pollution problem", namely the ability of junk science to get published.

The pollution of science and medicine by plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing is corroding the reliability of research," writes Dr. Caplan. "Yet neither the leadership nor those who rely on the truth of science and medicine are sounding the alarm loudly or moving to fix the problem with appropriate energy.

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Reader Comments (45)

Part of this is down to the nature of the academia. Advancement is through repeated publishing. That means saying things that different. Much medical research relies on statistical work, most of which is data gathering and replication of existing methods on different data sets. Most of the time this leads to no results at all. With this in mind, having a novel method of data gathering could be more fruitful than replication that adds to the body of knowledge.

Apr 3, 2015 at 4:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterKevin Marshall

Elements of "Lucky Jim" - Kingsley Amis.

Apr 3, 2015 at 4:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterDoug UK

I often receive invitations to publish in pay-per-paper journals. Last week it was "journal of geography environment and earth science international" who wanted 50 bucks as a processing charge. They seem to harvest email addresses from papers in journals approximating their area of interest and spam them (I'm a very occasional author, so probably most scientists get a lot more of this than I do).

There are a lot of problems with scientific publishing. There are too many papers and probably too many scientists. A lot of papers never get read or cited, 'cos they just ain't saying anything - they're just cv fodder or grant pleading. Journals want "interesting" results and "timely" papers. Nature and Science have become victims of their own primacy in the field - they are general science journals but the science is so abstruse now that only specialists can understand it. If you go back to the good ol' days, you'll see that articles in Nature and Science really were accessible to a general, if smart, audience. Now the generalist can't ken all the articles.

The other problem is that of the paywall... which cannot be justified anywhere in science.

I actually get the feeling that the problem is most acute in the prestigious elite journals, where the kudos of publishing leads to lifetime job security.

Apr 3, 2015 at 4:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJit

Seems to me that Lewandowsky - having polluted science and science publications with his papers - could get a whole new paper out of this: "Conspiracist Ideation Part II: How Junk Science Gets Published". Then his mate Cook could follow up with a reasoned analysis of why 97% of scientists feel Lewandowsky is leading by example.

Apr 3, 2015 at 5:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

The commonest complaint I have heard is that academics still don't have time to keep abreast of their subject.

But reading the literature, and sifting the good from the bad, the ugly and the irrelevant, is an essential part of an academic's training. While there has been an explosion in publishing, one can also argue that electronic publishing and searching technology has provided the means to make it easier to find what needs to be read.

Less time spent on admin and seeking funding would probably be welcomed by all but it comes with the territory these days. Unfortunately no one has yet discovered a better solution.

Apr 3, 2015 at 5:25 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Reading Brignell's Number Watch and Sandy Szwarc's much-missed Junk Food Science* one gets an idea of the extent to which a lot of "research" (especially it seems in the medical field) is actually regurgitated filleting of other papers to find correlations in areas that those papers were not addressing in the first place.
Apart from major findings like the smoking/cancer link and more recently the debunking of the cholesterol/fat/heart disease link (and there is probably still work to be done there) we have an apparently endless series of what I call "Hokey-Cokey Papers" where every substance that mankind has ever ingested or is likely to ingest is good for you then bad for you, prolongs your life then shortens your life, gives you cancer then cures you of cancer (while giving you another cancer that can be prevented by something else).
It's a sort of endless unstoppable merry-go-round built on the need for profile to get funding to pay for more research not all of which can ever be as productive as the researchers (and their paymasters) would wish.
I can't see an end to it until the merry-go-round either breaks down or starts going round so fast that the less secure simply get flung off!

* One snippet of good news. It looks as though Sandy is trying to keep her site up-to-date with a posting about six weeks ago.

Apr 3, 2015 at 5:42 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

You need to be careful what you wish for. The last thing that science needs is some idiot gatekeeper deciding, like Google, that only the "truth" should be published. Science thrives on the rough and tumble of Professor A's paper being rubbished a few month's later by a paper from Professor B. This is even easier, faster and more transparent due to this interweb thingy.

This is what is currently happening to Ramstorf's latest paper at Climate Audit and this is a thoroughly good thing. Jun science is a bit like racism, it shouldn't be prohibited but challenged.

Interesting to consider that what is happening now in climate science reflects the many scientific controversies down the years, ideas being openly challenged and this should be welcomed by all, as it is in other areas of science. The protagonists of course do not like to be told that their pet theory is "crap" (Do I get banned my Lord for saying that?) but this is good for scientific progress.

Our problem has been not that junk science has been published (by either side in the Climate Wars) but that serious gate keeping has gone on to attempt to prevent criticism of it. This has been instigated by the activists who did not want anything to potentially dilute the message and undermine the cause.

So the more publication the better!

Apr 3, 2015 at 5:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterArthur Dent

I blame the introduction of the Research Assessment exercise, which counts the quantity and not the quality of your publications.

Apr 3, 2015 at 5:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

I blame the introduction of the Research Assessment exercise, which counts the quantity and not the quality of your publications.

Well, it doesn't anymore and hasn't done so for about 14 years. For the last two excercises (RAE2008 and REF2014) they only considered 4 papers from each person who was submitted. However, I broadly agree that things like the Research Assessment Excercise (not called the Research Excellence Framework) are part of the problem with how we decide what to value in academia/research today.

Apr 3, 2015 at 5:54 PM | Unregistered Commenter...and Then There's Physics

@ Harry Passfield at 5:16 PM

For Lewandowsky - surely it would be more lucrative to write "Conspiracist Ideation for Dummies: How to get Junk Science Published"?

Apr 3, 2015 at 6:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

"There are too many papers and probably too many scientists." --Jit


Apr 3, 2015 at 6:28 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

There are too many papers with the format:

(a) CAGW is causing problem XYZ.
(b) Our model shows that this will be disastrous.
(c) More funding is needed to investigate further this massive threat.

Somehow they pass peer review and get reported in the Guardian and appear on alarmist web sites. Their sole purpose seems to be to provide propaganda.

Who are the "peers" and why are they tolerated by real scientists?

Apr 3, 2015 at 7:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

The other problem is that of the paywall... which cannot be justified anywhere in science.
Apr 3, 2015 at 4:53 PM Jit

And above all for work that was performed at public expense.


Now and then I attempt to look up one of my own papers (published years ago, in internationally recognised refereed journals) and reporting work done at public expense. Despite my never having explicity assigned copyright to the learned societies involved, I find that my papers are out there behind a paywall, with potential readers being invited to pay in the region of £30 to download an electronic copy. I've never followed it up but it could be the basis of a bit of sport.

Apr 3, 2015 at 8:59 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

To Caplan's list add the creation of vanity press journals created to host advertorials , and editors on the PR payroll of those footing the bills.

What Green publicists began has long since been emulated as a Best Practice by PR hacks on all sides of the issue-- which is not hard in a publishing world containing tens of thousands of hyperspecialized and redundant journals that cheerfully publish papers of interest allmost solely to their authors.

Apr 3, 2015 at 9:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

Martin A, I would be very surprised if you and any co-authors haven't assigned copyright. Until recently this was a sine qua non for the publication of virtually all scientific papers wehter in the 'house' journal of a scientific society or not.

As far as paywalls and open access is concerned the situation is also changing. Research Councils Uk is in the middle of a five year transition period after which all research funded, or partially funded, by the UK research councils must be published with open-access for all.

Apr 3, 2015 at 9:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Dennis

The opposite of ringing the alarm?:
Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award

This scheme is for outstanding scientists who would benefit from a five year salary enhancement to help recruit them to or retain them in the UK.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky – University of Bristol

The (mis)information revolution: Information seeking and knowledge transmission

Apr 3, 2015 at 9:59 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Martin A, I would be very surprised if you and any co-authors haven't assigned copyright. Until recently this was a sine qua non for the publication of virtually all scientific papers wehter in the 'house' journal of a scientific society or not.

As far as paywalls and open access is concerned the situation is also changing. Research Councils Uk is in the middle of a five year transition period after which all research funded, or partially funded, by the UK research councils must be published with open-access for all.
Apr 3, 2015 at 9:49 PM Paul Dennis

I would be very surprised if you and any co-authors haven't assigned copyright

... all research funded, or partially funded, by the UK research councils must be published with open-access for all.

Welcome news.

Paul - you are quite right. On looking at an IEEE Transactions from 1980's, it says "All authors must enclose signed IEEE copyright transfer forms...."

Apr 3, 2015 at 10:20 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

The ultimate in open source publication is journals that pay for papers-- even Roger Bate can pick up 150 Euros for a publishable submission to Malariaworld.

Apr 3, 2015 at 10:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

The science publishing world is in a major transition, disrupted by the Internet, .pdf, the Wayback Machine, and things like eBooks and communications forums as here.
The 'pollution' problem is symptomatic of massive QC fail during this transition. It will sort out. Bigger question is when?

Apr 4, 2015 at 1:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterRud Istvan

" The science publishing world is in a major transition, disrupted by the
Internet, "

The internet good have disrupted things 20 years ago. In fact the internet/IT replaces a large chunk of why academia existed in the first place. Academia doesn't want change though, there is probably too much money at stake.

Apr 4, 2015 at 6:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterRob Burton

'....not.... moving to fix the problem with APPROPRIATE ENERGY..'

Precisely - proper power stations instead of useless whirly things..!

Apr 4, 2015 at 9:59 AM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

It's an old problem.

Apr 4, 2015 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrute

Ken Rice says:

'are part of the problem with how we decide what to value in academia/research today'

I suggest the answer should be 'very little'. More and more poor quality work is being published about ever more obscure and worthless things.

When I first started to study climate a bit some six years ago, I began with great respect for academics and academia. But the closer I have got to them and the more I have seen, my general impression of them and their behaviour has gone downhill fast.

Far from being the paragons of virtue and integrity they'd like us to believe they are, many seem just as sleazy and amoral as the worst one would find in commerce.

The difference is that while most in the commercial world would dearly like to get rid of the bad apples - and take steps to do so - academia is constitutionally incapable of doing anything other than giving a nod and a wink to the bad guys.

Apr 4, 2015 at 12:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

I blame the quality of 'peers'

Apr 4, 2015 at 12:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterSlywolfe

As has been noted above, too many papers from too many authors.
A product of the expansion of Universities, publish or perish, with the need to attract more funding to pay for the expanded departments.
Add in the need to produce results that support further research and we have the situation we're in today.

Apr 4, 2015 at 12:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

Adam Gallon
The proliferation of "universities" has been part of the problem. The "Wilson" universities (Warwick, Lancaster, Sussex et al) made sense in a time of expanding population and expanding technology.
Others such as Heriot-Watt which always had a first-class reputation for engineering (not to mention brewing!) saw their reputation enhanced by their ability to award their own degrees.
The Blair expansion was typical Blair. If in doubt try to please everybody and make them feel important but if you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig. Added to which the reason why most plumbers in London are Poles is because Poland still trains plumbers; the UK awards degrees in plumbing. (Forgive me if I'm over-simplifying, but you get the drift).
So today we have "professors" in every subject imaginable and several that aren't and all demanding the prestige (and salary) that goes with the title. At a guess I would say that 90% if those in Higher Education would be better served by a decent City & Guilds qualification in a practical trade for which there is likely to be an ongoing demand.

Apr 4, 2015 at 1:12 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Best degree I ever saw Mike, Theology & Water Management, Oxford Brooks Uni (IIRC!)
Take a decent Poly & tuen it into a 4th rate Uni!

Apr 4, 2015 at 1:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

Latimer Alder: I have followed a similar route, though my natural cynicism might mean that my initial respect may not have been as lofty as yours, so the crash may not be so severe. My measure tends to be simplistic: if I can effectively argue against them, they are on very shaky ground. A case in point is the endless contortions that Mr Telford is putting himself through on his “not pHraud but pHoolishness” thread. He is still wriggling like a fish on a hook as “Smokey” nails him down time and time again.

Mike Jackson: your point was highlighted in an interview on BBC Breakfast last week. An hotelier in Great Yarmouth employs 50 people, of whom only 6 are locals. The immigrants, he said, were necessary as there was no-one else who could do the jobs required! Presumably, all those from Yarmouth had “degrees in plumbing” yet none knew how to actually plumb.

Apr 4, 2015 at 1:31 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

Mrs J enquires whether the "water management" part of that degree includes "walking on ..."

Apr 4, 2015 at 1:31 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Caplan doesn't cover cronyism, which I have mentioned in other postings, but many of the climate journal editorial functions have been taken over by the main protagonists. Nothing contrary will ever pass their portals. I have included only a small number of those involved in these journals. At times it is a "Who's Who" of the IPCC.

For example, Environmental Research Letters, IOP:

Daniel M Kammen University of California, Berkeley, USA, IPCC since 1999.

Executive Board:
Myles Allen, Oxford Environmental Change Institute

Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute, hacker,

Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam and Real Climate

Michelle L Bell, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, previously headed by Rajendra Pachauri.

Advisory Board
Cameron Hepburn, Oxford University, Grantham Institute

Johan Rockström, long time activist
Stockholm Resilience Centre, formerly of the Beijer Institute,
vice-chair of the science advisory board at Potsdam.

Mark New, Oxford University, member of Climate Systems and Policy research cluster with Myles Allen,

Felix Creutzig, IPCC Lead Author, postdoc fellow at the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, collaborating with Dan Kammen et al. Currently at another brand new institute, Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Germany, director, Otto Edenhofer of Potsdam.

"Nature Climate Change"
Chief Editor: Rory Howlett
Formerly Media and Communications Officer at the UK National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, which is a Tyndall Centre,

Senior Editor: Monica Contestabile, Prior to joining Nature Climate Change, WWF-UK, former senior lecturer at the Crichton Carbon Centre in Scotland.

Associate Editor: Alastair Brown
Before joining Nature Climate Change was at UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) at Oxford ECI

External advisory panel:
Suraje Dessai, IPCC, Professor of Climate Change Adaptation at the Sustainability Research Institute in the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds. Member of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP). Joint venture with Stern's LSE Grantham outfit and ESRC. Management team includes Simon Dietz, Sam Fankhauser (UK CCC) and Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute.

Saleemul Huq, IPCC lead author of the chapter on Adaptation and Sustainable Development in AR3 and was CLA of 'Interrelationships between adaptation and mitigation' in the AR4.

Diana Liverman
Formerly Oxford Environmental Change Institute, (Myles Allen), Co-Director, Institute for the Environment, University of Arizona, Crispin Tickell is on the Arizona U advisory board. She is a Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress. This is Obama advisor John Podesta's outfit and it is the parent body of Joe Romm's Climate Progress.

Malte Meinshausen,
University of Melbourne, and Potsdam Institute. Colleague of Stefan Rahmstorf at Potsdam, Former Greenpeace and Climate Action Network.

Look at "Climatic Change"

Founded by Stephen Schneider, co-editors both long time IPCC, Gary Yohe and Michael Oppenheimer, former Environmental Defense,

Managing editors
Michael Mastrandrea, Co-Director of Science IPCC Working Group II Technical Support Unit

Naomi Oreskes, Merchant of Doom

Editorial Board
Nigel Arnell, University of Reading, Tyndall Centre

Peter H. Gleick again, Pacific Institute see Environmental Research Letters above

Richard Moss, WWF, IPCC

Ben Santer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, former CRU

Phil Jones, University of East Anglia

Thomas R. Karl, National Climatic Data Center

Diana Liverman, University of Arizona, see Nature Climate Change above

Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, described here as University of East Anglia, but Director of Potsdam Institute

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Université catholique de Louvain, IPCC vice-chair, looking to replace Pachauri.

For these journals at least, nothing will be published that disagrees with IPCC. I don't think it too cynical to say that the only papers that are likely to be allowed through, are those that "add to the overwhelming consensus".

Apr 4, 2015 at 2:21 PM | Registered Commenterdennisa

Excellence by Nonsense: The Competition for Publications in Modern Science

By Mathias Binswanger

In this chapter, Binswanger (a critic of the current scientific process) explains how artificially staged competitions affect science and how they result in nonsense. An economist himself, Binswanger provides examples from his field and shows how impact factors and publication pressure reduce the quality of scientific publications. Some might know his work and arguments from his book “Sinnlose Wettbewerbe”.

Apr 4, 2015 at 2:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterJos

A perfect storm in an echo chamber. A tempestuous, incestuous, tea party beyond the looking glass, to infinity!

Apr 4, 2015 at 2:36 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Following on my previous post, I just had a look at WIREs Climate Change,

Editor in Chief
Mike Hulme, now at Kings College

International Advisory Board includes

Richard Betts,

Diana Liverman again

Endless networks.

Apr 4, 2015 at 2:40 PM | Registered Commenterdennisa

Doddering old clovers.

Apr 4, 2015 at 2:51 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

My colleague published a major book in wildlife ecology. His department head counted it the same (1) as a 2 page note he wrote. tl;dr

Apr 4, 2015 at 3:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterCraig Loehle

Craig Loehle @3:47PM

Academic CVs are for those who can count but can't read.

Apr 4, 2015 at 5:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn M

If Kim wants to see the tea party out in force, she should drop in on a Heartland Conference.

Apr 4, 2015 at 10:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

Hey, it's the way of living of the academics. Whether it produces something useful, like producing a leaf of bread or constructing a mega ship, that's something else. As long as society continues to pour kazillions of quatloos into science in the hope something useful will appear, we have to live with scientific debris like Prof.Lewandowsky's excrements. Somewhere I've read that 95% of published scientific research is never been read or used/quoted and is rotten away on the endless virtual shelves of the academic libraries. It has never been proved that more money means more quality. Where are the true genius of today's science?

Apr 5, 2015 at 4:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterHoi Polloi

Apr 4, 2015 at 1:12 PM | Mike Jackson
Not forgetting John Major's contribution, the renaming of polys and CHEs as universities. Governments of both colours have been making a mess of education for decades.

Apr 5, 2015 at 10:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterDaveS

Although its easy to attack ex-polys has not 'real universities' setting aside why this approach is wrong , we often see that the rubbish 'research' that so often characterise climate 'science' comes form Russell group universities such has Bristol and Oxbridge , indeed it would appear that the 'superior status ' of these universities offers better cover for such nonsense than you ever get at a new university.
As for the peer review process and the 'need' to publish, it's always been problematic , in the past this problem had little real impact in the real world so most research has little wide scale influence.
But with settled climate 'science' we seen a massive change to where research , when it used to back up political movements , can have a wide scale impact . However the sometimes problematic nature of the publishing and peer review process has not be changed nor indeed challenged at all.

Like much of the data used in climate 'science' we see the problems of basing great demands and claims on a process which in reality is 'better then nothing ' in nature .

Apr 5, 2015 at 10:54 AM | Unregistered Commenterknr

Russell fumbles the teapot, and the cucumber sandwiches are all wet, irritating the heck out of the White Rabbit.

Apr 5, 2015 at 12:06 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

We also have to suffer the Churches backing of CAGW, though it's probably because they have been reading those polluted papers, and watched Al Gore's film:

Catholic Bishops’ statement in Lima on the road to Paris

Anglican Communion bishops call for collective voice on climate

Apr 5, 2015 at 2:02 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

Adam Gallon:

Best degree I ever saw Mike, Theology & Water Management, Oxford Brooks Uni (IIRC!)

A Baptist institution?

Apologies to Mrs. J who better plumbed the depths, certainly more than scratched the surface of Adam's note

Apr 5, 2015 at 2:29 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

Robert Christopher
Unfortunately the modern Churches are as infected with the climate change bug as anyone else. Indeed when you think about it they are all the more prone to fall for the blandishments of the Climateers as is easily seen by the statement by Catholic bishops that you link to since there is very little (on the surface) with which a Christian cleric would argue.
I am waiting (with no optimism) for Francis' promised encyclical on the subject. I fear the worst and the influence of the Vatican, still considerable whatever one might argue, could extend the real agony for the poor of the world even longer.

Apr 5, 2015 at 3:23 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Joe Jackson once sang - "Everything gives you cancer"

I stopped worrying then.

Apr 5, 2015 at 8:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterMorph

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