On Academic Publishing

It would be difficult to be an academic and be unaware of the veritble debacle of “The LaCour Affair”.  Long story long, a political science doctoral student at UC Berkeley published an article in the December 2014 issue of Science on how opinions and perceptions are made and reinforced.  In it, LaCour reported results that a single conversation was capable of changing the minds of individuals on controversial topics, such as same-sex marriage, going against much of what is known about changing hearts and minds.  Fast forward to May 2015 when Science retracted it, following the publication of a report by a former Berkeley graduate student David Broockman, who questioned LaCour’s results after doing some “back of the envelope” calculations on the sampling and incentives stipulated in the paper.  The fallout has been ugly.

This isn’t the first time that a paper in a highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal has been retracted amid controversy surrounding the results, the methodology, and the peer review process (see OBOKATA, WAKEFIELD, and CHEN).  And it likely won’t be the last.  Moreover, there are other problems with academic publishing, including long wait times for reviews and predatory publishing, where authors can fast track their article and get an accept or reject within three weeks, for the low-low price of $750.  Today’s academic climate is characterized by increased emphasis on publication history and grant funding for promotion and tenure, which puts more pressure on scholars to produce significant results publishable in their discipline’s best journals.

Obviously retractions are bad for many reasons, least of which is that a publisher has lost faith in the merit and contributions of a scientific paper.  To me, situations like the LaCour Affair provide ammunition to “the bad guys” in the war against knowledge by devaluing scientific inquiry.  The growing anti-intellectual sentiment in the US (the likes of which I would argue hasn’t been seen since before the Enlightenment) is especially problematic, because we still have big problems to solve (climate change, inequality, poverty, homelessness, cancer) and we need everyone’s best ideas.  These big problems need big ideas and big solutions, which require time, resources, and funding, things that are controlled by politicians (see what lawmakers in Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Connecticut are proposing for higher education, and also, how funding cuts affect research).

I worry that retractions jeopardize the whole enterprise of scientific inquiry.

I am concerned that the uninformed see retractions in academic journals as a sign of incompetence and uncertainty in scientific review and academic publishing, which is problematic, since that is a big part of what we do in Academia.  I fear that we run the risk of people who pull the strings saying (perhaps with justification): “There is too much uncertainty in this process; the possible benefits aren’t worth the costs for imperfect studies.”

We need to stop giving up the ball.  We can’t have serious conversations about the big picture problems (and their solutions) until we can convince those that control the resources that academic and scientific endeavors are worthwhile and worth the investment.  This is hard to do if there is doubt about the validity of the process.

Let’s fix the process.

So, where do we start?

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Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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