A rxnm rtxn

Well, not really a retraction, but a pivot. A while back, I minimized the whole OA thing as something that is not an impediment to the daily practice of science (What Limits My Science?). People raised good points in the comments about access by journalists, etc. But I argued why it was a battle I wasn’t choosing to be involved with.

I’m still not ready to make OA my “issue”… I think some of the diehards in that movement have undermined it by presenting it as a with-us-or-against-us moral battle and by refusing to acknowledge that it is a separate (and to me, less serious) problem from glam/prestige bullshit. For example, eLife and PLOS Biology, JIF-humping prestige journals if there ever were such, critically undermine the idea that OA is about changing the way we assess scientific papers and scientists. But I’m going to take their side here.

Several things have happened to make me feel more strongly about OA as a disruptive tool. First, I had long assumed that the glam bullshit was a problem (like homophobia and Matlock) that we would primarily solve with funerals. Sure, you occasionally meet a mini-BSD clone, they are hilarious at first. You assume they will have an awakening at some point. The opposite was driven home for me, however, when encountering someone who works in the same field as me and graduated from the same SLAC, same department, same year as me. I had never heard of him. (Would it surprise you, reader, that as an undergraduate I was not someone who seemed likely to pursue much of anything, let alone an academic career?) Anyway, this guy was the worst. Obsessed with what journals his papers were in, clearly judging himself (and practically begging you to judge him) by all of the things that count in the world of prestige, press releases, media coverage, and nascent science celebrity. Is his work good? It’s fine. Fundable. He is working hard in a crowded corner of neuroscience, straddling several bandwagons, using all the right buzzwords, sure to win BRAINI approval, right in the sweet spot of risk-free science that we have all been coerced into agreeing is innovative and essential these days.

Second, I got a surprising and unpleasantly up-close look at how communication and collusion between BSDs and glam editors often works. It turned my stomach to see the degree to which work from some labs is solicited and clearly given preferential and kid glove treatment. Somehow, I had at least imagined that although being a BSD is an advantage, at least you were having to go through the gauntlet like everyone else. Turns out: no. This is a fraud. It has to stop.

Again, while neither of these things are about OA per se, they are driven currently by a few non-OA publishers. Like getting Capone on taxes, maybe OA is a useful wedge issue. I will freely admit that some of the best work in my field is published in those journals, I just don’t think there is any reason for it to be. Articles should at least start their lives on a level playing field. Competing for hyper-limited spots in “top” journals via a process that is so tainted by prestige and influence (not to mention the random/noisy filter of peer review) just isn’t good enough. Curating the literature isn’t going to be as hard as people think. YMMV, but Google Scholar hasn’t missed a beat for me, and has led me to things I might’ve missed due to a relatively obscure venue.

Maybe it’s true that quasi-glam OA things like eLife and PLOS Biology can be stepping stones to ease us out of judging scientific papers by journal branding instead of by manuscript content. My one experience with PLOS Biology was just as frustrating as dealing with a glam journal, so I’m skeptical. But waiting for funerals isn’t going to work if my generation is inheriting these biases and habits. Most of my peers (and myself) argue something like “I know it’s bullshit, but hate the game not the player.” It’s a slippery slope, and success breeds complacency, then acceptance, then self-delusion.


7 Comments on “A rxnm rtxn”

  1. Great post! Impossible to come off without sounding like I am selling you something (because I am) but check out thewinnower.com It is based very much in the spirit of this post!

    -Josh Nicholson
    CEO/founder The Winnower
    Virginia Tech Grad Student

  2. Sorry! I guess links are not allowed. Check out The Winnower (find it by magically inserting a dot and three letters after the name)

  3. rxnm says:

    Looks interesting… good luck on the launch!

  4. qaz says:

    OA isn’t going to have any effect on deGlamouration. There are going to be Glam OA journals just as there are going to be pedestrian OA journals. Glam comes because there are limited resources and award-givers (including funders) need ways to judge scientific merit outside their expertise. BSDs will be networking up the Glam OA journals just as much as they do the Glam nonOA journals.

    I don’t see why you think eLife or PLoS Biology are going to deGlam anything. They are just proof that OA and Glam are orthogonal issues.

  5. rxnm says:

    qaz, I agree somewhat, that is my default position. I would argue though that they are “weak glam.” They aren’t the focal point of glam culture the way NCS are, and I don’t think they ever can be because part of the prestige these journals have is about their history and carefully cultivated brands.

    My attitude toward glam is to hit them where it hurts with whatever you’ve got. If OA does some damage to that culture, I’m on board. I agree it is far from a cure-all, and that in the end it is changing our attitudes that is going to be the biggest hurdle– after all, glam wouldn’t exist if scientists weren’t buying into it.

  6. Bill says:

    One of us! One of us!

    (Kidding. This is thoughtful and useful and good.)

  7. rxnm says:

    Well, we’ll find out when I actually have a paper to submit and the fear is in me.

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