Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

The business of for-profit “science”

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2013/04/26

The popular image of science remains that of times past: Dedicated, monk-like people of high intellect and special talents driven only by the urge to understand all about the natural world, achieving insights and knowledge that benefit all of humanity.
That view is absurdly inaccurate about the contemporary scene (From Dawn to Decadence: The Three Ages of Modern Science). Nowadays it’s all about money, with academic institutions as much as with commercial ones; see for example Philip Mirowski, Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science, Harvard University Press, 2011. When it comes to medicine, profit-seeking has become so salient that nothing said officially about new drugs can be trusted, to the extent that taking a prescription drug approved within the last decade or so can be fatal (see for example The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What To Do About It, by Marcia Angell, Random House, 2004; Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, by Ben Goldacre, Faber & Faber, 2013; and for what’s wrong with contemporary medicine overall, see also my ever-expanding bibliography).

A number of trends, in society as a whole as well as in science and medicine, have led to the present dysfunctional state of affairs. It is not the result of conspiracies or overt evil-doing, indeed some of those trends were set going with the best of intentions. For example, the successes of science that were so crucial during World War II (atom bombs, radar and much else) spurred an enormous injection of resources in the expectation that society would benefit from more science and more scientists; an oft-cited icon of this initiative is Vannevar Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier.
In hindsight, however, one discerns the damage that has followed. Science isn’t an endless frontier because there aren’t endless resources, and we have more would-be research than available funds, which has brought cutthroat competition and dishonesty (80% unemployment?! The research system is brokenDishonesty and dysfunction in scienceDysfunctional research funding). Here are some of the steps along the way to the present circumstances.

So much federal support was available for scientific research and support of graduate students that a bubble was created: 4-year colleges and teachers’ colleges seized the opportunity to rise to the prestige and status of “research universities” by appointing science faculty who brought in federal funds together with “overhead” that nourished research bureaucracies in their institutions.  There had been 107 doctorate-granting institutions in the U.S. in 1940-44, then 142 by 1950-54, 208 by 1960-64, and 307 by 1970-74. A Directory of Graduate Research  has been published every two years by the American Chemical Society since 1955, when it listed 98 doctoral programs in chemistry in the United States; by 1967 there were 165, and 192 by 1979.
One result, seen as long as three decades ago in physics, has been a surplus of PhDs desperately seeking positions and spending long years in temporary postdoctoral jobs. The ill-advised stuffing of this pipeline under self-serving urging from the National Science Foundation has been documented by Daniel Greenberg (Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion, University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Another consequence has been the proliferation of mediocre “researchers” producing mediocre “science”; see “Hegemony of mediocrity in contemporary sciences, particularly in immunology, by Jan Klein, Lymphology 18 (1985) 122-131.

Within academe, humanities and social-science faculty grew jealous of the cornucopia of resources available to the sciences. They recognized it as resulting from the prestige of research and associated publishing, and increasingly made “research” and “publication” a sine qua non for faculty appointments and promotion in their own fields. Outside observers, however, could be clear that it made little sense to expect newly minted PhDs to make original discoveries or arrive at original insights worth publishing more or less in competition with the classics in philosophy, history, sociology, etc. Nevertheless, that’s what the current situation is. To obtain tenure in a humanities discipline, faculty are expected to have published a book; in the social sciences, a number of “research” articles and perhaps a monograph.
That presaged the proliferation of journals and books that outran the resources of libraries and caused publishers to look to authors rather than libraries and readers to help with the costs of publication — understandably, because there is little if any readers’ demand for those publications. No one really wants to buy them, so the producers have too pay the costs.
A high degree of unacknowledged hypocrisy accompanied these developments. Self-publication had long been sneered at as demonstrating a lack of scholarly quality, and publishers who abetted it were openly called “vanity presses”. Academe circumvented this by having universities “subsidize” the publication of books by their faculty, supposedly only after quality had been checked by an academic committee. Somehow it was vanity publishing if the author paid, but not if his or her institution did so. For a few comments on this, have a look at “Wow, someone wants to publish me!”  and “Some thoughts on Peter Lang”.

Not only in science, then, has the sometimes vaunted “knowledge explosion” actually been a catastrophe of publication that is worse than useless; much worse, because it swamps the useful stuff. As earlier noted (Decadent Science: Does fake differ from genuine? If so, how?Fake, deceptive, predatory Science Journals and Conferences), spurious conferences and journals are not readily distinguishable from the more traditional ones, not even by abstracting and indexing services. Thereby honest researchers face an impossible task in trying to keep up with genuinely interesting and useful new developments.

A corollary is that spoof articles have passed “peer review” at academic journals; the Sokal affair is described with unusual accuracy in Wikipedia. Informed observers have been unsure whether certain publications in theoretical physics were genuine or spurious (see the Bogdanov affair, pp. 222–3 and 263 by Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge  to  Unify  the  Laws  of  Physics, Jonathan Cape (UK), Basic Books (USA), 2006). A program developed by computer scientists  generates fake articles that can be submitted in response to conference invitations in order to diagnose whether the conference is legitimate or parasitic.

The lack of clear lines dividing authentic science from something else is illustrated in a number of directions. In criticizing predatory conferences, for example, one came across those sponsored by BIT Life Sciences, which lists no fewer than 56 conferences for 2013; yet this venture describes itself  as founded by scientists:
”BITeomics, Inc., founded in China in 2003, is a company established by Chinese scientists living abroad. It specializes in the integration of current Chinese social and technological resources with resources from overseas, providing frontier technologies and product services for human health and biological careers.
BIT Life Sciences is a subsidiary company of BITeomics, Inc. It is dedicated to creating a global life science intelligence exchange channel by simultaneously addressing professional needs for information and technology sharing and eliminating culture divergence in bio-industries [emphasis added]”.

I attempted a distinction between authentic and parasitic by saying that the latter “have no background of involvement with actual scientific work or institutions” (Decadent Science: Does fake differ from genuine? If so, how?). But that does not differentiate  from commercial publishers like Elsevier or Springer or quite a few others that publish books and journals on scientific matters. Elsevier, after all, published several fake medical journals  that were paid advertisements for drug companies masquerading as peer-reviewed mainstream journals. Elsevier’s profit margin may not have been as high as Hindawi’s, but at 36%  some (including me) might still regard it as excessive, representing gouging of their captive customers, academic and research libraries. Some academics have felt so strongly that they have even tried to boycott Elsevier. That profits outweigh scientific evaluation of what gets published by Elsevier is demonstrated in considerable detail by the Medical Hypotheses saga (see chapter 3 in Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine).

How then does today’s Elsevier differ from Hindawi or Bentham?

And then there’s Landes Bioscience. It isn’t listed by Beall among “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”, but it came to my attention because I received a notice from Oncoimmunology announcing their success in being included in Science Citation Index and encouraging me to cite my publication in that journal — even though I’ve never published there.

OncoimmunologyInvite

Landes Bioscience has a mailing address in Austin (TX). Its website lists no Board or individual officers but boasts a list of some 46 journals, founded at a rate of about 2 a year from 2002 to 2009 and about 6 a year since then. Landes Bioscience may have discovered a new market niche. Beall’s list of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access journals”  is replete with very broad, general titles — International Journal of Agronomy & Plant Production, say, or American Research Journal. By contrast, Landes Bioscience capitalizes on the excruciating over-specialization by which contemporary science seems to justify the old saw that scientists and experts in general “know more and more about less and less until eventually they know everything about nothing”. Their journals include such titles as Adipocyte, Artificial DNA: PNA & XNA, Autophagy,  . . .  Cell Adhesion & Migration, . . . Channels, Chimerism, . . . Disaster Health, Endocrine Disruptors, . . . Gut Microbes, . . . Intrinsically Disordered Proteins (but also Prion, which might seem to cover the same ground), Islets, . . . mAbs, Mobile Genetic Elements, . . . Small GTPases, . . . .
No doubt there is a ready captive market here, researchers with grants who can publish what would, in the good old days, have remained in their lab notebooks for years until it added up to something worth publishing.
Landes Bioscience journals typically charge $100 per page, plus extra for color, movie files, and other such items.

It’s easy to confuse “on-line” publishing with “open access”. The latter applies only to publications available without charge to anyone, whereas many journals published on-line are available via passwords only to paid subscribers or institutions. Authors who wish their articles to be available without charge to anyone can often purchase that by paying an extra fee; in the case of  Landes Bioscience, between $500 and $750.

The commercialism that pervades all aspects of research nowadays would seem to justify describing all publications as vanity publishing (Scientific publications are vanity publications). It is the authors who pay rather than the consumers (though sometimes in addition to the consumers!).

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