Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Hypocrisy of Scientific American

The editors of Scientific American are worried about PLoS ONE, the new online journal of science [Peer Review Is Sooooo Old School. They claim this is a big step backwards since the PLoS ONE articles reportedly circumvent peer review. Scientific American set itself up as the protector of scientific integrity and they vow to uphold these high standards in spite of the fact that the scientific community is letting them down.

This is wrong on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin. The real problem with science education is Scientific American, not PLoS ONE.

Here's what the Scientific American editors say,
With the burden of proof off of the reviewers, we in the science press will have to be more vigilant than ever. We can't rush to put stories out until we've focus- grouped findings with a number of experts in a study's particular field. It will force us to become better reporters and to resist the urge to sensationalize and invoke hyperbole--which, while it may not move magazine units or generate hits, will make our service more noble. We'll put in contingencies in order to avoid situations like the false alarm that plagued Lehigh mathematician Penny Smith--the poor woman who posted a flawed proof of the Navier-Stokes equations this fall on arXiv.

SciAm has already started on this path, by the way, as evidenced by JR Minkel's write-up of this morsel from the journal's inaugural issue: Rest easy, creationists, turns out we're a little less like chimps than we previously thought.

PLoS ONE is opening a possible Pandora's box into a brave new world of publishing that's as terrifying as it is exciting. From this point forth, information going from the lab to the journalist's wire (and then onto the public) will be less and less scrutinized and fact-checked. It's the dissemination of scientific information sped up to the breakneck velocity of the 21st century. Here we go...
Bullshit! This is not the end of peer review. The review of PLoS ONE articles is no different than that of many other scientific journals. I will be very surprised if the quality of papers ends up being any different than those published in Cell, Journal of Biological Chemistry, or Nature. All of these journals publish unadulterated rubbish from time to time and brilliant papers as well. The quality of papers in the leading "peer-reviewed" journals ranges from embarrassing to excellent.

PLoS ONE won't be any different.

I'm very upset by the fact that Scientific American editors see themselves as the guardians of scientific integrity, and I'm flabbergasted that they think they can recognize good science from bad science. Their record over the past few years proves them wrong. They have published all kinds of trash in my field, and probably other fields as well. They have hyped stories that don't deserve to be featured in Scientific American proving that their editors are suckers for press releases and self-promotion [The Alternative Genome, Why Are Some Animals So Smart?, The Real Life of Pseudogenes].

In the recent past, the "vigilance" of Scientific American editors and staff writers has left a great deal to be desired. If this crazy false alarm over PLoS ONE makes them pull up their socks and consult more widely before publishing then that's going to be good for science education.

I'm not holding my breath.

(RPM at Evolgen is also upset with Scientific American: Science Reporters Lament the Advent of PLoS ONE.)

1 comment:

  1. Of course, SciAm is not an undifferentiated mass. I, for one, am very excited about PLoS One and journals like it.