Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Reputation, the end of papers, and databases anonymous?

I recently brought up the idea that we should not have names on papers on grants, that everything should be anonymous.

Last week, I went to a panel on the ubiquitous "leaky pipeline". Of course the panel devolved into the usual disorganized bitching session, and I sat there and listened to senior women professors who said they had witnessed first-hand on study sections that men support each other to such a degree that when someone submits a crappy grant, and everyone on the section knows it is crappy, his buddy will get up there and vouch for him.

He'll say something like, "Well, this might look bad, but I know this guy, and he does good work. And apparently, that is frequently enough to change the score the grant receives, and get it funded.

They said women don't do this for each other. But when I suggested that the idea of reputation makes no sense in science, that it's too subjective, everyone yelled out that reputation is VERY IMPORTANT!

As if what I was suggesting was absolute heresy, and just showed how little I understand about... what? How good science is done? How good science is deemed good?

Granted, these are the same women who said point-blank that they really do believe there are inherent differences between men and women, so I can't say I think any of them are all that bright. I'm sure not a one of them ever studied the effects of culture and socialization on behavior-!

What I take from all this frustrating stupidity is that senior scientists, and most distressingly, senior women scientists, want to sit on their laurels. They don't want to go back in the pack with everyone else. If we removed reputation from the variables of evaluation, they would have to work a lot harder. And nobody in a senior position wants to do that.

I've probably said this before, but I really do think we could get rid of all this crap if we had centralized databases, where every scientist at every level gets their own personal reference number, and every piece of data gets deposited so that everyone can have access to it. Sure, we could still measure productivity by the number of pieces you deposit, and you could still refer to other people's data, so you could still have something like a 'citation index' to rank people. But it seems to me that even the people who claim to want to get rid of the competitive, wasteful system we currently use, are not willing to give up their reputations in order to make a collaborative effort toward advancing science.

I guess this goes in the category of: people are fundamentally selfish, and the reason most scientists are in science is because they think it's fun, not because they want to help serve the 'greater good.'

7 Comments:

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

I'm male and I too find your suggestion boggling. Part of it is that my vague sense of how you suppose your depository to operate seems to contradict the spirit of your suggestion to do away with reputation. Most of it though is that my very strongest feeling about science these days after having left it at the post-doc stage is that the whole thing runs on prestige and the desire to obtain it. So aside from the fact that I think reputation is crucial for evaluating the promise of proposals, I think academic research would be abandoned as a career objective by young people of anything like the bent of people populating academic science now and the culture of research as we know it would end. This is so self evident to me I don't know where to start. I'll think about it and get back to you.

 
At 4:30 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Well, first let me take a stab at using reputation for evaluating proposals. Duh! Anybody can propose, fewer can do and still fewer can do well. Yes, out in the fringes there is the brilliant idea, but there are also the robust phenomena of the "hot area of research" and "the standard tool kit" and "the obvious thing to do next" and "the powerhouse labs with an army of post-docs." If a powerhouse lab submitted a flacid proposal to research something in the line of their last 17 Nature papers and a pipsqueek nobody from Nowhere U proposed something more nicely done in the same vein, I think I'd still award to the powerhouse, which won't be stopping at my section only for funding and is liable to find means to do what they propose without an award from me, scooping the Professor Pipsqueek in the process.

 
At 1:37 PM, Blogger Adam Solomon said...

Hey, found this journal as a fellow scientist (or, high school student doing research who one day will be a scientist, must we go into such semantics? :P) looking through Junniper's blog...looks like a cool blog! :)

Anyway, on to your post. You make a great point. At first I thought you meant actual journal papers should be anonymous--not a good idea, for more than one reason! But then I realized you were talking about grants, and what you say makes absolute sense. Reputation means plenty in science, but it shouldn't, because simply, it detracts from the science.

And the centralized database idea is intriguing, too. One for all of science? Not particularly doable, I think. But there could be a database for each little division of science--I, for example, might enter into a central database for Astronomy + Astrophysics. Of course, for most disciplines, something like this exists in the form of abstract databases. But not a bad idea nonetheless.

And as for every piece of data...well, are you saying that scientists' competitive nature makes it difficult for someone like you to get someone else's data? Not much of a problem in my field, I think, as most data is in databases like SIMBAD and VIZIER, and most research institutions have journal access for all researchers. But maybe it's different for you?

And I think it's true that most scientists go in because it's "fun"--actually, I'd say more because it's interesting. In some disciplines, like mine, the "greater good" isn't even an issue (I discovered a binary star last week, I won't be curing cancer any time soon!). In others, like yours, I'd imagine you'll have a little bit of each, some people who are in it because the human biology fascinates them, and others because they naturally want to help (the same is true for MDs and other non-research doctors). But is the former really bad? For someone in your field who entered not because they care about helping people, but because they care about uncovering a big, interesting secret, is that so wrong?

 
At 3:52 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Murky Thoughts,

It's quite obvious from your comments that you're male!

It's an interesting point, whether anyone would do science without the carrot of prestige.

Would it be so bad if "the culture of research as we know it would end"? You obviously didn't like it that much!

I really don't understand your point about funding the Powerhouse even though they could obviously do the work without any additional funding??

Personally I think it's really a blindspot and most scientists suffer from it. Here's how it works:

The POSTDOCS in the powerhouse lab do ALL THE WORK.
The POSTDOCS then go off and become Professor Pipsqueak.

Do you really think the Powerhouse Professor is that much better than their own postdoc?

I don't think you can make that assumption. You have no way of knowing how much of the ingenuity and hard work came from the postdoc, or how well they'll do as a young professor. It's discrimination, and ridiculous in a field that is supposed to value 'objectivity'!

As for Adam,

Actually I did mean that papers should be anonymous, I think papers SHOULD NOT EXIST. I really do think we should have databases, yes of course they would be somewhat organized by field but I think coming from Astronomy it might be hard for you to see how blurred the lines are between biology and chemistry, for example, to the point where it doesn't really make sense to have separate databases. Astronomy and math might be a good analogy.

I think it's awesome if your field shares data! Our field does not.

I think it's great for you if you think most scientists in your field do it because it's fun. I just don't think it's true in my field. I think there are a lot of blind wanderers who do biology because they don't know what else to do with themselves, and there are a lot of cowboys who do it for prestige, as Murky Thoughts mentioned.

I think it's great to uncover big, interesting secrets, but actually most scientists I meet are too scared of the system- they don't want to rock the boat, you see- to do risky enough research that they have any hope of learning anything really new.

 
At 6:13 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Obvious I'm male, eh? Hmmm. I hadn't thought through the origin of pipsqueaks and thought you made a good point, but I think you're talking mostly about a kind of pipsqueak that have great reputations. They have short CVs, because they haven't been doing science so long, but having escaped their powerhouse post-doc positions, their liable each to have a prestigious publication to their names and a high ratio of prestigious to prosaic publications on the CV. I agree a granting committee probably is not significantly increasing it's odds of picking a capable scientist by picking the powerhouse advisor over the newly fledged pipsqueek--and that carries and air of unfairness. But what about the pipsqueaks with inconsistent or consistently 2nd-tier and 3rd-tier publications? Also if the well groomed Assistant Professor Pipsqueak newly fledged from the Professor Powerhouse is working at a university without top tier students and without an overflowing infrastructure lots of expensive equipment and which is not a research university and so it places a lot of teaching demands on its professors, then they are much more likely to be proposing something they won't be able to pull off in the amount of time they propose. Also if it's a merely somewhat clever thing to do in a very active area of research (as I tried to say before) I think you can expect the powerhouse lab will be doing it, even if they didn't propose it or even if they didn't propose it well, and they will do it quickly (leading to the phenomenon of "being blown out of the water.") So why bother funding such a pipsqueak? That's why it's so important for even the most polished postdoc to be sure to inherit a piece of scientific turf and the pledge of his or her advisor not to invade. But as I said I think my point pertains better to the pipsqueaks with inconsistent or non-stellar track records.

 
At 6:20 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

BTW I think it's reckless to be cavalier about the culture of competetive prestige seeking. I don't think it's only the arch-right free-marketers who say the USSR failed in part because workers lacked an incentive to strive. What incentive would you give a scientist to be the first to clone this or that if not prestige? How soon will this or that get cloned in the absence of incentive? How much funding will this area of academe garner from government and industry at the rate at which this and that gets cloned in the absence of that incentive?

 
At 11:04 AM, Blogger coturnix said...

Very interesting post and discusssion. Perhaps it should be submitted to the Tangled Bank.

 

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