27 Mar 2007

Journalology roundup #1

The idea for this blog grew out of an email I send around various folks at BioMed Central every week or so, with snippets gleaned from the literature. There is a vast store of these awaiting categorisation and eventual posting, but from now I'm going to post these snippets on this blog as well. Enjoy.

Science degrees without the science. "Some UK universities offer science degrees in complementary medicine. David Colquhoun argues that these are not science but anti-science, and asks who is to blame". I'd challenge the idea that it would be impossible to have a rigorous course in complementary and alternative medicine, but the current practice does not look at all rigorous.

Rebuffs and rebuttals I: how rejected is rejected? "I just got news that the paper we submitted a mere six weeks ago has been rejected, but with the kind of rejection that says, "do come back and show us how you've fixed it." Okay, it didn't say that, but I know that's what they meant. And that's all very, very terrific".

EC to promote open access publishing. The European Commission is considering a series of initiatives to promote open access publishing as part of moves to disseminate scientific information as widely as possible.

Bias in psychiatric case-control studies. Poor reporting of recruitment strategies threatens the validity of reported results and reduces the generalisability of studies.

A new Journal of Clinical Investigation conflict-of-interest policy. A rather complicated policy! And it seems to be full of holes - if an author has $9,999 in shares in a company, their policy wouldn't seem to require declaration... Perhaps less than 10K is peanuts to US authors?

China Mulls Open Access. As Research Councils UK continues to deliberate over its policy on public access to scholarly papers (a final announcement has been delayed until November), the Chinese Academy of Sciences has also begun mulling over the question of open access.

26 Mar 2007

Community peer review - patent office trumps journals

The idea of using community peer review, social networking and trust ratings to improve journal peer review is one that is in favour at the moment, with PLoS ONE and Nature's experiment being the most prominent. It seems that peer review of US Patents may have beaten journals to it with a system that appears to truly capture Web 2.0.

The job of a government patent officer and a journal editor are quite similar - to assess whether the claims are real and novel. It should be no surprise to see them reaching for the same solutions to help with the review process.

The Washington Post reports that the US Patent Office is planning to "post patent applications on the Web and invite comments but also use a community rating system designed to push the most respected comments to the top of the file". It will be interesting to see if this pilot project is a success - I hope so.

Number crunching

Duncan at nodalpoint has suggested "A crude score for benchmarking scientists", which looks at publications in Nature, Science or PNAS. Why suggest such a conservative measure reliant upon a restricted view of publishing, when there are already metrics like the Hirsh index? You can calculate the H-index of an individual researcher from citations in Google Scholar. It's not perfect, and there are numerous corrections and alternatives to it, but let's not simplify things too much.

25 Mar 2007

Community peer review - social software becomes truly useful

Academic Productivity has some great ideas about how to use social software to assess scientific articles. I particularly like the focus on using the information implicit in the actions of the users, rather than explicitly asking them to rate articles.

PLOS .. Too Conservative I Think!

The title of this post comes straight from a post on a blog called Mish Mash ... etc. I was intrigued by this suggestion, only to discover that they don't mean the Public Library of Science. Read on, fans of useless information. In embroidery, PLOS can mean "Personal Library of Stitches". The similarity in name is striking, but apparently entirely coincidental.

19 Mar 2007

Who pays the fiddler calls the tune?

"In our capitalist society, one of our basic tenets is who pays the fiddler calls the tune". This was a comment by Jeffrey Drazen, Editor-in-Chief of the New England Medical Journal, referring to the idea that because many open access journals charge an article processing charge rather than a subscription fee (including most of BioMed Central's), they will lower their standards to take the cash.

Peter Suber has already countered that slur criticism in detail, so I don't need to repeat the arguments here, but I think that it's worth noting that in my time at BioMed Central I've seen the acceptance rate fall by at least 10% on the BMC series. This is not exactly what you'd expect from a vanity publisher pushing its editors hard to accept articles no matter the quality, in order to take the cash. In case I've been too subtle, that's because BioMed Central is not a vanity publisher, and payment and publisher finances are kept separate from editorial decision making. Matt Cockerill doesn't stand over us with a whip, demanding more acceptances.

The reason I quoted Jeffrey Drazen above is that I think that there's quite an irony here. The NEJM raised $30 million in advertising revenues in 2005, with nearly 5000 pages of advertising. Is Dr Drazen admitting that one of the "basic tenets" of the NEJM is that the advertisers call the shots? [Shome mishtake, shurely?]

10 Mar 2007

Tags track growth in open access (and a dig at Philica)

An interesting observation: Tags Indicate That Open Access Is Flourishing. Comparing the growth in Connotea tags for "Internet" to the growth in tags for "Open access", the growth in tags for "Open access" is significantly higher.

On the topic of tags, Matt Cockerill on the BMC Blog discusses the tags used to tag BioMed Central articles on CiteULike. BioMed Central is working with CiteULike and is keen to capture the power of "Web 2.0".

So, Philica. The above observation by James Till on Philica seems much more suitable for a blog than an academic journal. Philica has yet to prove itself to be a serious academic journal -
much of the content seems to be trivial or pseudoscience, e.g. this, or this, or this.

Philica brings the much touted idea of community peer review to fruition, leaving peer review entirely to the readers. It has what I believe to be two fatal flaws. Firstly, it has absolutely no editorial selectivity and the requirement that authors be based at an academic institution has proven to be no barrier to junk being submitted. Not many researchers have the time to spend critiquing palpable nonsense. Secondly, it has no mechanism to solicit reviews from experts - only those who stumble across Philica will read the articles, and they probably won't feel at all obliged or inclined to review. Peer review survives because editors deliberately select those they believe are best placed to comment, and sometimes hound them for a review - remove a selection process, and it would collapse.

I'm not the only one to be skeptical about Philica. It's a great idea (I sketched out a similar idea last year and bored my colleagues with it at the pub), but it's not working.

Scientists or Living Marxists?

Until today, I had a button in my sidebar that linked to a guide on peer review written by a group called Sense About Science. The Scientist ran a story on this guide in 2005. Why have I removed that link? Because I've realised that Sense About Science is a front organisation.

I came across Living Marxism or LM magazine as a student. LM was the latest incarnation of the once Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist Party. I naively received a free copy of LM in my first term at university after one of those pavement "muggings" so popular with charities, and quickly made sure I cancelled my direct debit after reading its ramblings. LM/RCP had a strange strategy for a supposedly left-wing organisation, which consisted of adopting contrarian and right-wing positions. They denied the Rwandan genocide, denied climate change, belittled concerns about child pornography as 'censorship' as part of their Campaign for Internet Freedom and were rather equivocal on racism and sexism, attacking the Anti-Nazi League and feminism. In 2000 LM folded after losing a libel trial - it had wrongly claimed that ITN had deliberately misrepresented pictures from the Bosnian War. Good riddance, you might think.

Sadly, the end of LM was not the end of the "LM group". Their "entryist" approach has continued with Sp!ked Online, but also with various other front organisations.

Among these front organisations is Sense About Science. Fiona Fox, a member of one of their working parties, used to be known as Fiona Foster. Fiona Foster wrote the article denying the Rwanda genocide. She is the director of another LM front organisation, the Science Media Centre. Many of the other individuals behind Sense About Science are similarly part of the LM group, including the director Tracey Brown, who wrote that article for The Scientist.

Not everyone has fallen for the entry of the LM group into the arena of science policy. Writing in 2004 in the magazine of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (page 29), Tom Wakeford warns that we should "Embrace democracy, not the People's Front":

Something odd is happening at science policy meetings these days.

Every time a reasonable old soul turns up to suggest that everyday people are actually quite sensible in their attitudes towards science and technology, out comes a response from a stranger at the head of the table.

‘No,’ they say,‘the public don’t know enough. Listening to their ignorance and prejudice will lead to the end of civilisation.’

‘Who is that?’you nudge the person next to you.‘Oh, that’s the Institute of Ideas/Sense about Science/Spiked person,’comes the reply. ‘Can’t remember their name – they’re new here.’

You’ll remember that sketch from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Brian: Are you the Judean People’s Front?

Reg: F* Off!

Brian: What?

Reg: Judean People’s Front?? We’re the People’s Front of Judea! Judean People’s Front, pah!!

The sketch was inspired by student politics and might as well have been written about science’s newest Front.They began as the Revolutionary Communist Party groupings that appeared at the fringe of campus life in the late 1970s under Frank Furedi, who now teaches sociology at the University of Kent.

Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre are very seductive for scientists, as they counter some of the current anti-science trends in the media. However much their messages may seem to gel with those of scientists, they have their own agendas. Don't fall for it - the LM group are cynical and deceptive.

This post is my opinion, and not that of BioMed Central.

Publication ethics - COPE and WAME

In the battle to maintain ethical standards in science and medical publishing, two groups deserve a special mention - the Committee on Publication Ethics, and the World Association of Medical Editors.

The Committee on Publication Ethics is based in London and has member journals around in world, although mainly in Europe. COPE centres on meetings every three months, when editors present anonymised cases when they have concerns about the conduct of a study or publication ethics, and an annual seminar. Anyone reading in the BMJ about the apparent total fabrication of trials of high-dose mannitol for head injury will no doubt be interested to hear that COPE had been consulted for its advice during this investigation. Several BioMed Central journals have taken cases to COPE - we recently consulted them with a question about when an author's publication rate becomes too high to be feasible without gift authorship or fraud.

The World Association of Medical Editors (WAME, pronounced "whammy") is made up of individual editors of biomedical journals. WAME aims to encourage ethical practices among its members and to encourage communication among editors. The WAME listserve acts as the core of WAME's activities and archives of these discussions can be browsed through. A list of resources for editors is also available - I'll be helping to add to these, after being invited to join the Education Committee.

o easily search the websites of WAME and COPE you can install these search plugins.