Whoops, I Did it Again

A paper by Maggie Simpson and Edna Krabappel was accepted by two scientific journals

Much like the incident I linked to a few weeks ago. This has a nonsense paper, fictional authors (literally) and a fictitious university.

One journal immediately accepted it, while the other took a month before accepting (perhaps as part of an effort to fake peer review), but has since published it — and now keeps sending Smolyanitsky an invoice for $459.

The fact that these journals would accept the paper is absurd, and the Simpsons connection is pretty funny. But it’s also a troubling sign of a bigger problem in science publishing.

Getting Ahead of Getting Ahead of Yourself

When Science Gets Ahead Of Itself

Science certainly can get ahead of itself, but I don’t think the author chose a particularly good example of it. The beginning of this article is mostly fine — the history is laid out, and the whole idea of “science requires confirmation, and Planck didn’t confirm BICEP2, so that’s just too bad” is spot on.

It’s this:

The BICEP2 results were announced in a press conference before they had gone through the referee process. That meant the hard-core examination of the data and their analysis had not yet been subject to a peer review by someone (or a bunch of someones) who was not part of the team. It would have been the referee’s job to be merciless in his or her criticism, catch potential problems and, hopefully, make the paper better. Peer review is an awesome process and it’s one critical reason behind science’s powerful capacity for finding the true voice of the world.

Scientists often complain about how the media blow science stories out of proportion or get the details of those stories wrong. But in this case, by press-releasing their results before this full scientific process was completed, the international media machine was engaged by the scientists themselves.

And while, of course, everyone was careful to include “if these results are confirmed,” the point is — within weeks — people were already noticing problems with dust and the BICEP2 results related to dust.

I think there’s a fairly significant sin of omission here.

Here’s a hint: all these people who “were already noticing problems with dust and the BICEP2 results related to dust” — where did they get the detailed information required to notice these problems? The press release? No, there was a preprint uploaded to arXiv on the same day the press release was issued.

So what would have been different without the press release? Not a lot, I think. Scientists would have latched on to the results pretty quickly, and there would have been blogging and tweeting and other communication that doesn’t involve the traditional media, who might have taken a tad longer to pick up on the story. From a science perspective, though, the impact is that maybe the science discussion gets started a day later and accelerates a little more slowly. Otherwise, Clarice, the press release is INcidental. I think it only mattered to the mainstream press and scientists outside of the field who were not in a position to add anything to the discussion, and served to reduce confusion and inaccuracy in some articles (a positive, not a negative). Such as [ahem] avoiding saying “gravity waves” instead of “gravitational waves”.

The advent of arXiv is a huge difference between the actions of Pons and Fleischmann of cold-fusion infamy, who also issued a press release before peer-review. The difference is that now there is a preprint server, widely used, where physicists upload papers before peer-review and publication. Making a preprint widely available has become common practice. I can’t believe the objection is to structured discussion or dissemination of work among/between scientists before formal peer review, because that would include not only preprints, but any kind of conference or colloquium presentation that occurred before publication — those are not peer-reviewed either. That would be a rather radical objection, and I don’t think that was the intent — it’s not what I take away from the article.

If there’s a possible criticism here, it’s perhaps that the paper’s authors needed to temper their predictions based on criticism, but I don’t really have the expertise to go through and find and comprehend whatever changes they made between the original submission and the final, published article. (Oh, did I mention that the paper actually made it through peer review? Yes, it was published in June.) So perhaps they did. Whatever objections were present didn’t stop publication, nor is it clear that they should have. In fact, I think it’s likely that the widespread discussion meant that reviewers had access to more objections and discussion that took place in public than if there had been no preprint and press release. Remember, peer review isn’t a guarantee of correctness. It always comes down to verification, and more verification.

As a scientist who spends a lot of time explaining science to the public, I just wish the BICEP2 press-released team had waited. I wish they’d have let the usual scientific process run its course before they made such a grand announcement. If they had, odds are, it would have been clear that no such announcement was warranted — at least not yet — and we’d all be better off.

And I think the process did run its course, quite properly, and eliminating a press release would have changed nothing of importance. I think the author needs to metaphorically pick up the flag here. Incidental contact, no foul.

It Shows

So You’re Not a Physicist …

I’m a tad conflicted here. On the one hand, there’s technical accuracy. On the other, there’s poetic license, and on the third hand there’s “Meh”.

I do think there is a danger in this. People will end up perceive the wrong idea of a physics concept if their exposure is a bad analogy. Take “Quantum Leap” (please!). If your only exposure to the term came in metaphors and analogies in popular works, you’d probably think that “quantum” means “big”, rather than its correct meaning of “discrete”. (That is, not being quantum means being continuous. Not small.) That’s just one more misconception that science teachers and communicators have to tear down before you can get to the juicy science underneath.

Looking at this from another perspective, I think there are a few folks who balk at English in general being applied with imprecision — the ones who point out that rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic, for example. That group counts the New York Times (different columnist, though) among its members.

Accuracy and precision in communication is important. So why give physics metaphors a pass?

Economics and Science?

What Scientists Should Learn From Economists

All those other enterprises, though, seem to have come to terms with the fact that there are going to be mis-steps along the way, while scientists continue to bemoan every little thing that goes awry. And keep in mind, this is true of fields where mistakes are vastly more consequential than in cosmology. We’re only a week or so into July, so you can still hear echos of chatter about the various economic reports that come out in late June– quarterly growth numbers, mid-year financial statements, the monthly unemployment report. These are released, and for a few days suck up all the oxygen in discussion of politics and policy, often driving dramatic calls for change in one direction or another.

But here’s the most important thing about those reports: They’re all wrong.

Chad makes an excellent point, but if I’m reading the post correctly it’s an admonition toward scientists, and I think that’s misplaced, or at least too narrow a focus. As a group, I think we have a decent handle on the difference between the levels of confidence one places in results at different stages of confirmation. Many scientists I follow on twitter were saying we need to be cautious about the BICEP2 results, and how we needed to wait for further analysis and confirmation — that’s the protocol, and it needs to be more widely acknowledged.

What’s missing is in the restraint of the media chain, which often includes the principal scientists; one should understand that they and the attached PR machine may tend to be a little aggressive in touting their results, and may have a bias to which they are blind; it’s why replication of experiments is important. However, everyone else involved has to slow down a little and consider the shortcomings of the system as well.

Is this a preliminary result/small sample size, or is this further down the line in terms of confirming the original discovery? (I’m assuming we’re over the hurdle of this being peer reviewed). If it’s early in the game, then these are much like the preliminary economic numbers Chad discusses — there will be revisions, and that needs to be explained. More data require more experiments, preferably by different research teams. Results have a way of disappearing when more data are examined — which is exactly what you should expect! But this doesn’t get much prominent discussion when BIG RESULT™ has been announced.

In the case of economic reporting, the public has been seeing this same style of reporting for decades — they’re used to it. They expect a certain level of wrongness from the folks who have predicted twelve of the last five recessions. What they’re used to in science reporting is a hyperbolic headline and the promise that it will result in a flying car really soon (and then, of course, the flying car never materializes) being reported in the same fashion as science that has a much longer pedigree of confirmation.

Scientists need to do better in getting the word out properly, to be sure. But my feeling is that the entire system needs to be reined in.

A Cautionary Tale

Related to Monday’s post about copyright and plagiarism:

Photographer wins $1.2 million from companies that took pictures off Twitter

Joshua Kaufman, a lawyer for AFP, blamed the infringement on an innocent mistake and said the Twitter user who posted Morel’s photos without attribution bore responsibility for the error. The AFP editor, Kaufman said, believed the pictures were posted for public distribution.

Tis points out a pitfall of one of the big issues — posting without attribution. You can’t simply assume that an unattributed picture is in the public domain, and if you want to use the picture you need to track down the copyright owner. As I had relayed: www does not mean public domain (before Pedantic Man swoops in, yes, Twitter doesn’t actually use www in its address. But the concept is the same)

I Would Do Anything for Blogs, but I Won't Do That

Third of a short series. Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

The session was called Standards in blogging, referring to scientific and journalistic standards. The question before the group was should blogging have some sort of code of conduct, much like journalists do (or are supposed to have), and the research standards scientists aspire to?

It was broken down into the areas of

* Background – do you have to read the original paper? Do you contact the authors? Discuss the science with other parties?

* Neutrality and balance

* Use of anonymous sources

In broad terms it was recognized that blogging standards must be informal, because there isn’t a formal path like journalism school that could teach the standards. So we sort of have to deal with this on our own.

I think the room was generally surprised that reading the original paper had to be brought up, because if you’re critiquing a paper, of course you have to read it. It was clear from the discussion of contacting the author(s) and potential competitors that the bulk of the audience was comprised of bloggers who were not always schooled in the topics they wrote about, which led into the question of how to convey when you are speaking from a position of expertise, or interpreting others’ expertise, which may confuse readers who aren’t familiar with the author. I’m not sure there was a clear solution on that. Caveat emptor, I guess.

On the subject of anonymous sources, we discussed the fact that peer review is already anonymous, so blogging about a paper already involves anonymity. While I seem to recall a sentiment that anonymous quotes were frowned upon, one of the contrary observations was that some scientists might not want to go on the record calling out problems with a paper published in their field.

Most of this really doesn’t affect me, though. All of the discussion through the first 2/3 of the session seemed to be from the non-scientist or scientists blogging subjects outside their field of expertise. I finally jumped in to give my perspective, that I don’t interview people so a lot of the points were moot, because what I am offering is my informal opinion, based on some level of expertise. That limits the scope of my discussion, of course, but this is a hobby. The one part that does apply is that I do consult other physicist before writing some posts. I works with some smart people, so I can often double-check that I’m not being an idiot (doesn’t always work, though), but not in a way where I would quote them. More like the journalists’ deep background, being a second source.

On the subject of neutrality and balance, my view is that I blog so that I don’t have to be balanced or neutral. In the room there was a definite aversion to false balance — those stories you read where you get both sides of the story, even if the other side is crackpottery. But to me true balance and neutrality are not important in blogs the way they are in traditional journalism. In the applicable type of post I’m saying what I think, or translating some bit of science for a wider audience based on what I know. (The rest of the time I’m complaining about how someone else didn’t do it right or just posting interesting links). To me, that ability to freely add your own bias or perspective is the whole point of blogging — you can do this without it having to go through someone else’s journalistic filter. (also not having to go through someone’s editor to decide if the story is worthy)

Not a Difficult Concept: Don't Take It if it's Not Yours

Second of a short series. Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

Two of the sessions I attended involved legal and ethical issues of content use online. One was a Q&A session with an intellectual property lawyer and the other was a session entitled “Combatting Online Parasitism”.

The legal “advice” (which, disclaimer: does not actually constitute legal advice) confirmed several things I already knew; I had read up on copyright some years ago when I started trying to get cartoons published. The big concept that both talks had in common was this general idea:

If you didn’t create the work, you don’t control the copyright to it. You are NOT free to use it without permission.

There are some caveats. Some content creators don’t own the copyright — it could be a “work for hire”, i.e. it’s your job to create the content and your employer owns it, or (like me), you work for the US government, and content created for work carries no copyright at all. It’s also possible to transfer copyright (must be done in writing), and some content is in the public domain. Some content carries easy-to-use licensing, such as creative commons.

In the parasitism discussion, I think it was agreed that pictures and artwork are generally abused more than written works, though that does happen (some sites are just bots that mirror other sites), and Twitter is where a lot of the image-copying abuse takes place, since it’s so easy to just link to a photo and post it. It’s so commonplace that there is little social stigma attached to the act. The common justification “but you get free exposure” doesn’t fly as an excuse — it’s the copyright holder and only the copyright holder who gets to make that decision.

There are several Twitter accounts where all they do is link photos and artwork, and very often with no attribution and probably without permission. The two are actually separate issues.

Attribution does not solve copyright, it solves plagiarism. It is not a cure for infringement

That means that simply posting an image credit does not get you off the hook for stealing the image. (Using the lay definition of “stealing”. I’m not entertaining the semantic argument here that intellectual property theft falls under civil law and therefore is technically not stealing. It’s still illegal, and wrong.) Giving credit is better than not giving credit, but absent permission as discussed above, it’s still a copyright violation.

There were a number of people in the room who had had their work used without permission, and I was one of them. I’ve seen my cartoons show up in various places on the web — on an academic blog, in a newsletter (where they had the audacity to say “used with permission”). A few times I’ve had cartoons appear on popular Facebook pages, and in no instances did they ask. It’s not like I would have declined, but they should still ask.

On the other hand, I should point out that’s I’ve had a number of requests over the years to use my cartoons in academic talks and even in a book, so there are a lot of people out there doing it right. I almost always say yes to such requests, and generally offer higher-resolution copies of the work, but limiting the quality of available works doesn’t do much to combat online abuse. (it might work in the cases where print quality or magnification is needed)

Another way of stating the above is

www does not mean public domain

So, what do do about all this?

For some of us in the audience, a missing attribution was the primary problem rather than the lack of permission (which they would have been happy to give), so simply contacting the people works in some of these cases. Some abusers simply aren’t aware of the law, and are happy to comply. Others, not so much — there were some anecdotes about attribution being posted for the one case, but no change in overall behavior of the site.

When a simple request fails, public shaming can work. It turns out that some vigilante-esque negative publicity can go a long way, according to some of the stories that were told. It was suggested that a twitter hashtag (#picbatman was mentioned) for “attribution rangers” would help rally folks to bring attention to some abusers.

There was also some lamenting that some of the larger names online don’t take attributions and copyright infringement seriously. “Takedown” letters go to the service providers, not the sites themselves, and formal legal action may be too involved for an individual. To me this is especially disappointing; there are entities out there that are very protective of their own intellectual property but seemingly not as vigilant when it comes to matters of infringing others’ IP.

I think the general mood was that while getting permission is the proper thing to do, using works without attribution feels much worse. (This may reflect a room demographic of people whose job is not primarily creating such content and who don’t have employers with resources to fight the copyright battle.) In that regard, one of the ending sentiments was

Crediting others for their work costs you nothing


Edit to add (3/14) Post by Matt Shipman with some tips and links: Science Communication and the Art of Not Stealing


It Truly is Neverending

Over at Uncertain Principles, Chad has more to say on the topic of yesterday’s link/post: Science Journalism vs. Sports Journalism

A very good point: one should look at less-popular sports for this comparison, and the Olympics gives us a good example of sports many of us only see every 4 years. That’s more like the situation science journalism is in.

Also that the multi-level reporting exists if you look across multiple sources, because not all science publications are trying to reach the same audience. The trouble is they are competitors.

The Internet would seem to offer the ability to do this via links, but most media organizations regard links to other publications as slightly less desirable than painful and disfiguring disease. Any reader leaving the site is seen as lost forever, so they make it as difficult as possible to get anywhere else. Most of them won’t even link to the source papers and/or press releases, which is maddening.

Amen to that, and to bloggers in general who overall do a much better job of this cross-pollination.