Saturday, March 21, 2015

There Are Cesspools, and Then There Are Cesspools

Some of you may be following Dorothy Bishop's series of hubbub regarding Johnny Matson's reign of self-serving dishonor while in the role of editor for two Elsevier journals, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (RASD) and Research in Developmental Disabilities (RIDD). Really, the whole episode is kind of humorous and sad, in the way that most human activities are. But I would be remiss if I were not to point out here some observations that I am certain Bishop will overlook.

First of all, Matson's activities, while certainly extreme, are not at all unfamiliar. His reliance upon self citation, reciprocating citation and collegial nepotism differ from the remainder of the research community only in degree, not in kind. Everyone knows (wink, wink) that such activities have become the bedrock of survival for those scrambling to stay afloat in today's competitive academic industry. I am certain some might try to deny it or try to justify it, but if I were to rule out protests from those who have ever cited themselves, have ever cited a mentor or colleague, or have ever curried favor for position or assignment, then I am going to anticipate the push-back will be rather meager.

Second of all, Matson's activities are extremely old news (if they can even be called news, given how out in the open they were). I myself had noted all the way back in 2009 that RASD should be renamed The Matson Mouthpiece, and Michelle Dawson has been tweeting about Matson's self-referencing cesspool on practically a weekly basis since she opened her Twitter account. Bishop—who was acquainted with Matson, was aware of his work, and was listed as an editor on RASD—Bishop arrived extraordinarily late and ingĂ©nue to the party. But perhaps because she has been so successful in getting grant funding and publishing papers, when she raised a ruckus the research community finally took some notice.

Bishop's latest contribution to this episode is an attempt to shame Elsevier into apologizing for the Matson incident. The reason Bishop believes that an apology is in order is about as informative and revealing as any reason can be. Her words:
It matters because RIDD and RASD are presented to the world as peer-reviewed journals, backed up by the 'distinguished brand' of Elsevier. We live in times when there is competition for jobs and prizes, and these will go to those who have plenty of publications in peer-reviewed journals, preferably with high citations. If an editor bypasses peer review and encourages self-citation, then the quality of the work in the journal is misrepresented and some people gain unfair advantages from this. The main victims here are those who published in RASD and RIDD in good faith, thinking that acceptance in the journal was a marker of quality. They will be feeling pretty bitter about the 'added value' of Elsevier right now, as the value of their own work will be degraded by association with these journals.
Think about that statement for a moment. Think about it good and hard. Any of you who have ever put forth science as the preeminent means for acquiring truth and understanding about our world, think good and hard about what that statement must imply about what is actually valued in today's science. I certainly cannot fault the statement for being inaccurate, but I would think that for many of today's scientists, the exposure is just too embarrassing.

Or let me put it this way. If in today's research environment, Einstein were to publish his special relativity essay in a journal such as Science, the essay would of course be held in the highest regard by everyone—and this before anyone had even bothered to read it or understand it. On the other hand, if Einstein were to publish his essay in something like RASD as it was run under Johnny Matson's leadership, then the essay would now be regarded as forever tainted. And if Einstein were to publish his essay on the back of a set of cocktail napkins, it would be universally and instantaneously panned as totally worthless, not worth a glance. The contents of the essay? Well, what do they have to do with anything? (By the way, for anyone interested, the journal in which Einstein's essay first appeared was run with many remarkable similarities to Matson's RASD. Just saying.)

Listen, I am going to be blunt and crude about what I think is going on here: today's scientists do not give a shit about science. What they give a shit about is publication, reputation, grants and jobs. End of story.


Edward said...

You know, the whole situation is so topsy-turvey and inside out, that science has disappeared up inside itself and will probably never come out again.

Looking on from the outside you've got to laugh, I mean if you didn't laugh you'd have to cry wouldn't you?

In the beginning there was God, or so they say, and God created the world, and saw that it was good, or would have been good if it weren't for all those pesky humans. So he laid down some rules as to how those humans were to behave, and punished the ones who did not behave appropriately, particularly with regard to appropriate sexual behaviour.

But a small number of the humans, couldn't seem to work out how to behave, and they spent their time studying the natural environment, and when they worked out how to communicate they turned up at the universities, or wrote papers to be published in the journals, and passed their theories on, or built ingenious technological artefacts. And it was such as these that brought about the modern world. And these geniuses were often oddballs, that didn't seem to know how to behave like regular men, but were often very clever, or thought that they were. They wore their long flowing academic robes and taught their students, and passed their knowledge on. First they were housed in the monasteries, then later the great universities, and then later still the campuses of the Microsoft, the Google and the Facebook.

And the humans bred and multiplied, and their science grew, and they became more intelligent, or at least they thought that they were. Civilisation became more complex, which required a longer childhood and greater education, to perform more complex jobs. And the educated parents wanted the best for their children, so they needed lots of money, and so needed dual incomes and high level jobs, in finance or marketing, or particularly engineering. And they weren't getting around to having kids until their early 30s or later. To stave off having kids before they were ready they invented contraception, so that they didn't have to go without having sex during all the time they were getting those expensive educations.

Edward said...

And there was a Turing, and a Von Neumann, and many many others, and they brought forth a sophisticated device call the computer. The Vint Cerf et al worked out how to connect all the computers together, the Alan Kay and Steve Jobs et al made them 'user friendly' and spread those computers onto every desk and into every home. And the Bill Gates looked down and saw that it was good. The Richard Stallman and the Linus Torvalds didn't think the Bill Gates vision of the future was all that great and had their own ideas, but they all spoke with roughly the same protocol so it was indeed good.

And it came to pass that some of the children of these highly intellectual couples were found to have a mysterious disorder of social interaction. They couldn't seem to establish any friendships with same-sex peers. And some of the children were diagnosed with the autism, and some of the less obviously challenged ones with the Asperger's, which was a strange condition where the kids often expressed behaviours of the opposite sex, or the desire to be the opposite sex, but were generally brought up exhibit 'correct' or at least gender-neutral behaviours, and often suppressed, internalised and intellectualised their true desires, well for a while at least.

Now a lot of these kids with the Asperger's, which is superficially similar to the Autism, seem to think for some strange reason that they will either grow up to be professors or transsexuals, and it also turns out they are very adept with the computers

And of the few people who are currently tenured professors one openly discusses their 'gender dysphoria', and will sometimes choose to present their lectures wearing a dress

And the workers at Google can have their sex-change surgeries fully funded by the company.

And one of those children with the 'mild' kind of Asperger's, while playing Lady Gaga on his computer in the middle of a war-zone, decided that blowing up innocent journalists with helicopter gun ships was not really a good thing to be doing, and that he really ought to tell people the full story about colluding politicians and military contractors, and the western cultural imperialism, and also that he was really a girl. But they locked him up for 30 years, because who really needs such a downer around?

Edward said...

In one of the great halls at the Google they are taught that Shakespeare probably didn't really exist, but if he had done he would probably have written 'all the world's a game' which 'the house always wins'. And how they laugh at the people who would rather invest their time and energy into doing simpler things like growing food, and looking after their own children. Those people are not at all 'achievement oriented', and are probably stuck doing lousy jobs in some call centre somewhere, earning virtual badges through a gameified call-centre management solution, unhappily selling other people insurance for houses and vehicles they can't really afford to buy, buying sugary drinks with real money to gain credits to buy fake animals when sneaking off to play a bit of FarmVille in their spare time.
And someone wrote a book describing human interactions, including a play called "The lock-step tragedy", but not many paid much attention to that. Then he decided he was a girl too! There seem to be rather a lot of them nowadays.

And someone else out there is wondering where all the true geniuses have gone, and why science has now become so stalled and corrupted
And no one seems to realise what is going on!

Edward said...

Sorry, I guess that was a bit of a splurge yesterday. I think I missed out the reference to the key missing piece of the puzzle.

Which is somewhat similar to..
When pools of them got stuck behind mountain chains or similar barriers the acid network at their core found new local optima in response to conditions, altering homo behaviour and sometimes even changing their colour!

I don't know if you've heard of Greenspun's Tenth Rule Of Programming, but I'm rapidly coming to believe that it also applies to the human psyche.

Take this for example.

"Any sufficiently complicated male geek brain contains an ad-hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of half of a female brain."

Edward said...

As someone who has a personal stake in this issue I can never seem to work out where I stand.

From a distance there doesn't seem to be any reason for all this endless conflict, so I'd like to teach the world to sing (though not necessarily just so I can sell it more Coca-Cola). When I actually try to do anything I think is constructive, I just end up looking like the bad guy/girl, so in the end I might as well just keep to myself, as pretty much everyone else seems to want to tear each other apart.

Apparently that makes me a sociopath, but I think I'm more of the Joker than the Thief.