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PLoS: Revolution, or Mere Brand?

Late last week I spoke with Dr. Danielle N. Lee about having a paper rejected from a scientific journal—from the policy section of a scientific journal—on the grounds that it wasn’t considered sufficiently interesting. The topic was a US government process examining the risks and benefits of “gain-of-function research resulting in the creation of potential pandemic pathogens.” My paper was an examination of the ethical issues associated with the process, including the issue of representation in the governing bodies that framed, pursued, and answered the policy process.

The publication that rejected this paper was PLoS Medicine.

The editorial committee of that journal noted that my article:

provides useful insight into topics, such as competing interests and how they might be managed…Unfortunately, we do feel that your article will be of most interest to those currently involved in debates around [dual-use research of concern] and not the wider audience that reads PLOS Medicine.

The abstract of my article, which included mention of competing interests, and explicitly noted the ethical focus of the paper, received a favorable presubmission inquiry. I was faithful to the limits the editor assigned to my paper provided, but at the end of the day it was decided that the article simply wasn’t relevant to the PLoS audience.

I’m not terribly upset about the rejection: it is part of the business of writing for journals. And I have no problem with a journal’s disinterest in my topic—that happens all the time. The issue, however, is that PLoS has, and does publish articles on this topic, written by scientists, (not bioethicists, or policy analysts) just this month. So it isn’t the topic that is uninteresting. Rather, it is a close examination of the topic, from a perspective that isn’t already enmeshed in the dominant narrative of science, that isn’t interesting. Scientists, according to PLoS, aren’t interested in a critique of representation and ethics in science and science policy—especially, I gather, if that critique comes from outside the scientific establishment.

This presents a conflict of interest for scientific publications. Journals have very little incentive to challenge the government and funding agencies that are responsible for the research that fills their pages. They have even less incentive to publish work that challenges the commitments of their readership. It is a more or less heroic act for a journal to publish an article that takes its readership to task; the first example that comes to mind is the New England Journal of Medicine publication authored by Henry Beecher (paywall), calling out unethical medical expeiriments that occured in the twenty years following World War Two.

Instead, the bioethics and health policy articles that reach the scientific community are largely situated as op-eds (reinforcing the opinion that bioethics and health policy are “mere opinion”), privilege scientists and physicians as authors, are limited in their scope, and are likely to be conservative relative to the values of the scientific community. Everything else is likely to be relegated to journals that the scientific community don’t read. That’s not exactly a recipe for progress.

PLoS has the capacity to change that, but I fear that it won’t. For all that it is marketed as a revolution, open access doesn’t change scientists, and thus is unlikely to change science. Changing an access barrier doesn’t mean that the culture embedded within that system must necessarily change.

I wasn’t planning on publishing this until I’d finished a couple of other projects, but today it was revealed that a peer reviewer—a single peer reviewer—caused a paper under review in the PLoS family to be rejected on sexist and inappropriate grounds. The article, authored by Fiona Ingleby (University of Sussex) and Megan Head (Australian National University) , investigated gender differences in Ph.D.-to-postdoctoral transitions. The charming review had this to say:

It seems that more than just having a problem with ethics and ethicists, PLoS isn’t capable of holding a sustained conversation about the social, ethical, and political structure of science. Its editorial process allowed a paper to be rejected, under peer review, because there weren’t enough male authors. In many ways, PLoS’ open-access policy allows those historically excluded from science to see what is going on. Getting in and providing a substantive critique of that exclusion, however, faces significantly higher access barriers than a paywall.

That’s a blow to an organization whose authors—and, I presume, readership—describe its business model as a revolution. Other journals don’t promote the same image of their efforts changing the way science is done: if you want to call Nature an embodiment of science today—flaws and all—that’s more or less consistent with how Nature purports to operate.  PLoS claims a different status, but I fear it is more a rhetorical device than a substantive change in the way business is really done in science.

One of my doctoral supervisors, Seumas Miller (who I can almost guarantee will never be published in PLoS) noted that for a system to possess integrity, it needs more than simply the right set of top-down regulations. It also needs a commitment to ethics, and it needs to put that front and center. It has to structure its regulatory framework—and peer-review and editorial are both regulatory frameworks—in a way that promotes and reflects the ethical commitments of the institution and its members.

I’m not sure that an editorial-driven, non-anonymised review process can do that. A journal family that doesn’t establish a commitment to the social and ethical issues in its own field, and designs its journals and review processes around that, won’t succeed at generating substantive changes in the way science gets done. PLoS is a political project within science, but it needs to operate on a basis of reform that is more developed than a mere commitment to open access. The revolution won’t be complete until that happens.

I don’t expect a PLoS Ethics and Science Policy to happen any time soon. Researchers in that domain rarely have the $2900 on hand for publication in PLoS, and I don’t expect the journal family will fund such an endeavor at a loss. But if there is room for that kind of venture—and the Eisens still want to talk to me after this—I think it would be truly revolutionary.


#shirtstorm: men hurting science.

Or “why the signs and symbols that create the Leaky Pipeline are unethical, and compromise the integrity of science itself.” This post because Katie Hinde asked, and this is just as important as the other writing I’m doing.

If you float through my sector of the Internet, you’ve probably heard or seen something about #shirtstorm: the clown in the Rosetta project—which just landed a robot on a comet—who decided it’d be the height of taste to be interviewed wearing this:

Yes, that’s Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor in a shirt depicting a range of mostly-naked women. The sexist, completely unprofessional character of this fashion choice is pretty obvious. Taylor also doubled down by saying of the mission “she is sexy, but I never said she is easy.”

Way to represent your field, mate.

Better people than me have talked about why the shirt is sexist, why it marginalizes women, why the response is horrid, and why the shirt—as a sign—is bad news. I’ve also seen a lot of defenders of Taylor responding in ways that can be boiled down to “woah, man [because really, it is always “man”], I just came here for the science.”

But the pointy end of that is that this does hurt science. Taylor, and his defenders, are hurting science—the knowledge base—with their actions.

As a set of claims about the world, science is pretty fabulous for the way that claims can be subjected to the scrutiny of testing, replication, and review. Science advances because cross-checking new findings is a function of the institution of science. It’s a system that has accomplished also sorts of amazing things—including putting a robot on a comet.

Image courtesy Randall Munroe under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Yet science advances only as far, and as fast, as its membership. This has actually been a problem for science all the way back to before it was routinely called “science,” when STEM was more or less just “natural philosophy” (“you’re welcome”—Philosophers). When American science—particularly American physics—was getting started in the 19th century, it went through an awful lot of growing pains trying to institutionalize and make sure the technically sweetest ideas made it to the top of the pile. It is the reason the American university research system exists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science exists, and why the American PhD system evolved the way it did (and yes, at the time it was basically about competing with Europe).

Every country has their own history, but the message is clear—you only get science to progress by getting people to ask the right questions, answer those questions, and then subject those questions to a robust critique.

The problem is that without a widely diverse group of practitioners, you aren’t going to get the best set of questions, or the best set of critiques. And asking questions and framing critiques is highly dependent on the context and character of the questioners.

The history of science abounds stories in which the person is a key part of asking the question, even as the theory lives on when they die (or move on to another question). Lise Meitner in the snow, elucidating the liquid drop model of atomic fusion. Léo Szilard crossing the street, enlightened by the progression of traffic lights into the thought of the nuclear chain reaction. Darwin and his finches. Goodall and her chimpanzees. Bose and his famous lecture that led him to his theories of quantum mechanics.

The point is that the ideas of great scientists, and the methods they use, depend on the person. Where they came from; how they experience the world. In order to find the best science, we need to start with the most robust starting sample of scientists we can.

When people are marginalized out of science—women, people of color, LGBQTI people, people with disabilities, people of other religions—the sample size decreases. Possible new perspectives and research projects vanish from science, because a bunch of straight white dudes just can’t think of it. That’s bad science. That’s bad society.

This has real, concrete implications for science and medicine. Susan Dodds, a philosopher and bioethicist at the University of Tasmania, has a wonderful paper called “Inclusion and exclusion in women’s access to health and medicine” (You can find the paper here). Dodds notes that the way our institutions are set up, access to healthcare and medical research is limited by the role of gender. Women’s health issues—again, in care and research—tend to be sidelined unless it has something to do with reproduction. This is to the point that research ostensibly designed to be sensitive to sex and gender often asks questions and uses methodology that limit the validity of experimental results to women, individually or as a group. The scientific community quite literally can’t answer questions properly for lack of diversity, and asks questions badly from an excess of sexism.

You can imagine how that translates across fields, and between different groups that STEM has traditionally marginalized.

So when you defend Matt Taylor, allow people to threaten Rose Eveleth, and tolerate the vitriol that goes on against women—in STEM and out of STEM—you limit the kinds of questions that can be asked of science, and the ways we have of answering those questions.

You corrupt science. You maim it. You warp it.

I realize this shouldn’t be a deciding factor—Matt Taylor’s actions are blameworthy even if he wasn’t engaged in a practice that contributes to the maiming of science. But for those who can’t be convinced by that, who “just want to be about the science,” take a good, long hard look at yourself.  If the litany of women scientists who never got credit for their efforts wasn’t bad enough, there are generations of women scientists—Curies, Meitners, Lovelaces, and Bourkes—that never were. We’re all poorer for that.

So next time you want to be “just about the science,” tell Matt Taylor to stick to the black polo.