I’d been thinking of writing this post when I discovered that the theme I had intended to expand upon was rumbling on itself over on SV-POW. That theme is on amateurs publishing in palaeontology. Yesterday I moaned about poor papers and the effect they can have by generating huge amounts of awkward work for researchers to set the record straight. Here I want to make the point about why, or perhaps how, this happens.
Science and scientific research is open to everyone. It is supposed to be open to everyone, if you have an idea or some research and can back it up with evidence, you should be able to demonstrate it in some form of public forum. Now researchers prefer peer-reviwed journals as this does result in some basic weeding out of poor practice (mistakes in methods, data collection etc. etc.) and ensures that people are likely to find your work and able to publish replies and so on. However, any book, magazine or journal should be OK in theory.
In practice it is another matter of course, because of this very openness. By opening ourselves to any work of any form then we risk the presence of poor work: inclusiveness at the expense of quality control. The simple fact is that we want everyone to participate in the game of research we really don’t set rules and simply expect (or perhaps rather, hope) that people follow the protocols that most of us do. It is those who want to play the game, and indeed are joining in, that have not bothered to learn the rules, or don’t know they are there, or deliberately snub them, that cause the problem. Since we don’t enforce those rules by say deliberately setting prescedent that only peer-review counts, or can’t in the private games outside of peer-reviewed journals, then all manner of problems surface and are allowed to surface.
Ignorance can always be forgiven, but it generally takes at least some decent form of basic knowledge of the process of both science and scientific publication to even try. Thus one cannot help but suspect that in many cases, perhaps most, or even the great majority, the reason the rules are circumvented is a combination of laziness, overconfidence or deceit. Such poor papers are being produced by those who want to take part in the game, to be seen to be taking part in the game, but are simply not playing by the rules.
Unless science makes a concerted effort to shift the rules or enforce them in a different way (and I think it neither will, nor should) we will have to put up with these issues. But it would help a great deal if these people would both realise what they are doing and the problems they are causing. The game would be more enjoyable and go faster without these intrusions and that should be possible. It is great that anyone, everyone, can get involved in real science, but there is a significant difference between doing it right, and just doing it. Sadly there are far too many people who seem not to get this, but one hopes things will improve.