Martin Center column focuses on scientific publishing

John Staddon writes for the Martin Center about the complicated world of scientific publishing.

Communication is essential to science. The aim of scientific publication is to convey new findings as quickly as possible to as many interested parties as possible. But the world of “peer-reviewed” scientific publishing no longer functions as it should. Many publishing practices were devised at a time when scientists were relatively few and digital communication did not exist. Costs have become prohibitive, inhibiting the exchange of ideas. Incentives favor research that is swiftly done and will not offend likely reviewers. In social science, particularly, research contrary to prevailing prejudice has little chance.

These problems are now widely known if not fully understood, and so they persist.

I will argue that the core problem, the main sticking point to reforming the system, is vetting. Some scientific findings are better: more solid, more reliable, more interesting than others; some are more relevant than others to particular research questions. The communication system should signal the area of published research and its probable importance. Above all, editors should filter out false findings. In engineering jargon, the system should be noise-free. All, or at least the great majority, of findings should be true. Partly as a legacy of the discredited postmodernist movement and partly because it is the nature of science that any finding is subject to revision, people are now suspicious of the word true. In experimental research, at least, the term replicable (repeatable) has replaced it. But in science, there is no substitute for valid results, even though certainty will always elude it. Researchers should be able to trust what they read.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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