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Scientific controversies are rare learning opportunities. They give us a view of the soft underbelly of science that is often hidden by the mundane details of everyday life. They show us how the system reacts to being tested and prodded, and how people in leadership behave under pressure. Most importantly, they show us how unwritten social norms — not the formal rules found in textbooks — are responsible for the conduct of science.
As I wrote in my post entitled, “Elsevier Math Controversy,” it wasn’t completely clear why Mohamed El Naschie was being sanctioned by the math and theoretical physics community (as viewed on the n-Category Café), although several issues (self-publishing, self-citation, and academic credentials) appear to be working in concert.
It would be easy to argue that by publishing articles in his own journal, Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, El Nashie created a crisis of confidence in the peer-review process. The editor-in-chief is a position of great power, and the publishing of one’s own work (especially in such quantity) questions whether El Naschie was using his editorial power to further his own ends. It does not matter whether his articles were, in fact, peer-reviewed, as questioned by members of the mathematical physics community. There is a perception that El Naschie shortcut the process, and this alone is a valid concern for the integrity of the journal. This is the textbook answer.
A more complete answer may be found in the larger community of mathematical physicists. But in order to explain this one, we have to stop thinking of journals the way most of us think of journals — collections of articles on a related topic — and start thinking of journals as social systems.
A journal is a community of individuals, and membership in each community is conferred with the successful transfer of a manuscript. If this gift is accepted, the author receives a symbolic transfer of prestige back from that community. Prestige is legitimated when it is recognized by the broader scientific community. If I have never heard of your journal, then being an author means nothing to me. If your article is published in a controversial journal, then that association is transferred as well.
By injuring the reputation of a journal, an editor undermines the willingness of future authors to trade their manuscripts for prestige. These authors will gladly take their gifts elsewhere; there are thousands of journals starving for manuscripts. Moreover, those authors who have already published in a questionable journal cannot automatically disassociate themselves. They are stuck with the stigma that comes from associating with that community.
Journals have little more than their reputations, and reputations can be damaged very quickly by a controversy. This is why editors are so swift to defend their journals and the editorial process in the face of a controversy. When the editor is the center of the controversy, there is no recourse. There is little that a publisher can do to defend an editor except ask him politely to step down and bring a swift end to the affair.
This controversy reminds us that science is ultimately built on reputation, although you will not find this in any textbook.