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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.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is an independent researcher and publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. His research has focused on the on the dissemination of scientific information, rewards and incentives in academic publishing, and economic issues related to libraries, authors and publishers.

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Discussion

10 Thoughts on "The Soft Underbelly 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.

While I appreciate the care with which you’ve chosen your words in this post and its prequel, I’d like to add one more factor to your list of possible proximate causes for the brouhaha: namely, the perception of a variety of “mathematically or physically literate” readers that the material in papers by el Naschie and several other authors is garbage.

Of course, “mathematically or physically literate” is something of a social construct; but it is one that can reach across other traditional dividing lines which one might suspect of providing bias, such as gender, ethnicity or class. (Nationality is a bit trickier, I suspect.) You may have noticed that it was the defences of el Naschie which seemed keenest to refer to such potential sources of bias. [Disclaimer: I was one of the restrained critics on that thread]

There is a perception that El Naschie shortcut the process, and this alone is a valid concern for the integrity of the journal.

Agreed; but while this is in itself a cause for concern, it is not the only cause for concern. The content, or lack thereof, really matters in this case; and while I agree that the story thus far needs some sociological component to any analysis of it, I don’t think that suffices. We are not talking about disputes analogous to “did the Treaty of Versailles make the Second World War inevitable”, but something more like “there’s no `i’ in `team’, but there is an `i’ in `equipe’, so francophones will always lack solidarity compared to anglophones”.

In the earlier post, you also said:

What is interesting about the discussion is that El Naschie hasn’t done anything explicitly wrong.

Again, I wouldn’t disagree with your choice of words, at least for certain definitions of “explicitly”. However, what has resulted from this torrent of pseudo-mathematics is “wrong” by the standards of the scientific community, which inasmuch as it works has to work by opportunity to critique and a reflection of said critique. The content of the articles in question is of such dubious value (or in some cases provenance) that it suggests that the journal was pretending to certain credentials within the scientific community (peer-review etc) which it didn’t in fact have.

In case it sounds like I’m cavilling, I agree with the broader point you finish on, although I personally find your closing paragraph a touch too aphoristic and simplistic.

Phil wrote:

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.

Is there some reason you aren’t mentioning the most striking fact of all, namely that most mathematicians and physicists realize El Naschie’s work makes no sense? That seems a very strange omission.

John (and toomuchcoffeeman), I do, in fact, bring up the question of whether El Naschie’s work makes sense in my first post and clearly state that I’m no position to arbitrate quality claims. This is for mathematicians like you decide.

There is a lot of material found in the published record that would count as senseless, meaningless, or simply does not add anything significant to the literature. And yet scientific communities do not collectively rise to sanction an author. Instead, these individuals are ignored and marginalized where they cease to cause damage to the rest of the community.

To an outsider, there is something else going on in this controversy that is not explicitly stated. You describe in your own posts that several issues come together to form “the perfect storm.” This is really saying that there is nothing he did that can be clearly labeled as scientific misconduct (such as plagiarizing the work of others), but should be described more accurately as unacceptable behavior and thus open to community sanctions. This is precisely my argument.

Instead, these individuals are ignored and marginalized where they cease to cause damage to the rest of the community.

I think (though JB is welcome to correct me if I have misinterpreted or misunderstood), that what gets our collective goat up, is the realization that we have marginalized them into a post of nominal prestige (editor-in-chief) of a journal which is esteemed by modern rankings that are favoured by those who judge us (impact factor). When I first came across this material in 2000-2001 I put it aside after mild swearing and chuckling. It is fair to say I did not anticipate that this would be allowed to metastasise so far…

Also, this part of your comment

There is a lot of material found in the published record that would count as senseless, meaningless, or simply does not add anything significant to the literature

suggests that my previous comment may not have been explicit enough with its strained analogy. I was trying to make a serious illustration that whatever one’s views on, say, the number of occurrences of the word “which” in a Shakespeare play about witches, one must surely acknowledge that any argument based on the occurence of the English singular pronoun in the French word for team is irretrievably risible.

The three terms you list are regions on a spectrum of “worth”, whatever “worth” means, and indeed some of my own work would be regarded as “not very significant” by les plus hautes. I’m afraid you may have to take it on trust that mathematicians like me find the CSF material in question so far beyond the pale as to be in Cork.

Perhaps there is nothing that can be “clearly labelled” as scientific misconduct, but the tone of the responses, together with the quantity of dreck that has gone unchecked, suggests scientific misconduct — because the work is pretending to standards of verification and review that it manifestly has not passed.

And yet scientific communities do not collectively rise to sanction an author.

Turned on its head, one could argue that if the community can put asides its differences — JB and I probably don’t agree on the finer details of “what is good math(s)” — to speak out against something collectively, then either we are all in our different fields, races, ages and nationalities made simultaneously insecure by said author, or he is so egregiously deserving of censure that the smoke must have a fire somewhere at its root…

(Sorry for the verbosity of these comments.)

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