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NASA is having a hard time of it in the scientific press. After its public relations problems around an over-heated announcement of strange bacteria that appeared to use arsenic instead of phosphorous, now the agency is caught up in another little dust-up, this time over supposed tunnels in a lump of space dust.

A NASA scientist recently announced “startling, paradigm busting research” published in the Journal of Cosmology, claiming to have identified cyanobacteria in a meteorite. The astrobiologist, Richard Hoover, used scanning electron microscopes to analyze slices of carbonaceous meteorites. Based on the appearance of “filaments” and other features that resemble microbes, Hoover argued that the meteorites contain fossilized cyanobacteria.

A very nice bit of journalism on outlines the problems with the paper — there are other possible explanations, for instance, and some logical and demonstrated facts about the composition of meteorites would suddenly have to be wrong for Hoover to be right. But what really caught my eye was this sentence:

As soon as word of the paper was announced, some scientists were reluctant to give it credence based on the Journal of Cosmology’s reputation.

Branding is a vital aspect of a journal. Credibility streams from it, and papers are either granted surprising attention or devalued quickly by brand affiliation. Make it into a big brand journal, and your career can launch. Publish a powerful study in a discredited journal, and you’ll likely rue the day. But is branding enough anymore? Does branding truly slot a journal in a reliable manner?

Here sits a perfect example of a problematic branding and publishing situation — a big brand that has its own baggage (NASA) and a journal brand of questionable value. As P.Z. Myers portrays the Journal of Cosmology on his blog Pharyngula:

[I]t isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth. It doesn’t exist in print, consists entirely of a crude and ugly website that looks like it was sucked through a wormhole from the 1990s, and publishes lots of empty noise with no substantial editorial restraint.

Myers description of the Journal of Cosmology’s Web site is damning, but quite accurate. Aesthetics aren’t its strong suit. And there’s a whiff of desperation around the publication of this paper, which apparently has been kicking around since 2007. The desperation comes from rumors that the Journal of Cosmology is struggling, and may have been using this paper as a way of attracting a potential buyer.

Yet when critics noted that the paper probably had not been peer-reviewed, and listed other deficiencies with the Journal of Cosmology, the editors trotted out a predictable tableau of responses, as captured in the story:

In response to some critics questioning why the research wasn’t published in the more prestigious journals Science or Nature, the Journal of Cosmology responded with a statement that “both Science and Nature have a nasty history of rejecting extremely important papers, some of which later earned the authors a Nobel Prize.”

“Science and Nature are in the business of making money,” the journal charged. “The Journal of Cosmology, is free, open access, and is in the business of promoting science.”

While the science in this paper is apparently lacking, the journal branding hierarchy probably slotted it correctly for those in the field. They know the score, so branding works in this very contextualized zone.

Unfortunately, a brigade of science journalists picked up on the story, no doubt duped to some extent by certain affiliations (NASA, “journal”). They ended up putting more questionable science into the public realm. This will happen again and again, until we find a way to standardize better the journal format and reputation in the Internet age. Brands don’t seem to be doing an adequate job. We need a better solution.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


12 Thoughts on "Journal of Cosmology and Alien Life — Reputation Precedes Refutation, But Are Brands Enough?"

If we are transitioning to an article based system then journal branding must become correspondingly less important. In this case the blogosphere (including you) is debating the science and that is a good thing.

Yes, but I’m constantly reminded of how the public’s fleeting attention grabs onto these things, confusion results, and science loses credibility with voters. We’re officially “insiders.” We’ll look harder, read more, pay more attention. But science gets a black eye once again in the public square when things like this happen, and that can’t be good.

I’m not sure why an article-based system does not still depends on branding for credibility. Even if issues disappear and articles are published one by one as they are approved, they still will be published under a journal imprint, will they not? Branding does not disappear in an article-based system.

To see how confusing this can get for people, you don’t have to look any further than climate change or autism/vaccination. In these debates, both sides quote journals, then both sides question the legitimacy of the other side’s journals…this one lacks prestige, that one is all about making money… To the layperson it all starts to sound like he-said/she-said. How can a layperson make science-based decisions if they don’t know who to trust?

Interesting that Myers singles out the lack of a print edition as a reason why the journal fails the credibility test. What does this say about online only journals? Is there still branding value in creating a print version, even if no one reads it that way?

It struck me as a sign of how difficult it is to differentiate between a reliable journal and a marginal journal at first blush. Both can say they’re peer-reviewed. Both can have ISSNs. Both can have a legitimate-sounding title, a decent editorial board, etc. Print is another type of journal “dress,” if you will, and because it’s still expensive, it’s one that seems to have some gravity to it. But I think that’s easily overcome by other signs of quality, especially within narrow fields. I don’t think the journalists who picked up on this study were thinking that print mattered. They were grabbed by the NASA tie-in and the fact that a “journal” published the work — and probably by the suggestion that NASA was “at it again” with more claims of alien/arsenic life.

The fact that this article has been “kicking around since 2007” and has finally been “slotted” indicates that the chief function of the journal is not about disseminating new scientific results but about stratifying articles based on quality.

That said, arguments from the journal editors about business and access models are really beside the point here.

Your point about The Journal of Cosmology is well taken, but wasn’t it just a few weeks back that NASA-funded scientists launched some equally dubious claims ( in the pages of perhaps the most reputable journal we have today? (

Ah, perceptions. Yes, the perception was that the study was flawed, when in fact my opinion (after having read the study) is that the PR was flawed — it was way too grandiose and absolute, not humble, skeptical science communication. That led to many people dismissing the study as flawed simply because the science was as preliminary as you’d imagine — an intriguing hint, a surprising result, an unexpected set of observations. NASA shot itself in the foot on that one.

A few very brief points, from the perspective of a working scientist:
1) For me, the author (mainly the responsible P.I.) is a more important ‘brand’ than the journal. There are P.I.’s whose papers I’ll read regardless of where they are published.
2) With all due respect to highly rated journal ‘brands’, they can all make mistakes. The “memory of water” saga in Nature is an instructive example –
3) Not clear to me why Paul Z. Myers is considered a more trustworthy source on the quality of peer-reviewed journals than Richard B. Hoover, given the fact that the latter seems to have published 4-5X more peer reviewed papers than the former…

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