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 Space.com 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 Space.com 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.