Nature posted yesterday a cautionary piece about the dire perils of pre-prints. Tom Sheldon, of the Science Media Centre, whose goal is to “renew public trust in science”, warns that “pre-prints could promote confusion and distortion” in the minds of science journalists, and therefore in the minds of the public who rely on them for information.
“Weak work that hasn’t been reviewed”, apparently, “could get overblown in the media. Conversely, better work could be ignored”. I don’t even know how to build a meter that can measure the irony of that statement, in a journal that brought us the Cerutti Mastodon just last year. In any case, the question is not whether pre-prints not reviewed the Nature way can overblow bad work and ignore good. The question is whether this is more likely under a pre-print system than under the current alternative. Both logic and the evidence of my senses tells me not.
Under the current system, “A few days before a paper is published, the science journal will issue a restricted press release to qualified journalists under an agreement (called an embargo) that no one will report on the paper until a designated time.” In other words, after an editor and two or three reviewers have stamped a paper for approval, a limited number of “qualified journalists” are contacted and asked to prepare to explain it to a confused, ignorant public, constantly in danger of being misled by all the bad work that researchers are trying to pass off as good, and which, fortunately for us, is deep-sixed by a small band of heroic experts.
As long as the academic is cast as clergy, the public as flock, and the science journalist as parish priest, trust will continue to erode, and science will continue to suffer. Review behind closed doors, by a small number of initiates, followed by proselytism by acolytes, is designed to ensure control, conformity, and profit. Pre-prints followed by open review by whoever is interested, academic colleague, journalist, policy-maker, plumber, race car driver, ensures broader, more inter-disciplinary assessment of the work, and allows its simultaneous evaluation and dissemination.
The only thing pre-prints don’t do, is protect the business model of the big commercial academic publishers. In fact, they are a mortal danger to that business model, and to those whose very modest power, such as it is, depends on that system. They are the gate-keepers, in and around academia: the tenured academics, the science journalists and their ilk.
I keep telling my students, to their initial dismay, that I am glad they are confused. Confusion is good. It generates questions and motivates us to find ways of answering them. I don’t want them to trust me. I want them to evaluate the statements I make. Never trust what I say, I tell them, always evaluate what I say. Why should I be any different with not-my-students?
Any approach to knowledge that emphasizes trust and certainty is the opposite of scientific. The great virtue of confusion is that it needs clearing up. The singular advantage of distrust is that it fosters reflection.
In our Most Catholic Province, back in the 40s, before deciding to read a book, my parents had to determine whether it was listed on the Index of controlled works. They then had to consult their director of conscience at school, to find out whether they had reached a high enough level of enlightenment to understand its content and not be led astray by the confusion it might cause. That system was a close evolutionary cousin of what is being defended in this Nature piece. This is not how I think modern academia should work, and it isn’t how we establish a healthy relationship between academics and the public.