Monday, October 22, 2012

The Pursuit of Sensational Science

Much has been written recently about sensationalizing science, by hyping things up, exaggerating the importance or novelty of new findings and giving over-simplistic accounts of them.

Up to a point scientists themselves are responsible for this. Referring to a molecule implicated in certain behaviours as the “moral molecule” obviously invites criticism, and has done so. But referring to the Higgs boson as the “God particle” has not attracted the same criticism, for reasons that are difficult to understand.

The term “God particle” was not given by scientists. As I understand it, a distinguished scientist wrote a book entitled “The Goddam Particle” but his publishers thought the title too offensive. Of course, what the title implied was “that goddam particle is so elusive, and therefore so difficult to find”. But apparently the publishers changed the title to the God Particle, and it has stuck ever since. The God particle of course has a different sense altogether – even a religious sense. But I have not heard scientists disavowing the name, with all its sensationalist associations. Instead they seem to have reveled in it.

And just recall how the Higgs boson, or the God particle, was announced recently. A press conference was announced some weeks before, keeping all guessing as to what would be revealed at the conference. Rumours became rife and were quashed, adding to the tension and the sensationalism. Scientists seemed to revel in it.

Compare that with the announcement of the current status of junk DNA, which was not accompanied by all the fanfare. Instead, the results were published in 2-3 journals. The discovery nevertheless attracted widespread attention in the press and was on the whole well summarized for the lay public – a far better example of scientific conduct.

To an equal extent, the current scientific culture is fertile ground for  sensationalism and indeed encourages it. All scientists, especially young ones aspiring to a good appointment, yearn to publish in “high impact” journals. I recently saw an advertisement for a research position at a very distinguished university. It said that “the successful candidate will have a proven ability to publish in high impact journals”.

Notice, it said nothing about a proven ability to do good or rigorous science, but only to publish in high impact journals. And it is common knowledge that what gets published in high impact journals is very variable, and not always the best science.

And how does one publish in high impact journals?

Well, one way is to do good science. But another way is to do sensational science.

Some of these high impact journals now screen a submission before sending it out for peer review and informed opinion. I know of one journal which rejects as follows:

“This is not meant as a criticism of the quality of the data or the rigor of the science, but merely reflects our desire to publish only the most influential research.”

Read it well, for it says it all: the science may be rigorous and good but, in our opinion, it is not influential research.

In other words, we only want to publish the most sensational research.

And this is not the only journal that pre-screens articles before deciding to send them out for peer review.

I do not believe that this does science any good service.

Who, after all, decides what is influential research but future generations.

And so we come full circle:

To get a good job, you have to publish in high impact journals.
To publish in high impact journals, you have to do sensational science. 
Good science helps but is not the determining factor. It must, in the opinion of those who may not be especially versed in the subject, be influential.

And the boundary between sensational science and exaggeration is….rather thin.