Planned obsolescence for science, even?


The publisher at AAAS/Science wrote something truly remarkable about how he sees his job.

In an era with more access given to less qualified people (laypeople and an increasingly unqualified blogging corps presenting themselves as experts or journalists), not to mention to text-miners and others scouring the literature for connections, the obligation to better manage these materials seems to be growing. We can no longer depend on the scarcity of print or the difficulties of distance or barriers of professional expertise to narrow access down to experts with a true need.

Ah, the good old days, when hoi polloi were excluded, when journals were locked away in dusty library stacks and only the initiates in science were aware of their existence, and when we knew that only an elite few actually needed access to knowledge.

I’d really like to know what he means by “better manage”. His concern seems to be that there is a body of obsolete knowledge that has shifted from being current and topical to merely of historical interest, that there is actually a lot of garbage in the archives, and dredging up antique, discredited work a) clutters up and complicates search results, and b) implies that science makes big mistakes. We’re supposed to serve up the fresh shiny stuff, and if it ages poorly, we should just conveniently forget about it.

Personally, I think it’s important to be aware that everything, even the glitziest stuff published in the prestige journals last week, must be examined critically, and it’s extremely useful to be conscious of past fads and errors because it might help provide a corrective perspective. I can see where the publisher of Science might find that uncomfortable, though.


  1. says

    To be fair, one of the ways one used to judge the importance of a particular work was its number of citations. That’s now just noise. Science is about obsolesence of ideas: only the ones with wide evidence supporting them are meant to survive and yes, there is a ton of trash in the archives because that’s how it works: 50 people have to be wrong sometimes before one hits on the right answer.

    Laypeople would not necessarily have the background knowledge to read something and pick out the flaws. Remember that mathematician who was obsessed with swirls and embryonic forms, and kept paying to publish? There was a kernel of truth, and that’s all you need to get people who don’t have the tools to parse it all up and running with a new pseudoscientific theory.

  2. Matt G says

    Cry me a river, AAAS. Bloggers have called out a lot of bad and sloppy science (the ENCODE “functional DNA” nonsense, the arsenic in DNA nonsense, gravitational wave, etc.). I’ve seen a lot of crap written in both Science and Nature, so clean up your acts before you start criticizing others.

  3. carlie says

    I’d love to think that “better manage” means “provide more access and train more people in the art of communicating with the public, so that the people who are interested get all of the information and in a way they can understand so that they don’t misinterpret a small nonrerpresentative piece they might happen across”.

    But I’m pretty sure that’s not what he means.

  4. speedwell says

    Isn’t this the textbook case of “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”?

    When I am prescribed a medication (I’m a layperson), I will research as much of the scientific literature as I can to make sure I can properly discuss it with my doctor and my pharmacist if I have concerns. Some of the literature is old. Sometimes the old literature is wrong. I have to take all the evidence in its proper context. But what am I left with if the old evidence is blocked to me? Nobody is blocking wrong evidence placed online by unscrupulous “alternative” practitioners and liars like Wakefield.

  5. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    Hmmm, maybe I’m too charitable, but what was said made me think of pseudo-science being peddled on blogs and “news media” like Huffington post. “New study says green tea will give you cancer and make you grow additional nipples! 10 ways to lose weight that scientists don’t want you to know about! How kumquat cures diabetes and enlarges your penis!” Or, hell, stuff like antivaccer sources, including the now discredited Lancet article from way back when about autism and the MMR vaccine. A lot of woo peddlers could use old, outdated or faulty information or misinterpretations thereof, slap on some impressive sounding sources or quotations, including out-of-context ones, and cause all sorts of confusion and problems down the line. I think – or at least hope – it isn’t supposed to suggest experts as gatekeepers lording over the ignorant masses with their secret knowledge and interpretation thereof, like the priests of the Catholic church back before Bible translations or widespread literacy.

  6. says

    @ carlie #3: Agreed. What he actually says carries subtext similar to when the priestly caste resisted publication of the Bible in contemporary languages and the spread of literacy. “We’re better than you common dregs. We’re the only ones capable of understanding.”

    It’s certainly a problem where people engage in confirmation bias and outright fraud by cherrypicking bad studies and outliers, but restricting access isn’t the answer. Psuedoscientists love the idea of scientists being unquestionable authorities, with lab coats being the new vestments, and science being inspired knowledge too sacred for commoners to look upon. The answer is more and better science education for the public, including letting people know about how uncertain science is. It’s a tall order, but the genie is not going back into the bottle.

    I had to do a thesis for my MS, and research was hard work. I felt awkward for much of it because one of my professors tried to turn the thesis writing class into a sampling statistics class. I would have benefited from more time learning about research method. Most of my knowledge about spotting bad or fraudulent research came from reading science blogs for years and watching people like Orac systematically tear poor studies apart. I know that just because something gets published in a recognized journal isn’t reason to believe it’s authoritative. Unfortunately, most people don’t get that memo.

  7. paulbc says

    Anyone interested in learning something has a “true need” and should be encouraged to follow it. At least, that is my quirky interpretation of the right of “pursuit of Happiness.”I don’t know for certain if open access is good for science or bad for science (though I think it is mostly good), but that’s not the point. It is just wrong to restrict information without a clear justification–personal privacy, time-limited IP rights, or perhaps national security, but definitely not just that you think people are not smart enough to understand it.

    On-line scientific archives already annotate publications with more recent publications that cite them. If you really want to make sure people do not read too much into superseded results, you could mark them clearly if later research shows them to be in error. Most rational people would not put a lot of credence in a finding from 1899, say, if there is no further work to back it up. Something like that is a starting point. An old result might even be true and just ignored, which would make it interesting to try to reproduce. It might be completely wrong too, which is not a big deal. We expect this. That’s why science is an on-going process and not a collection of old books. I am having a lot of trouble even understanding what the problem is supposed to be.

  8. says

    When I went back and read the original article it certainly didn’t read as exclusionary to me. In fact it seemed to be coming from an angle of having archives full of obsolete stuff that untrained, non-experts will have trouble deciding the relevance of. Better managing what’s current, what’s historical, and what’s in a grey area would be hugely helpful. There’s even a nice example that seems to comport with this at the end of the article that speaks about the literature for leeches.

    Both you and the person you linked to took this post in a completely different way, which says to me I must then be missing some context.

  9. says

    I dunno. This comes across to me more like a lament over those cranks who use what ever science they can find agrees with them to fill up their AGW denialist blogs.

  10. speedwell says

    mnb0 @10:

    Now, see, that drives me bats. I am an IT analyst specializing in product data management. When I see data that, in the words of my old boss, is sitting around like an aircraft hangar full of unmarked shelves with identical unmarked boxes, or, worse, like products all dumped out in the middle of the floor in an indiscriminate heap, my answer is… ffs, manage it. The engineering company we worked for dealt with blueprints and other critical information that changed over time due to testing and new advances in, say, materials technology. We kept track of versions and annotations and inventory, using a taxonomy that helped us find our data based on its relevance to a given application and on its unique and shared characteristics. It doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to expect the same arrangement to apply to the body of scientific knowledge, and maybe it’s high time someone hired a bunch of us data jockeys to help scientists get their shit together.

  11. Kevin Kehres says

    Of course, Science (and the vast majority of other peer-review publications) are more than happy to define “true need” as “anyone willing to shell out $30 an article”.

  12. carlie says

    speedwell and Kevin, exactly. I find it hard to believe that at least the big scientific publishers don’t make enough money to hire people to manage their data properly.

  13. gmacs says

    A major problem with older papers being difficult to access is that they can be crucial for understanding newer ones.

    …Fuckit! Personal rant time!

    Where the fuck does this person get off thinking blocking any of this access is a good thing? Or for that matter, that these traditional barriers have been specific to “laypeople”? I’m inclined (for totally biased reasons) to think this is an example of the attitude of elitist bullshit that exists within many scientific fields.

    You know how much it sucks when papers keep referring back to other papers without a clear explanation? Yeah, that wouldn’t be a problem if the older papers weren’t sitting behind paywalls. At that point, I guess I’m just supposed to take the more recent author’s word for it. And it’s not useless papers that are blocked off. I swear, more than half the time I read an abstract from a useful paper written before 1990, I think “Wow, this sounds like it really applies to my project in a helpful, comprehensive way… Oh shit it’s a Wiley (or Springer) publication”.

    And in fields tangential to my own, I can’t understand much of what is being discussed because it requires a background that is blocked off to me. I’m not a “layperson” (non-scientist), I am using a university account. And this shit is still blocked off to me.

    But of course we need to make information less accessible.

    Fuuuuuck thaaaat shiiiiit!