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Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Impact Factor

What is most interesting about science is that it is a way of thinking that leads to the truth. It helps everyone view the world as it really is, not as we want it to be. After basic understanding is acheived, we can use the knowledge to develop things like light bulbs and cures for disease. We call that technology. The opposite of this process is religion. Religious individuals see the world as they want it to be. Opposing views on the meaning of things leads to conflict.

That is why I write this blog. When people hijack the good name of science and have lucrative successful careers in science we end up with conflict. That is why "The Impact Factor" is high up on my radar. The need professional scientists have to impact others must not get in the way of the need scientists have for the truth. I believe that even professional scientists can cross over to religious thinking, finding meaning where none exists. The result is not useful technology but rather, conflict.

In "The Impact Factor" posted on Retraction Watch, there is an interesting juxtaposition of two different views of how professional scientists operate.
Commenter #1 - John: There is also faking data…. which is the riskier, but also successful…and immoral/unethical. 
Commenter #2 - Chris: That is terribly cynical John... The notion that “faking data” is a successful approach to publishing in high impact journals is astonishing. Try it and see where that leads you in the long term!
You can probably guess where my bias is on this topic. I agree with John. Am I viewing it through a religious or scientific perspective? Is Chris religious or scientific in his views?

Chris has taken the religious view of science in this case. I fully understand his opinion that "faking data" is a poor choice. I've dedicated this blog to the notion of Cargo Cult Science. Faking data is a necessity to keep a Cargo Cult in operation. Where Chris and I part ways is in thinking that getting published is the same as thinking scientifically. Let's break the two up and look at Chris' statement.

If you want to do science and build one idea upon the last, you cannot cheat. The analogy I have used is a crossword puzzle. If you fill in a word improperly, the words that cross the incorrect word will be harder to figure out. The certainty you have of the crossing words will lead you to change to incorrect word. If you are like me, you often get words wrong but you always have a certainty value in your head. If the horizontal word has a high certainty value, you will have a lower certainty value for your proposed vertical crossing word. This orthogonal approach to solving questions increases the certainty you have over singular unsupported ideas. In science we have citations and other scientists who validate our work to increase certainty.

Getting published however only validates your ability to get published. It indicates that you know the game and you play it well. Like a lawyer who has only to convince the jury, the scientist has only to convince a few people at the journal. The journal lays out its criteria so the scientist knows ahead of time what kinds of results will get him/her published. Quite often the result coming out of the lab put a damper on your hopes and dreams. So cheating creeps into ones mind, and as we know, some scientists will go ahead and cheat. Just read the articles above "The Impact Factor" for a few examples of people who cheated, advanced their careers, then got caught. Nitin Aggarwal cheated on his PhD thesis, got his Phd, won a $1,000 award for that thesis and landed a job at BMS. Chris points out, "see where that leads you in the long term!" Chris failed to chooses to ignore these short term advantages.

As much as we want believe that cheating doesn't happen, and that scientific journals cannot be fooled, we have to face the facts. Much of what gets published is unreliable. Much of what gets published is not reproducible. That is not a negative viewpoint. If we can weed out the unreliable and non-reproducible, we will end up with more useful technologies. Therefore, what many people like Chris see as a cynical view, is really a scientific view. It is scientific because the truth is what matters most. Our  opinion of the truth is immaterial. As the human race progresses, scientists will have their impact. The impact that the truth has on the scientific community is what will have the greatest impact on the human race. For the likes of Chris to close their eyes and hold those with eyes wide open in contempt is a religious viewpoint. If we assume that the cheaters will all get caught, we have not been paying attention to what we see in the journals. We have not payed attention to the biopharma industry.  Cheating is a tool used by fools and knaves. The fact the so many fools and knaves succeed in the short term, and some in the long (Don Polderman) should tell us that we need a change.

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