Use Unpaywall to Find Papers

While a lot of the academic literature is still paywalled, meaning that it can be hard (and expensive) for independent and non-traditional scholars to access, much of that literature is actually publicly available. Many authors post their articles on academia.edu or researchgate, or even on their own websites. Often, this self-archiving is even permitted under the terms of publication.

If you’re just a little bit ambitious with your web searches, you can typically find these, but it does require an extra step or two, which can fell like a bit of a drag.

Enter unpaywall, a new browser extension currently available for chrome and firefox that will tell you if there is a free version of the article you’re looking for somewhere out there, even if it is formatted differently (like an arXiv preprint). Check it out!

College Affordability Study Finds Dismal Results

There’s a new study out by the Institute for Higher Education Policy that looks at the affordability of 2000 colleges for a number of hypothetical students representing different family and economic situations. There’s a nice summary of the study at the Atlantic. Here’s the take-home message:

Of the more than 2,000 colleges analyzed, IHEP found that almost half were affordable only for students from families making more than $160,000. That means that in addition to being able to afford 90 percent of colleges, half of those colleges are also essentially exclusively reserved for them. For-profit colleges were the least affordable schools, and public colleges were the most affordable. But even then, four-year public colleges that didn’t meet the students’ affordability thresholds were off by an average of $9,000.

For low to moderate income students, with incomes < $69,000 per year, only one to five percent of the colleges studied were affordable. Note that, according to the Census Bureau, median household income in the US in 2015 was less than $56,000.

Op-ed piece on the Alignment of Science and Other Truth-Tellers

Out yesterday in The Scientist is an op-ed piece by yours truly. The basic thrust is that, in an era when facts and expertise and the very nature of reality are under attack, scientists need to recognize that they are part of a larger community of truth-seekers and truth-tellers that includes social scientists, artists, journalists, and others.

You can find the full piece by following the link above, but here’s the core of the argument:

As scientists, our role in society is to act as guardians of truth. Our mission is to discover things that are true, to share that truth with society, and to protect it from corruption and preserve it for future generations. But here’s the thing: we are not alone in that. Discovering and defending truth is also the mission of our colleagues in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, as well as journalists. Many of these fields have long been targets of scorn and derision from the most regressive elements in society, and the culture wars of the past few decades have engendered distrust of the media and resentment toward those who embrace social justice. It may be tempting to think that these groups represent softer targets, and that if we distance and differentiate ourselves from them, we can maintain the status quo in science. But if we are to defend science, we must stand together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.

[snip]

It seems that every week we are presented with a new attack on facts. If we focus on preserving our own funding, on defending some narrow definition of science, we will lose.

We must fight the impulse that says that we can preserve science if we stay in our lane, that we’ll be safe if we leave our non-scientist colleagues to their own devices. Those who silence artists and journalists don’t embrace a well-funded system of free scientific inquiry. If we focus our defense narrowly on science, the best we can hope for is a politically compromised field no longer worth defending.

Research Universities’ Excellence Adventure

Academics in traditional university environments tend to be keenly aware of where their university ranks, whether they like to admit this or not. Most familiar are the college-level rankings like those from the US News & World Report, which weigh the undergraduate experience heavily. However in the research world, the notion of “excellence” has become the coin of the realm as evidenced by a proliferation of “excellence frameworks” such as the Research Excellence Framework  (UK), the German Universities Excellence Initiative, the Excellence in Research for Australia and the Performance Based Research Fund (New Zealand).  Given that many resources from capital funds, grants and permanent positions are doled out in accordance with rankings, where one’s institution stands goes beyond mere bragging rights. Most academics understand the arbitrary nature of such rankings and despite regular kvetching that they are either “unfair” (usually from those at an institution “lower” in the rankings) or that they have “finally” recognized the true worth of their institution (usually from those rising in the rankings), the existence of the ranking system itself, is normally taken as given.  After all, how are we to sort the worthy from the unworthy?

Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel Paul O’Donnell and Damian Pattinson have published an (ahem), excellent research paper “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence that comprehensively examines both the notion and practices of “excellence” in research.  Excellence, as most of the research frameworks define it, essentially boils down to some combination of ranking institutions by their scholars ability to publish in established prestige journals, ability to gain external grants and other easily-measured metric of scholarly output.

Their conclusion, in a nutshell: “excellence” is totally bogus:

…a focus on “excellence” impedes rather than promotes scientific and scholarly activity: it at the same time discourages both the intellectual risk-taking required to make the most significant advances in paradigm-shifting research and the careful “Normal Science” (Kuhn [1962] 2012) that allows us to consolidate our knowledge in the wake of such advances. It encourages researchers to engage in counterproductive conscious and unconscious gamesmanship. And it impoverishes science and scholarship by encouraging concentration rather than distribution of effort.

In other words in the context of scientific scholarship: focusing on excellence prevents the two things that we say we want from from science: careful reproducible science and the big breakthroughs. The article covers familiar ground to those who have been following the state of academia including discussions of the lack of reproducibility in science, the pernicious use of journal prestige to evaluate academics, and the general environment of hypercompetition in research. Many, if not most, academics are aware these issues, having been covered extensively in the trade press in recent years, but continue to view them through the lens of their effect on traditional tenure-track (or equivalent) faculty with established research programs. So it is refreshing that the article tackles how the rhetoric of ”excellence” can restrict the range of types and styles of scholarship, issues that are close to the heart of the Ronin Institute:

There is, however, another effect of the drive for “excellence”: a restriction in the range of scholars, of the research and scholarship performed by such scholars, and the impact such research and scholarship has on the larger population. Although “excellence” is commonly presented as the most fair or efficient way to distribute scarce resources (Sewitz, 2014), it in fact can have an impoverishing effect on the very practices that it seeks to encourage. A funding programme that looks to improve a nation’s research capacity by differentially rewarding “excellence” can have the paradoxical effect of reducing this capacity by underfunding the very forms of “normal” work that make science function (Kuhn [1962] 2012) or distract attention from national priorities and well-conducted research towards a focus on performance measures of North America and Europe (Vessuri et al., 2014)

The article continues by pointing out that “excellence” is often used as a proxy for  academic work that fit certain “standard” modes, which can result in a more bland and conformist world of scholarship:

Given the strong evidence that there is systemic bias within the institutions of research against women, under-represented ethnic groups, non-traditional centres of scholarship, and other disadvantaged groups (for a forthright admission of this bias with regard to non-traditional centres of scholarship, see Goodrich, 1945), it follows that an emphasis on the performance of “excellence”—or, in other words, being able to convince colleagues that one is even more deserving of reward than others in the same field—will create even stronger pressure to conform to unexamined biases and norms within the disciplinary culture: challenging expectations as to what it means to be a scientist is a very difficult way of demonstrating that you are the “best” at science; it is much easier if your appearance, work patterns, and research goals conform to those of which your adjudicators have previous experience. In a culture of “excellence” the quality of work from those who do not work in the expected “normative” fashion run a serious risk of being under-estimated and unrecognised.

As the authors point out it is common in such pieces to identify external factors such as:

institutional administrators captured by neo-liberal ideologies, funders over-focussed on delivering measurable returns rather than positive change, governments obsessed with economic growth at the cost of social or community value

as the primary cultural driver of metric-driven “excellence”. And this is definitely a huge part of the issue (see Ronin blog posts “Graeber on the Transformation of Universities” and “Henry Heller on IP-Based Capitalism at Universities”), but it’s not the only driver. Attributing these issues purely to external forces lets the academy somewhat off the hook since, as the authors continue:

the roots of the problem in fact lie in the internal narratives of the academy and the nature of “excellence” and “quality” as supposedly shared concepts that researchers have developed into shields of their autonomy. The solution to such problems lies not in arguing for more resources for distribution via existing channels as this will simply lead to further concentration and hypercompetition. Instead, we have argued, these internal narratives of the academy must be reformulated.

In other words: academia probably needs to take a look in the mirror once in a while and should question whether current norms really still serve their twin stated goals of encouraging sound “normal” scholarship as well as risky breakthroughs. I would also add: it should be enabling all scholars to participate in whatever way fits their individual talents, rather than promote a “one-size-fits-all” notion of alpha-academic success. There is much more to the article than space allows here, it’s a good piece for anybody interested in the future of scholarship, and it includes a highly detailed bibliography.

Citation: Moore, Neylon, Eve, O’Donnell, Pattinson. Palgrave Communications 3, Article number: 16105 (2017)

Coda: In a nice example of walking the walk, the authors have this note about “subverting traditional scarce markers of prestige” by adopting:

a redistributive approach to the order of their names in the byline. As an international collaboration of uniformly nice people (cf. Moran et al., 2016; Hoover et al., 1987; see Tartamelia, 2014 for an explanation), lacking access to a croquet field (cf. Hassell and May, 1974), writing as individuals rather than an academic version of the Borg (see Guedj, 2009), and not identifying any excellent pun (cf. Alpher et al., 1948; Lord et al., 1986) or “disarmingly quaint nom de guerre” (cf. Mrs Kinpaisby, 2008, 298 [thanks to Oli Duke-Williams for this reference]) to be made from the ordering of our names, we elected to assign index numbers to our surnames and randomize these using an online tool.

Politics, Diversity, and the March for Science

On April 22, there is a March for Science in Washington, DC, with satellite marches around the world. The march is in response to recent acts by the US government (such as the silencing of government scientists, anti-science cabinet appointments, restrictions on international movement of scientists, and a general rejection of facts and expertise), as well as concern about future actions.

Although the response from the scientific community to the march has been largely positive, there is a significant minority out there complaining, or more often concern trolling, about “politicizing science.” So for those of you who feel that science should not be political, or who have to deal with people who say things like “don’t make science political,” here are a few thoughts.

Science is Already Political

Yes, ideally, the conclusions of scientific inquiry should not be influenced by political factors. You do the experiment or analysis, and the results are what they are. In some fields, that ideal may even be achievable in practice.

But everything surrounding science is inherently political, like what questions get asked, who gets to ask them, and who becomes famous for finding the answers. If we take a broad view of “political,” the activity of science is political at every level. Departmental politics affect access to resources, and disciplinary politics affects which science gets published in which journals.

We can give the “don’t make science political” folks (DMSPs) the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are referring specifically to the government. But here, too, science has long been political. In the post–World War II era, the predominant model of science has relied on government funding. Universities and science-advocacy groups spend millions of dollars every year on lobbying about science funding, as do religious and other interest groups. Ignoring politics altogether means handing over control of the funding and oversight of science to those who don’t ignore it, including many groups with explicit anti-science agendas.

Maybe You Meant Partisan?

I suspect that what some of the DMSPs mean is that we should be careful not to make the March for Science into a partisan issue, where we are all chanting, “Science good! Republicans bad!” This is perhaps a good argument for requiring that scientists receive a better general education.

It is true that, overall, federal funding of science in the United States has had pretty good bipartisan support. Yes, when some asshole congressman ignorantly mocks NSF-funded research projects, it is usually a Republican. On the other hand, the biggest increases in NIH funding in decades came under George W Bush. Republicans and Democrats have often prioritized different areas of science, but for most of the past seventy years, the inherent value of science has not been a particularly partisan issue.

from the Center for American Progress http://ampr.gs/2lD3kku

It seems reasonable to say that we should be careful not to alienate the party that controls the government. The problem is that that party is currently dominated by people with an unequivocally anti-science agenda. It is not necessarily that they are going to defund all science — in fact, some areas of research may even benefit in the short term. It is that there is now an overt agenda to silence and delegitimize science that does not conform to specific ideological pre-commitments.

I suspect that there are many Republicans in congress who privately support quality independent scientific research. But so far, very few Republicans have been willing to take stands against any of the extreme policies of their leadership or the new administration. That makes it feel like the fight for science is a partisan one, but not because scientists chose to make it that way. To misquote Ronald Reagan, science did not leave the Republican party, the Republican party left science. We must fight for science, and that fight will, in the short term, be partisan. Hopefully, if saner Republicans are able to regain control of their party, that won’t always be the case.

But Actually You Meant Diversity

In reality, what most of the DMSPs are actually mad about is not politics or partisanship, but diversity. The first significant backlash against the March for Science came after the march organizers posted their diversity policy. For example:

The diversity statement has gone through a couple of iterations over the past weeks, but here is the current version:

The March for Science strongly supports diversity, inclusion and equality in science.

American and global citizens are best served when we build and sustain an inclusive scientific community. We advocate for equal access to science education and scientific careers. When evidence-based science and policy are ignored, marginalized communities are differentially and disproportionately impacted.

Scientists and people who care about science are an intersectional group, embodying a diverse range of race, sexual orientation, (a)gender identity, ability, religion, socioeconomic and immigration statuses. We, the march organizers, come from and stand in solidarity with historically underrepresented scientists and science advocates.

To characterize a statement like this as “anti-science” is just absolute monkey-bonkers. It’s the sort of thing you expect to see from a twitter egg or one of those frog people. It’s hard even to know where to start. For one thing, there is pretty good empirical evidence of the effect of various systemic -isms and -phobias on representation in science and elsewhere. You might even call that evidence “scientific.” You may recall from something you read about sixty seconds ago that questions of who gets to do what science — and who gets to become famous for it — are always steeped in politics. People who believe that science is somehow a pure meritocracy, where the best, purest scientists rise to the top of a colorblind (genderblind, etc.) hierarchy are 1) typically people whose careers were advanced, rather than impeded, by systematic biases, and, 2) wrong.

But What About Just Focusing on Science?

Other critics — those who are not the favorite cognitive scientist of libertarian man-babies and closeted white supremacist pseudo-intellectuals — have tended to criticize this pro-inclusion, pro-diversity stance as a “distraction,” or as something that risks alienating some of our would-be allies. These critics say that the march should just focus on science.

The focus-on-science criticism is actually saying, “I don’t care that you have these other concerns. You should be focusing on my concern.” I’ve seen variations on this argument in a lot of places. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it coming from someone volunteering to help organize anything.

Most of the organizers of the March for Science appear to be members of underrepresented groups, because that’s who stepped up. As soon as the march became a big deal, in comes a brigade of, let’s say, non-underrepresented scientists. These guys (yes) criticize the march for addressing issues that are not of direct relevance to them. There tends to be a lot of entitlement, as if, obviously, the organizers will defer to their authority and reorganize the march to their liking. Actually, the whole pattern makes a nifty case study in one of the reasons why pro-active diversity efforts are necessary.

Defending diversity in science is not a distraction from the defense of science. Science is an activity done by human beings who exist in the world. You may not view civil rights and civil liberties as being relevant to science, but they are certainly relevant to scientists, without whom there is no science. Protecting current and future scientists from persecution, exclusion, and discrimination is just as important to science as protecting science communication from censorship.

And if your top concern is that explicitly valuing diversity will alienate potential allies, then you need to aspire to a better class of ally. Discounting diversity concerns as irrelevant is selfish and ignorant, but suppressing those concerns to curry favor with bigots is a whole other level of shitty. If our only hope of saving American science relies on the largesse of racists and xenophobes, we are in even more trouble than we thought.

What’s a DMSP To Do?

So what should your your DMSP friend do? The friend who wants to support science, but who is turned off by talk of diversity. Or what should you do, if you’re the unlikely DMSP who has not already rage-closed this post?

Here’s the good news: the March for Science, like pretty much all political actions not organized by totalitarians, will be heterogeneous, idiosyncratic, and a little bit chaotic. Odds are, you won’t really be able to hear the speakers, and their diversity won’t affect you one way or another. The “message” of the march will be only loosely controlled by the organizers.

More than anything, the message of the march will be the sum of the messages of the individual marchers. So, if diversity isn’t your issue, don’t make your sign about diversity. (But if you’re an advocate of evidence-based decision making, you should talk — and listen — to some scientists from underrepresented groups and think about whether maybe it should be one of your issues.)

And if you are, for whatever reason, unable to empathize with the concerns of scientists who don’t look, or act, just like you, maybe think of this: the people who round up minorities for incarceration, deportation, or extermination are generally the same people who round up scientists and other intellectuals for reeducation. The story of fascism does not end with, “but then the white men were given adequate funding and intellectual independence to pursue their research without interference from their otherwise-Orwellian rulers.”

Or maybe you’re just clinging to the hope that you won’t need to get involved in any of this political stuff. The impulse to avoid taking sides is strongly ingrained in many scientists. But not taking sides may soon not be an option. We are moving into the Geddy Lee zone, where if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Choose wisely.

Interdisciplinarity and Productivity

In a blog post at the London School of Economics, University of Arizona Sociology Professor Erin Leahey describes some of her recent work on the costs and benefits of interdisciplinary research for productivity and impact metrics in science. The basic pattern is that interdisciplinary work tends to receive more citations (a common metric used to judge “impact”), but tends to lead to fewer publications (a common metric used to judge “productivity”).

She goes on to describe her efforts with her coauthors to discover the source of this productivity penalty. They found no evidence that interdisciplinary work has a harder time in the review and publication process than traditional disciplinary work. Rather, the cost seems to be in the additional effort required to actually do the interdisciplinary work.

IDR could also stifle productivity because the process of producing interdisciplinary scholarship—learning new concepts, literatures, and techniques, working with a diverse group of collaborators—is challenging. We find that IDR projects do indeed face these hurdles. Scholars who engage in ‘repeat collaborations’ with the same set (or subset) of authors experience a smaller productivity penalty than we see overall, so scholars do become accustomed to working with their coauthors (regardless of field). Survey responses from a small sub-sample of these scholars reveal that interdisciplinary teams have more difficulty generating ideas, and their communication is less clear, more difficult, and lower quality. Last, because our theory suggests that it is challenging to incorporate different ideas into a single paper, multidisciplinary scholars (who publish separate papers on distinct topics) likely do not face production penalties. Indeed, our results show that scholars conducting multidisciplinary research are more productive, not less.

This resonates with my own experience. When working on a project in your own field, it is easy to underestimate just how much you rely on deep experience. Engaging in a meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration requires a lot of remedial education.

Of course, this is not to say that you should shy away from interdisciplinary work. I’d say it is one more reason why hiring and promotion committees should be wary of publication counting.

The study can be found here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0001839216665364

Narcissism in Science

For some reason, I guess narcissism was on people’s minds last Friday. Hannah Devlin had a story in the Guardian about a lecture given by immunologist Bruno Lemaitre about the crisis of narcissism in science.

“Many great scientists are narcissists. It’s a bit sad, but it’s a fact,” he said. “This might surprise an external observer, because scientists are usually perceived as being modest searchers for the truth and working collectively for the advancement of science.”

Lemaitre is not suggesting his profession is unique in having experienced a rise in individualism – politics, film or fashion are probably worse and the trend is global, he says, but it has some worrying implications that are specific to science.

“The influence of narcissism on so many aspects of science calls into question [its] very objectivity,” he said.

The replication crisis in psychology and the life sciences, in which “sexy” papers fail to stand up to closer scrutiny, can be blamed in part on scientists being motivated by a need for attention and authority as well as curiosity about the natural world, he said.

This sounds right to me.

Graeber on the Transformation of Universities

Following up on the previous posts on bullshit and tenure, Research Scholar Ralph Haygood drew my attention to this passage from a 2014 article by David Graeber in the Journal of Ethnographic Theory.

Universities are—or, better said, until recently have been— among the only institutions that survived more or less intact from the High Middle Ages. As a result, universities still reflected an essentially medieval conception of self-organization and self-governance; this was an institution managed by scholars for the pursuit of scholarship, of forms of knowledge that were seen as valuable in their own right. This did not fundamentally change at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when university systems entered into an often somewhat uneasy alliance with centralizing states, providing training for the civil service in exchange for keeping the basic principle of autonomy intact. Obviously this autonomy was compromised in endless ways in practice. But it existed as an ideal. And it was important. It made a difference both in legitimizing the basic idea of a domain of autonomous production driven by values other than those of the market, but in any number of very practical ways as well: for instance, universities were, traditionally, spaces in cities not directly under the jurisdiction of the police.

In this sense what’s happened to universities since the 1970s—very unevenly, but pretty much everywhere—has represented a fundamental break of a kind we have not seen in eight hundred years. As Gayatri Spivak remarked in a talk she gave to Occupy Wall Street, even twenty years ago, when people spoke of “the university,” in the abstract, they were referring to the faculty; nowadays, when they speak of “the university,” they are referring to the administration. Universities are no longer corporations in the medieval sense; they are corporations in the capitalist sense, bureaucratic institutions organized around the pursuit of profit, even though the “profit” in question is, nowadays, slightly more broadly conceived. They are most certainly not institutions dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding as a value in itself. In that sense, I really think it can be said that the university, in the original conception of the term, is dead.

The whole article is fantastic, open access, and available here: http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau4.3.007

Paul Graham on Risk and Discovery

In a short post Paul Graham (computer scientist, venture capitalist, and opinion haver) notes that biographies of famous scientists tend to focus on the subset of their ideas that panned out, neglecting their failures.

Biographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus more on physics than alchemy or theology. The impression we get is that his unerring judgment led him straight to truths no one else had noticed.

[snip]

In Newton’s day the three problems seemed roughly equally promising. No one knew yet what the payoff would be for inventing what we now call physics

[snip]

Newton made three bets. One of them worked. But they were all risky.

You can take this argument even further. There have been a ton of people throughout history working on topics that, at the time, seemed as promising as physics or alchemy. People don’t tend to write biographies about the folks for whom the big breakthrough never comes.

The written history of science tends to be a post-hoc narrative of linear progress imposed on a roiling, chaotic mess of false starts and wrong turns. (As does the history of not-science, for that matter.) The problem is that it leads us to think that we can have progress without risk, success without failure. It leads to our risk-averse approach to funding scientific research, which has proven itself effective at producing huge volumes incremental science.

The fact is, if we want to fund the research that will lead to the next Principia, we’re going to have to become okay with funding a lot more alchemy.

Missouri Looking at Eliminating Tenure

Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin has introduced a bill that would eliminate tenure at public universities in the state. The text of the bill can be found here. This follows on the heels of a similar bill that has been introduced in Iowa.

The Missouri bill would also require universities to provide information about the costs of different degrees and the job prospects for people with those degrees. That bit actually sounds okay to me. Job opportunities and future earnings are not the only things you should consider when making decisions about your education, and I firmly believe that a good education, particularly in some of the less lucrative fields, can enrich your life in ways that don’t translate financially. However, allowing students to make an informed choice seems good, particularly for those students who may not have the family financial resources to fund an education that won’t lead to a decent career.

But what about the tenure bit? That seems, on its face, to be setting the stage for future attacks on academic freedom. Tenure is what allows people to pursue ideas with some degree of insulation from political and financial pressures. The Chronicle for Higher Ed has an interview with the author of the bill, and they ask him point blank:

Q. Are you concerned that eliminating tenure would damage academic freedom, or professors could get fired for political reasons?

A. Like I said, in what area do you have protection of your job for whatever you say, whatever you do, you’re protected? You don’t have that. Their job is to educate, to ensure that students are able to propel themselves into a work force and be successful. That’s their job.

If they are going off the rails and not doing what they are supposed to as a hired staff of educating those kids, should they not be held accountable? Should they have the freedom to do whatever they wish on the taxpayers’ dime and on the students’ dime? That should be more the question: Should they have that freedom to do that? Their focus should be to ensure that we have an educated person to be able to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

That sure sounds like a long way of saying, “Yes, professors could be fired for political reasons.”

If you’re thinking of taking a job in Missouri, you’ve got a brief window. The Chronicle states that the bill would not apply to anyone receiving tenure before January 1, 2018. The text of the bill actually says that it would not apply to anyone hired before January 1, 2018. So, if you started a position there this fall, you’d maybe be okay?

Or maybe it won’t pass! If you live in Missouri, call your state representatives (when you take a break from calling your federal representatives).