The Real World: Astronomers’ Edition April 30, 2009Posted by Sarah in politics, science.
Tags: astronomy, ethics, politics, publishing
Compared with other branches of science, you could think there’s not much at stake in real world terms in astronomy research. The amounts of money involved are relatively small**, both in terms of investment and potential gain. Also, galaxies (fortunately!) don’t take us to court if we get their redshifts wrong, and young stars don’t die horrible deaths if they don’t get their shots. Both the community itself and the public see astronomers as this beautiful global brotherhood (a few sisters even these days) working together to unlock the secrets of the Universe. Unfortunately the days where our competition is purely intellectual are long gone, and the modern way of astronomy, as with most fields in science, is a bloody fight for resources, regconition and cash. And the battle grounds are the journals that publish our work.
At the core of science research lies the publishing process: we communicate our work to the rest of the community through articles in journals. These articles are reviewed “anonymously” by 2 or 3 peers who are knowledgeable about the subject but weren’t involved in the work itself. Our merit as scientists is judged by what we publish and how often others cite our papers. Once we’ve got publications under our belt that demonstrate our expertise and our standing in the community, we can go on to apply for our own funding and start up new projects.
So it’s clear that authoring savvy is key to being a successful researcher. Yet young researchers frequently have to find their own way through this treacherous forest, littered with abandoned PhDs and unemployed postdocs. In the world of science, it’s publish or pack your bags.
Here’s the thing: astronomers are normal people. Yes, we’re clever, educated, well-travelled, whatever. But on the whole, we’re no nicer than your average electrician or supermarket cashier. We can be petty, selfish, we bear grudges, we have pet loves and pet hates. A strong competitive streak is almost implicit. Combine that with the fact that there aren’t enough jobs and funds for all of us, and it’s easy to see how things might get messy.
I took this poll a couple of weeks ago (full results coming up!) to see what you readers consider to be “misconduct” in research. Every one of the scenarios I listed was considered bad behaviour by at least a few of you. I didn’t make those things up, they all happen to some extent and remain largely unpunished. Who should be handing out the sanctions anyway? The whole system of using publications as indicators of scientific output essentially rewards “creative publishing”: why publish one excellent comprehensive paper if you can squeeze two mediocre ones out of the same
work? Why remove your name from a paper if you didn’t contribute, but the other authors don’t protest? Maybe you’ll return the favour one day. Is there a mistake in the work? Great, maybe you can write a paper to correct it later!
The peer review process for papers and grant proposals offers some quality control but is itself flawed: in a subject as small as astronomy it’s virtually impossible to find two reviewers who are experts in the field yet have no vested interest in or pre-existing opinions about the work. This could be remedied by double-blind refereeing, although I’d argue that experienced researchers know each other’s methods and style well enough to deduce the authors’ identities.
Using indicators of a scientist’s impact rather than bulk productivity through indicators such as the h-index helps bring the focus back to quality over quantity. But the h-index can lie: a logical way to rack up citations is by having a mistake in your paper, that others will rush to point out.
While ethics issues in astronomy may seem trivial to those working in other subjects, we need to do more to promote good practice in research. The system of assessing scientific output should actually promote scientific rigour. This won’t suddenly create jobs for everyone who wants one. But it will help secure jobs for the researchers who most deserve them. Too many talented scientists don’t make the cut in research because they didn’t assert themselves early on. We teach students to scrutinise every photon, why not teach them to question their peers? Young astronomers should be told about the lack of jobs and puppies and rainbows, and the importance of sticking up for themselves. They’ll still have a dark forest to navigate, but with a knapsack of knowledge to help them through.
**Dear politicians: that doesn’t mean we won’t fight if you take our money away!