The perils of 'bite-size' science

Short, fast, and frequent: Those 21st-century demands on publication have radically changed the news, politics, and culture—for the worse, many say. Now an article in January's Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, aims a critique at a similar trend in psychological research. The authors, psychologists Marco Bertamini of the University of Liverpool and Marcus Munafò of the University of Bristol, call it "bite-size science"—papers based on one or a few studies and small samples.

"We're not against concision," says Bertamini. "But there are real risks in this trend toward shorter papers. The main risk is the increased rates of false alarms that are likely to be associated with papers based on less data."

The article dispatches several claimed advantages of shorter papers. Proponents say they're easier to read. Perhaps, say the authors, but more articles mean more to keep up with, more reviewing and editing—not less work. Proponents laud the increased influence authors gain from more citations. Precisely, say the two—but two short papers do not equal twice the scientific value of a longer one. Indeed, they might add up to less.

The reason: The smaller the experimental sample the greater the statistical deviations—that is, the greater the inaccuracy of the findings. The results are sometimes flukes, with a bias toward false positives—errors a wider ranging study with multiple experiments, plus replication in the same and in other labs, could correct. Strict word limits, moreover, mean cutting the details about previous research. The new results sound not only surprising but also novel. Write the authors: "A bit of ignorance helps in discovering 'new' things."

These surprising, "novel" results are exactly what editors find exciting and newsworthy and what even the best journals seek to publish, say the authors. The mainstream media pick up the "hot" stories. And the wrong results proliferate.

"Scientists are skeptics by training," says Bertamini. But the trend toward bite-size science leaves no time or space for that crucial caution. And that, argue the authors, is antithetical to good science.


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Dec 28, 2011
Long dull repeating unrevealing articles are useless too. State the novelties concise with more in-dept links.

Dec 28, 2011
But there are real risks in this trend toward shorter papers.
M. Faraday: "Work, finish, publish"...

The scientists are often honored per particle, so they realized fast, the issuing of higher number of articles by fragmentation of their results helps them to fill the grant quotas more easily. It's indeed sort of cheating the grant system and the publics as whole.

Dec 28, 2011
Strict word limits, moreover, mean cutting the details about previous research. The new results sound not only surprising but also novel. Write the authors: "A bit of ignorance helps in discovering 'new' things."

This is something one can see even on this website. Every week there are a couple of articles of "new" findings and results that were widely published 30 years ago. Checking out previous research is not what these guys do. Heck, you might even find there is some, and then you'd have to figure out something other to research, or you'd need to develop the old stuff further.

Today's motto almost everywhere, unfortunately: Why do things properly when you can get away with less.

Dec 28, 2011
This is something one can see even on this website. Every week there are a couple of articles of "new" findings and results that were widely published 30 years ago.

Sadly I am forced to agree. Though it isn't as bad as you make it sound.

Dec 28, 2011
Checking out previous research is not what these guys do.
It's not the problem of these guys, but the rest of the scientific community and society, which tolerates unoriginal research. It's just consequence of contemporary over-employment in science. At the case of informational explosion we should qualify every lack of review as an attempt for fraud.
Though it isn't as bad as you make it sound.
It's estimated, whole 60 percent of research is duplicated. In addition, it's estimated, nearly 40 percent of research time is spent with seeking of money for another grants. The conclusion is, we could fire 1-0.4x0.6 = 76 percent of scientists immediately and the volume of new informations can be still preserved.

Dec 28, 2011
I can understand the need for concise dissemination of information due to space constraints in a publication, but the level of complete and accurate information may be compromised due to possible omission of crucial descriptive wording. That is in addition to instances of poor spelling and grammar, which are clear indications of a possible lack of interest in accurate reporting. In days gone by, this trend may have been akin to "yellow journalism".
'A bit of ignorance' begets more ignorance if one is forced to read that which promotes even more ignorance. One should not have to scramble through back issues of any research when current issues should promote the opposite of ignorance.

Dec 28, 2011
The reason: The smaller the experimental sample the greater the statistical deviationsthat is, the greater the inaccuracy of the findings. The results are sometimes flukes, with a bias toward false positives

If the peer review process is doing its job, then this type of 'abbreviated' research simply should not be published until the requisite level of statistical significance is obtained.

Dec 28, 2011
If the peer review process is doing its job
The problem is, peer-review in science is in crisis by now. I do perceive it as a structural problem of information explosion. Due the high specialization the peer-review cannot be anonymous anymore, which leads into formation of hidden coalitions and/or blind negativism at the case of competition. Because the mainstream science is payed from research from public money, it definitely needs the feedback to avoid open frauds. I just believe, this feedback must be more opened and public too. It will enable not only to check submitters, but their reviewers too. It would require, all informations must be published at preprint servers first to remove the priority problems. It would lead into lost of influence of mainstream journals, because most of information will be possible to find outside of them. Apparently, just the existence of these journals which guarantee the peer-review process is the largest brake of the improvement of peer-review

Dec 28, 2011
The problem is, peer-review in science is in crisis by now.

Why? I see no evidence of it - what's yours? Look at the pains that the neutrino team went to recently to seek corroboration for their FTL result.

Due the high specialization the peer-review cannot be anonymous anymore

The process isn't perfect, but it does a pretty good job overall. We also have the open peer review system now (eg, adopted by Nature) to address some concerns. Also peer reviews can be appealed if deemed to be unjust.

Because the mainstream science...

What is non-mainstream science? Crank science (an oxymoron)?

I just believe, this feedback must be more opened and public too

All research papers are publicly available to anyone.

In conclusion, while the system isn't perfect, it's far from being in crisis. Steps are being taken to make it even better through open review while avenues of appeal are already in place.

Dec 28, 2011
Why? I see no evidence of it - what's yours?
http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/43691
http://www.ncbi.n...1114539/
http://neuroskept...ork.html
What is non-mainstream science?
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228440.200-outsider-physicists-and-the-ohmygod-particle.html
All research papers are publicly available to anyone.
??? For example, most of Nature/Science articles are behind paywall, not to say about their peer-reviews.

Dec 28, 2011
For those not familiar with the jaded history of peer review, you might want to Google "Sokal affair", a famous hoax perpetrated on academia to expose peer review and its flaws. That was a non-sense paper that passed peer review. There are many such papers. In addition, there are works/papers that were rejected by peer review that ended up winning the Nobel Prize (Krebs Cycle-1937 for one). There were also Nobel Prize winners that did not go through the peer review process, such as Abdus Salam, "Weak and electromagnetic interactions" (1968), and Watson and Crick, 1951, a paper on DNA in Nature. http://drexel-coa...ing.html
The insidiousness of peer review is in point, it works well for average articles. For utterly wrong or ground-breaking
findings (research of boundary phenomena) it's reliability decreases fast. This is the case of cold fusion dismissal or Hendrik Schon fraud. http://en.wikiped..._scandal

Dec 28, 2011
One of the links was written before the open review system was introduced, but regardless, as I said, the system isn't perfect, but it's the best we've got and improvements are being made. This view is supported by one of your links where they say:

"Does this mean that peer review is a bad thing? Maybe it's like the police. The police are there to prevent and punish crime. They don't always succeed: crime happens. But only a fool would argue that, because the police fail to prevent some crimes, we ought to abolish them. The fact that we have police, even imperfect ones, acts a deterrent."

I'd like to know what you propose as an alternative.

For example, most of Nature/Science articles are behind paywall

Do you pay for your milk? The point is, the material is available if you want it and a lot of it is freely available.

Dec 28, 2011
For utterly wrong or ground-breaking
findings (research of boundary phenomena) it's reliability decreases fast. This is the case of cold fusion dismissal

No. For extraordinary claims, increased scrutiny is brought to bear, as it should. When repeated tests over years don't support the claims, then the claim loses credibility. Case in point - cold fusion. (I'm not going to get into another pointless discussion on cold fusion BTW).

Dec 28, 2011
The scientists are often honored per particle,

a) You only get 'points' for publishing in peer reviewed journals (or publishing a book in some cases)
b) peer reviewers know the subject. They know if you try to pass of a marginal improvement as a new publication and that will more likely than not lead to a rejection of the paper (actually you always have to sign a affadavit that you haven't published the same paper/data before)

I just believe, this feedback must be more opened and public too

This one you have to take to the publishers of conference proceedings and journals (Elsevier, Springer, etc. ). It's they who get ownership of the copyrights and it is they who want (and get) the money if you want to see the article. The author never sees a cent of that.

As for public feedback: Do you let every hairsylist give you feedback when your car is broken? Should they? Would (should) anyone care if they did?

Dec 28, 2011
The point is, the material is available if you want it and a lot of it is freely available.
Technically speaking, even the Microsoft company is available, if you offer enough money. But I don't think, it's really accessible for common people.
I'd like to know what you propose as an alternative.
I already said it, web based public peer review based on preprint archive, i.e. not organized with mainstream journal. Time and price of research should be noted there too (at the case of research funded from mandatory fees). Everything should be transparent and unified for all participants.
Should they? Would (should) anyone care if they did?
It's not important, but they should have such an option.

Dec 28, 2011
I'm not going to get into another pointless discussion on cold fusion BTW
OK, would you admit the utter flagrant failure of peer-review system, when it turns out, the cold fusion works at the megawatt scale, as A.Rossi is claiming?

Dec 29, 2011
web based public peer review based on preprint archive, i.e. not organized with mainstream journal.

Oh terrific, so then we'll have hairstylists (credit: AP) commenting on web about neutrino physics! Look at this place, it's infested by cranks and yet you somehow think that would lead to a better system?

Technically speaking, even the Microsoft company is available, if you offer enough money. But I don't think, it's really accessible for common people.

That's ridiculous hyperbole.

OK, would you admit the utter flagrant failure of peer-review system, when it turns out, the cold fusion works at the megawatt scale, as A.Rossi is claiming?

No, I would not. The system has worked perfectly given his secretive, obstructionist and obfuscatory tactics. He need to put up or shat up so that the peer review process can actually begin!

Dec 29, 2011
It's not important, but they should have such an option.

When I did my research I honestly didn't care if anyone outside the peer review system read it or commented on it No. I probably wouldn't have read any layman take on it. Research is not like school stuff - where anyone can have an at least moderatley informed opinion with a bit of a google. We're talking stuff you do years of research on. No self-styled hack will be able to judge that (not even the professor will, because he's usually not that deeply into the subject, even though his name is on the paper).

Whenever someone came along and wanted an electronic copy I'd send them one (though actually I should not have done that. As explained: the article becomes property of the publisher when you publish). If you're interested contact the researchers directly. Likely as not they will answer
(I had a very interesting email exchange with Podkletnov on his anti-gravity publications once because I thought it was fascinating)

Dec 29, 2011
Look at this place, it's infested by cranks and yet you somehow think that would lead to a better system?

More importantly: what would the point of such feedback be?

Should every layman be able to prevent a publication because they don't agree? Should every highschool dropout be able to demand a version that he can understand? (In peer review the reviewers can demand that certain points be clarified, reworked or adressed before resubmission)

Or is it some feedback system where the feedback basically is worthless because it has no effect at all?

How is this better than peer review in...well..ANY way?

Dec 29, 2011
In peer review the reviewers can demand that certain points be clarified, reworked or addressed before resubmission
The referee could attach the comments in hypertext form to the original publication. Anyway, the anonymous part of peer-review could remain at place - I just cannot imagine, who will pay it, if printed journals will disappear in this system.

Dec 29, 2011
How is this better than peer review in...well..ANY way?
We would avoid the most flagrant examples, when fundamental research is not published just because the reviewer feels threaten with it. Actually most of fundamental articles are published in preprint form only already - they're just reviewed outside of preprint server at blogs, which is not ideal solution with respect to organization of such information. The existing publishing system converges into my proposal gradually.

Dec 29, 2011
We would avoid the most flagrant examples, when fundamental research is not published just because the reviewer feels threaten with it.

If that were a problem I'd agree. But since this always goes out to multiple reviewers (anonymously) this doesn't happen.

Let me give you an insight how this works:

The one who makes the final print/don't print decision is not a specialist in subject in question (only in the general area). E.g. The Journal of Astrophysics will likely have an astrophysicist as the guy who decides if the review process has been successfully fulfilled - but he's probably not an expert on a specific aspect of the geology of Mars if that happens to be the subject of that particular paper.

The reviewers just give a suggestion whether the paper should be included. They must submit reasons for their recommendation (if it happens to be "paper has minor/major flaws" or similar). These reasons are sent to the author.

[cont.]

Dec 29, 2011
The reviewers don't know each other (only the final decider guy has a list of who they are for each paper). So if any one of them was pushing an agenda then that would show up in the vastly different reasons given (reviews are also anonymous, BTW. They don't see each other's input).

The author has the chance to revise the paper to adress the issues and resubmit. This can go on over several rounds.
The author ALSO has the option of NOT adressing any particular issue by a reviewer if he feels it is not relevant. He can then make a statement to the effect why he didn't adress it (e.g. because it's future work, reviewer misunderstood stuff, not relevant, etc. ). But if you do that (as I have once in the past because a reviewer misunderstood a passage - which I didn't rework but just reworded for clarity) that reasoning better be airtight.

No reviewer can STOP a paper because of an agenda.

Dec 29, 2011
But since this always goes out to multiple reviewers (anonymously) this doesn't happen.

It always happen, when these reviewers share the same opinion. In such case the probability of dismissal multiplies in the same way, like the probability of acceptation of paper a the case of positive opinion. The multiple referee are just doing the acceptance curve more sharp.

Dec 29, 2011
It always happen, when these reviewers share the same opinion.

That would mean that they ALL would have to give the same REASONS for not having the paper included. This only happens if the issue is actually a REAL issue (e.g. if the math is faulty, the statistics are misapplied, the data doesn't support the conclusions, the work was declared original when prior work by other researchers shows that it's not, etc. )

Reviewers can't just say "I don't like it" or "it doesn't fit with current scientific doctrine" or "paper XY has different data and argues otherwise". That's not enough as classifying a paper to have major (or even minor) faults. They have to be VERY specific as to why they think it should be reworked.

Reviewers with an agenda would stand out like a sore thumb because their reasoning would have to be vague if the paper were correct.

Dec 29, 2011
This only happens if the issue is actually a REAL issue
For example, when some article would mention the aether model and/or violation of constant speed of light, it's highly probable it will be considered as a real issue with all reviewers, because this simply what the intersubjective religion in mainstream physics is. In the same way the cold fusion publications didn't pass the peer review, because physicists simply don't believe in it as a single man.

On the other hand, when physicists believe in some concept (like the Higgs boson or gravitational waves), than the peer-review becomes suddenly tolerant up to level, which borders on benevolence, as Einstein's case demonstrated clearly.

http://dafix.uark...eree.pdf

So, whereas I do believe, the scientific method is based on correct principles, the limits of its practical realization (peer-review) are very superfluous up to level, which enable flagrant violation of it.

Dec 29, 2011
The article titled, "MIT and Cold Fusion: A Special Report" looks at how the replication performed by the MIT did produce positive results, how data from the experiment was altered by unknown individuals at least twice, and how the hot fusion scientists in charge of such tests were too biased to conduct proper research.

http://www.infini...port.pdf

Dec 29, 2011
For example, when some article would mention the aether model and/or violation of constant speed of light

If it's simply mentioning them as basis for other things without any basis for this underlying model - then that is certainly a problematic thing.

It's like a paper that starts off with "If we assume magic is real then we can deduce..."
Even if that deduction is totally logical from that point on it's probably not going to pass peer review (and it shouldn't)

how data from the experiment was altered by unknown individuals at least twice

Reviewers are never part of the same group (or same instuitution), So this is a non-argument here.

Dec 29, 2011
We would avoid the most flagrant examples, when fundamental research is not published just because the reviewer feels threaten with it.

How would a public review system prevent that? Scientists aren't threatened by each other. I don't understand this fixation you have. I have never seen this anywhere. Scientists LOVE it when others do good (or even revolutionary) work. That's why we became scientists!
They love it it even more when someone does work in their field of specialty - it gives you someone to exchange ideas with.
It's pretty terrible when you're the only one working on a given subject. The creativity of people will virtually guarantee that such work will always be from slightly different angles. So both will have valid reasons to publish.

Keeping work alive that isn't valid is not a viable long term (or even short term) strategy for a scientist.

Dec 30, 2011
Scientists aren't threatened by each other..
Only theoretically, as in their community both long term threats, both short term threats exists. The various groups guarding their results, until they're not published, as they would lose their priority. And the research of one group could make the research of another groups useless. This threat is the more pronounced, the lower financial funding is.
Scientists LOVE it when others do good (or even revolutionary) work.
LOL, I should know about it a bit more than the others. Exactly the opposite is the true. After all, this is why the cold fusion results are ignored for decades.
Keeping work alive that isn't valid is not a viable long term (or even short term) strategy for a scientist.
How old you actually are? Do you know, how long the string theory is developed without single testable prediction? Over forty years. Your separation from reality would be cute, if it wouldn't be dangerous.

Dec 30, 2011
The various groups guarding their results, until they're not published, as they would lose their priority.

a) You have no idea who does that actual science (hint: it's not the top dogs in a institution)
b) You have no idea who decides when to publish what (hint: it's not the top dogs in an institution). If losing priority were ANY factor in this - and it never is - then publishing as soon as possible were the best way to do it.
After all, this is why the cold fusion results are ignored for decades.

Erm. No. It's 'ignored' because it's bad science.
Do you know, how long the string theory is developed without single testable prediction

The scientists who work on that face the very real chance that their work will be resigned to the dustbin of history. As so many THEORETICAL frameworks have. But it DOES attempt something that we know must be true: Reconcile relativity with quantum physics.

Dec 30, 2011
LOL, I should know about it a bit more than the others.

Yeah. Like you ever did any scientific work in your life. That's a laugh.

You know NOTHING about science or the scientific community. You only know about conspiracy theories and blog entries. That's not science.

Jan 01, 2012
Callippo was probably too dumb to get into college, and he's just bitter now. His conspiracy crap demonstrates that he has no idea how the scientific process works.

Jan 01, 2012
LOL, it's not about conspiracy. If you think so, then you didn't understand my explanation at all. Only formally thinking people will see a conspiracy and secret organizations in everything, because they cannot imagine, how the indeterministic human stupidity is working.

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