Nerd alert: Why humans take no notice of scientists

Scientists continute to agonise about why no-one takes any notice of us. Allowing the public to get hold of science by publishing important findings on line is a magnificent first step. But the wonderful, open-access Public Library of Science may have scored an own goal this week, with the publication of a paper looking at how we should rank scientific publications. The paper starts off okay:

“The rise of electronic publishing [1], preprint archives, blogs, and wikis is raising concerns among publishers, editors, and scientists about the present day relevance of academic journals and traditional peer review [2]. These concerns are especially fuelled by the ability of search engines to automatically identify and sort information [1]. It appears that academic journals can only remain relevant if acceptance of research for publication within a journal allows readers to infer immediate, reliable information on the value of that research.”

But the discussion (which is usually the Plain English section of a paper) veers deep into the Land of Nerd. For example:

Our finding that the distribution of number of citations is log-normal is in agreement with recent generative models of the citation network [21], [22] that predict a log-normal distribution for subsets of papers related by content similarity. Note that this result is not in disagreement with prior claims about the power-law behavior of the citation distribution [23], as the convolution of many log-normal distributions with different means can yield a distribution that can be hard to distinguish from a power law….

Our findings thus suggest the possibility of ranking journals according to q̅(J). To this end, we turn to a heuristic used in information retrieval called the Probability Ranking Principle [24]. This principle dictates that the optimal ranking of a set of journals will be the one that maximizes the probability that given a pair of papers (a,b) from journals A and B, respectively, q(a)>q(b) if A is above B in that ranking. This probability is also known as the multi-class “area under curve” (AUC) statistic [25]–[27]

The role of open access publishing in a changing scientific landscape is an important one, and good bloggers can increase its importance. But if we want to push that role with a wider public, we’re going to have to summarise our findings in some way that everyone can understand.

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This post was published on 27/02/08 in Science.

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