I don’t get the whole peer review worship going on in the general public as well as academia. It’s almost as if people in the whole WANT to keep scientific knowledge locked up accessible to few and practiced by even fewer.
This got me wondering – why do we consider peer reviewed research to be important? I’d actually suggest that peer review is of secondary importance, so I’ll discuss that later (if I remember). So, why do we need a scientific literature? Well, here are my half-formed thoughts.
h3. Why do we need a scientific literature?
Science is accumulated knowledge and understanding. We have to store it somehow, and this is what the scientific literature is. All those experiments, models, observations, speculations, and massively boring introductions are a part of this. If we are to refer to science as a body of knowledge, we need to be able to point to it (metaphorically!).
Does there need to be a “formal” literature?
I think so. With a formal literature, we can refer and cite work in the literature with at least some confidence that it is trustworthy. Without a recognizable formal literature, it is more difficult to separate out science from pseudo-science, popular science accounts1 and most mindless speculation.
Aside from any necessity, I think some form of formal literature is inevitable sociologically: as a group, scientists want to communicate with each other, which can be done more effectively by allowing a jargon that defines obscure concepts with precision. It just makes it easier for scientists to communicate with each other.
What does a formal literature look like?
The formal record has to have a feeling of permanence: we should be able to read it many years later. I guess taxonomy is the epitome of this, where one regularly sees reference to works from the 18th century, by The Scientist Known Only As L. But this holds for other work too: I have non-trivially cited work from the 1940s.
Of course, the work also have to be available to scientists: there is no point in revising the family Pyroglyphidae if you’re going to keep the only copy of your manuscript in a dusty attic.
This permanence and availability implies that a certain amount of organisation is needed. The work needs to be produced in enough copies that it can be distributed widely. It also has to be archived, so that it is can be found and read, which means librarians have to be involved. So, we need an infrastructure to manage it.
How do we decide what should be part of this literature?
Obviously the literature has to fit with the (current) norms of science, which means that someone has to check it. This means that there has to be some level of peer review, even if not the form it is now. One could imagine, for example, a literature that consisted solely of examine theses: even professors would have to write a thesis, and be grilled on it by a colleague. Preferably in public, garnished with salt and herbs. There are, presumably, other ways to filter the literature: none will be perfect and the one we have now has accumulated rather than been designed, so there is no guarantee that it is the best way.
Does this literature have to be inaccessible to non-scientists?
No, and sort-of yes. No, in that it should be available to anyone wanting to read it. At the moment a member of the general public has to do some work to read it: order from the local library, or email the authors to ask for a copy (hint: if you email L., make sure you specify that he should reply during the day), but there is nothing intrinsic in the literature that makes it unavailable.
A lot of the literature is still inaccessable in practice, because of the way it is written. This is a thorny issue. Ideally, it should be understandable by anyone, and not bogged down in jargon. In practice, of course, a lot of the literature is only really comprehendible by other experts. I’m not sure to what extent this should be condemned. Any communication, I think, is exclusionary. This may be as simple as excluding people who don’t understand the language, or there are explicit attacks on a group of readers. But it can also be subtler, perhaps the tone and style will be off-putting for some readers so they decide not to bother following. Or just the subject matter is uninteresting. The intent may not be to exclude, but that is the effect. The scientific literature does this, again not deliberately to exclude, but simply because its target audience is other scientists, so it is written using scientific terminology, and with an assumption of a decent background knowledge: we expect the reader to understand “t=3.43, 9 d.f., p=0.0075″. This is necessary if we are to communicate with each other effectively. Of course, this means that part of learning one’s trade as a scientist is learning to understand the language. This creates a barrier to the general public, and there is an obvious trade-off between communicating to a wider audience or efficiently to a smaller number of specialists.
Should the formal literature only cite other parts of the formal literature?
For me, it is obvious that the formal literature has to be able to cite other literature, whether it be newspapers, blogs, or even pers. comm. For some of this literature, it will be unclear whether it is part of the formal literature or not. I think this is inevitable: I’m not sure our definitions of the formal literature has to be so proscriptive that everything is either in or not in.
Do we need peer review?
I think at some level, yes. If we are to have a literature with rules (whether formal themselves, or just accepted social conventions), then entry into that literature has to be assessed, and this is what peer review does.
This does not necessarily mean that the current system of peer reviewed journals is the best, or that the rules that are used (and abused?) are ideal: that’s a slightly different topic. My point here is that if we have a body of literature that only includes some work, then it needs gatekeepers to make sure that only the right work is included (modulo the usual vaguaries).
Should we privilege the formal literature over other scientific writings?
I think to some extent, yes: I suspect everybody does. The controversy is (I think) over how much. We certainly shouldn’t view everything in the formal literature as being correct: this is not a theological canon. However, we should expect it to have some features that we may automatically expect to see in other writings: it should have be about science, and have been prepared with care and precision. How much more we expect of it depends on the way the scientific culture has evolved: we expect a certain level of caution and neutrality of tone because that it the way it has developed, rather than as a necessity. of course, the purpose of these mores is to give clarity, but it is not obvious to me that this is the only way of achieving it.
From this, I suspect that the commenter’s frustration with the literature is not frustration with the necessity of it, but rather with some of the “optional extras”, due to the way it has evolved. I’m intrigued by the idea that there could be a minimum specification for a formal literature: this would give us some idea about how far we could push innovation. The development of the web changes the publishing landscape, and is leading to innovations in how the formal literature is produced. So can we seem the limits of this innovation? If we can, we might see that we are actually freer to experiment than we think.
1 This is not to say that there is anything wrong with popular science, but inevitable it will skip over some details.