This seems like a weird way to fix peer review

So, it is common to hear scientists complain about peer review, about how it is “broken,” and there is probably something to that. Over at Backreaction, a blog by theoretical physicists at The Economist, Sabine Hossenfelder argues that the future of peer review, on that will fix its problems, is already here, in the form of what she calls “pre-print peer review.”

The idea is to separate the peer review process from the journals, and attach it to the manuscript. So, if I write a manuscript, I would send it out, for a fee, to a peer review service, which might be run by a publishing company, or by some other entity. According to Hossenfelder, once you got back the review,

This report you could then use together with submission of your paper to a journal, but you could also use it with open access databases. You could even use it in company with your grant proposals if that seems suitable.

Okay, so maybe Hossenfelder has a very different perception of what is wrong with peer review than I do. If your ultimate goal is to submit the manuscript for traditional publication, this seems problematic and, ultimately, unsustainable.

Just think for a moment about the dynamics and market pressures. First of all, if authors have control over the reviews that they purchase, one might expect that they will only attach these reviews to their papers when those reviews are positive. Furthermore, if there are multiple peer-review services, the market pressures would presumably drive them all towards more and more positive reviews. Basically, it sets up a system that will be unraveled by “review inflation.” Thinking as a journal editor or grant reviewer, I suspect that I would quickly become very skeptical of these reviews. And I certainly would not be willing to substitute their recommendations for my own judgment and the opinions of referees I selected.

You can imagine ways to address this problem. For instance, certain peer-review services could build reputations as tough reviewers, so that their “seal of approval” meant more. At this point, however, you’ve merely layered on another set of reputations and rankings that must be kept track of. While this approach is billed as a way to simplify the peer review process and make it cheaper and more efficient, I have difficulty imagining that it would not do just the opposite.

Hossenfelder argues that this new model of peer review is not just desirable, but inevitable

irrespective of what you think about this, it’s going to happen. You just have to extrapolate the present situation: There is a lot of anger among scientists about publishers who charge high subscription fees. And while I know some tenured people who simply don’t bother with journal publication any more and just upload their papers to the arXiv, most scientists need the approval stamp that a journal publication presently provides: it shows that peer review has taken place. The easiest way to break this dependence on journals is to offer peer review by other means. This will make the peer review process more to the point and more effective.

First, in what way does this have anything to do with high subscription fees? Most open access journals have pretty much the same peer-review structure that subscription journals have. There are legitimate problems with the current dominance of scientific publishing by for-profit corporations that use free labor to evaluate publicly funded science, and then turn around and charge people a lot of money to access that science. However, given the expanding number of high-quality open-access journals that use the traditional peer review system, it seems like peer review is orthogonal to this issue.

Second, yes, there are many people who feel that they need the peer-review stamp of approval. The potential benefit here is that an author could pay for peer review and then post their work on the arXiv, thereby circumventing journals altogether, and allowing more junior researchers to pursue this publishing model. It just seems to me that an author-funded system that is so easily gamed is unlikely to provide any real sense of legitimacy to anyone with this specific concern.

Third, when she says that this will make the process “more to the point and more effective,” I honestly can’t imagine what mechanism she has in mind. Given that it is published in The Economist, my suspicion is that this claim is based on some sort of invisible hand argument — that if we just free peer review from its shackles, it will become efficient and beautiful. But maybe that’s unfair on my part.

The post goes on to point to two outfits that are already working to implement this model: Peerage of Science (which is up and running) and Rubriq (which is getting started). Rubriq seems focused on the author-pay model, creating a standard review format that could travel from journal to journal. Peerage provides reviews free to authors, and it paid by journals when they use a review and then publish a paper. I’ve not seen anything that addresses the problem of review inflation.

I don’t know. Maybe there’s something I’m missing here. What do you guys think?

Free Tips for ex-Westboro Baptists Apologizing

So, nobody asked me for this advice, but if I only gave out advice when people asked for it, I would probably burst from all the advice building up inside me.

Today, Anderson Cooper apparently interviewed Libby Phelps Alvarez, granddaughter of Westboro Baptist founder Fred Phelps (via Gawker — I did not watch this). She was raised in the church, but fled / escaped / defected in 2009, and has recently started speaking publicly about her experience. Let me just say that she deserves a lot of respect for that. I mean, she had to reject her whole upbringing and family, which must be hard, even if your family is full of Phelpses.

Here’s the thing that pissed me off though. Her interview included the following statement of regret:

I do regret if I hurt people, because that was never my intention.

This is such the standard, cliche pseudo-apology that it is easy at first glance to overlook what an offensive pile of garbage this is. First of all, “if”? Really? Again, this is super common in these circumstances, but if you’ve spent most of your live holding up “God Hates Fags” signs at the funerals of soldiers and children, you know damn well that you hurt people.

Even worse, though, is the second bit. When some politician or celebrity pseudo-apologizes, saying it was never their intention to hurt anyone, it is often at least plausible that they were being careless, and not intentionally hurtful.

In this case though, hurting people is precisely the intention of every public appearance the Westboro Baptist Church makes. Now, maybe you could make the case that you thought you were practicing tough love, hurting people in a way that would lead them back to the path of righteousness, or some such nonsense. This would be bullshit, of course, but it would at least be plausible according to some sort of twisted logic.

The fact is, you did intend to hurt people. I believe that you wish now that you had not hurt people in the past, and that’s great. I believe that you were a kid, did not know better, and are not fully responsible for your actions, at least up to a point. I believe that you think of yourself as a good person, and I am eager to believe that you have become one. But when I see this sort of pseudo-apology, it makes me a little bit skeptical.

Maybe try something like this: “I know that I hurt a lot of people, and I am sorry. I understand now how hurtful my words and actions were in a way that I did not understand then.”

I feel bad about this. I mean, given where she started from, she has progressed further in the past few years than most people do in their lifetimes. But if you’re going to make amends publicly, a good way to start is by being honest.

Aaron Bady on MOOCs

So, since starting the Ronin Institute, I’ve been giving some thought to how one, as an independent scholar, can participate in teaching. After all, while some independent scholars are happy to be relieved of onerous teaching duties that keep them from their research, most actually like students, and would prefer to be involved in teaching to some extent.

One way to do this is through adjunct teaching at a local college or university. This is not necessarily appealing, though, since it typically pays terribly (for the number of hours you have to put in to do a good job), and it requires you to participate, at least passively, in undermining the traditional employment structure of the university. That is, as an adjunct, you’re basically a scab. (This may or may not be a negative, depending on your position on various things, but it’s not something that really appeals to me personally.)

The other way is through online courses. These are appealing to me in some ways. They are potentially more open, accessible, and democratic. They also feel as if they are more in keeping with the underlying mission of the Ronin Institute. After all, a part of the mission is to build a model of scholarship that is consistent with, well, life. We believe that it should be possible to function as a scholar while at the same time having family or other priorities that control where you live and when you work. Doesn’t that mean that we should be working to extend education to people for whom the constraints of the traditional college system does not work? At least part of me feels like maybe it does.

That leads us to the Next Big Thing™: the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). This seems like an obvious path for the independent scholar. However, I’ve been hesitant about that path because I’m not yet convinced that anyone has yet figured out how to really make this work. I mean sure, you can record lectures, and you can assign problem sets, and you can even organize online video-chat discussions. But based on my personal experiences with online communications of various sorts, I have this suspicion that these courses, as they currently exist, are missing some critical element. Something that is hard to articulate, but is actually central to a genuine educational experience.

Anyway, that’s the context in which I read Aaron Bady’s new piece in The New Inquiry, where he articulates a number of things that I think are absolutely true, but which had previously existed in my own consciousness in a nebulous, impressionistic form. Go read the whole piece, but among the points he argues are:

  1. MOOCs are being offered as a solution to high student-teacher ratios. This is ironic, since they lead to massive increases in the student-teacher ratio (and a decrease in teacher accessibility).
  2. In California, at least, MOOCs are being used to privatize education, under the veneer of making education “more accessible.” He points out that for-pay MOOCs are not really “Open” in the way that implied by the appropriation of the term.
  3. Good teaching involves attention and response to various paralinguistic cues from the students. It is not inconceivable that there could be online tools to facilitate this, but they certainly do not exist today. And certainly not when the primary product is a pre-recorded lecture.
  4. MOOCs will work best (perhaps only) for self-directed learners, who do not require the pressure and feedback provided by the in-person classroom setting. However, for those people, it is not clear that your typical MOOC provides added value over, say, access to Wikipedia.
  5. Even for the self-directed, a part of the college experience is learning how to interact and exchange ideas with others — debating and disagreeing in a respectful way: “If we take a process of socialization and make it a process of anti-socialization—if to be “at” college, you must be alone in front of a computer—we take the dynamic that creates the legendary poisonous atmosphere of “the comment thread” and use it to create adults.”
Anyway, I’d love to know what others think, especially if you’ve ever taught online classes.

Here’s your White History Month(s), Asshole

So, it’s Black History Month again, which means that it’s time for whiny racists to renew their annual cry of, “Why isn’t there a White History Month? Isn’t that reverse racism, which is really just racism? You know, whites are actually this country’s second class citizens.” And so on.

There are two responses that you normally hear, both of which I am sympathetic to. The snarky one is that every other month is basically white history month. The earnest one is that we need a black history month because the history and contributions of African Americans are still underrepresented in the public consciousness when compared with the canonical history of the Washingtons and Roosevelts.

But there is another, less snarky version of the first answer, which is that there are, in fact, numerous recognized history and heritage months celebrating the history and contributions of people who are by and large subsets of “white.”

So, here, for future reference, are your White History Months, (as per this Awareness Month Calendar from Nellis Air Force Base):

  • March: Irish-American Heritage Month
  • March: Greek-American Heritage Month
  • April: Arab-American Heritage Month
  • April: Tartan (Scottish-American) Heritage Month
  • May: Jewish-American Heritage Month
  • July: French-American Heritage Month
  • September 15 – October 15: German-American Heritage Month
  • October: Italian American Heritage Month
Other, non-Black Heritage Months:
  • May: Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
  • June: Caribbean-American Heritage Month
  • November: Native-American Heritage Month
Hispanic Heritage month is also September 15 – October 15. From a legal perspective, “Hispanic” is an ethnic identity that is orthogonal to race, so that you can be “White Hispanic” or “Black Hispanic” when you’re filling out your equal opportunity questionnaire. So, Hispanic Heritage Month might count as a sort of partial White History Month. I’ve left it out of the list, though, since I suspect that most people who are complaining about the lack of a White History Month don’t mean to include Hispanics when they say “White.” Similarly, Women’s History Month (March).
In addition, you can find, at the state and local level, History Months and Weeks for Russians, Swedes, Dutch, Czechs, and on and on.
For the White Survivalists out there, there’s even a National Preparedness Month (September).
Also, Movember.

The Week in Star Wars: Silent Film and Traceroute Scroll

So, here are a couple of items for you Star Wars fans out there.

First, here’s the “I am your father” scene from Empire, rendered as a silent film:

(via @brainpicker)

Second, you should open a terminal window on your computer right now and type in the following command:


It might take some time, since a lot of people are doing this right now, but the wait is worth it. (Assuming you’re a huge dork.)

If you don’t know how to open a terminal window, consult your friend with the thickest neck beard. They should be able to help you.

Today’s awesome masculism hashtag

So, as soon as you are back home from stocking up on marshmallow fluff and shuriken for the latest snowpocalypse, you need to go to twitter and check out this hashtag: #INeedMasculismBecause

Here’s an uncurated screengrab from right now. The awesomeness in just this snippet gives you some indication of the high-quality snark being generated right now:

There’s also a fair bit of amusement to be had in the “Men’s Rights” folks who stumble on the hashtag non-ironically.

Update: It sort of looks to me like this was maybe started non-ironically by the men’s rights folks, and has been coopted by snark. It’s sort of like meta-trolling.

Risk it ALL!

So, I posted this over on the Ronin Blog. Reposted here for your enjoyment.

Hey, here’s a cool video. It’s a sort of advice column from designer James Victore. The advice is obviously framed in a way that is specific to design (and probably art /achitecture as well), but it’s amazing how much of it carries over to, well, everything. It’s something that all you scholars out there should listen to.

Also, this guy’s face is like a crossbow, because just look at his facial hair, and then listen to those truth bolts shooting out of his mouth!

Now get out there!


David Bratton, Olympian

So, as I wrote previously, I’ve set up my browser so that it goes to a random Wikipedia page every time I open a new window. Here is the first entry I came upon this morning, in its entirety:

David H. Bratton (October, 1869 – December 3, 1904) was an American water polo player who competed in the 1904 Summer Olympics.

He was born in New York City. In the 1904 Olympics he won a gold medal as a member of New York Athletic Club team. The same year, he died of a typhoid fever.