Science

Science Is Imperfect. We Should Admit That.

One prominent research journal just updated its description to explain why it won’t be perfect—and that’s great.

The problem is that, to many, publication in PNAS is a signal of quality.

PNAS

For a while I’ve been getting annoyed by the junk science papers—for example, here, here, and here—that have been published by a journal called the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the editorship of Susan T. Fiske. If PNAS just published those articles and nobody listened, it would be fine. The problem is that, to many in the outside world, publication in PNAS is a signal of quality, and organs such as NPR will report PNAS articles without appropriate skepticism. In fact, I’ve taken to adding an extra p to the name, for prestigious because so many news outlets seem to think the journal is so prestigious.

One thing that bugged me about (P)PNAS was this self-description on its website:

Screenshot

I’m particularly irritated by the assertion that “PNAS publishes only the highest quality scientific research.” No journal is perfect; it’s no slam on PNAS to say that they publish some low-quality papers. But that statement seems weird in that it puts the National Academy of Sciences in the position of defending some extremely bad papers that the journal has happened to mistakenly publish.

So I contacted someone at the National Academy of Sciences, asking if it could do something about that false statement on its website.

And … it was fixed. Here’s the new version:

Screenshot

It strives to publish only the highest quality scientific research. That’s exactly right, and it helps laypeople understand the world of scientific publication and peer review better. See, PNAS is a journal that publishes lots of excellent papers. But it publishes some duds, because that’s unavoidable if you publish 3,000 papers a year. Editors are busy, peer reviewers are unpaid and don’t always know what they’re doing, and it can be hard for everyone involved to keep up with the latest scientific developments. Plus, PNAS sometimes publishes papers that are outside its areas of core competence. (PNAS publishing on baseball makes about as much sense as Bill James writing on physics.) But, even here, I can see the virtue of stepping out on occasion, living on the edge. Little is lost by such experiments, and there’s always the potential for unexpected connections.

The downside comes when the general public misunderstands this process. Which is why I’m glad the editors of PNAS fixed it. Striving to publish only the highest quality scientific research is an excellent aim, and I’m glad the National Academy of Sciences is being clear that this is the goal.