Why I don’t want to be paid for peer review

If you believe the hype, peer review is flawed and corrupt, a broken system threatening to undermine the very foundations of academia…particularly science. From fake reviews to biased ones, one of the main arguments for ditching the system is the myth that reviewers can no longer be trusted to give a fair assessment of another scientist’s paper.

But the problem is not with peer review per se, it’s with our expectations of the system.

Right now, many people think peer review means, “This paper is great and trustworthy!” In reality, it should mean something like, “A few scientists have looked at this paper and didn’t find anything wrong with it, but that doesn’t mean you should take it as gospel. Only time will tell.”

The academic review system as we know it today began around the 1960s. But the process of peer review has been around for centuries, formally and informally, from the Greek Agora to the first Royal Society meetings.

We need peer review because science (and scholarship generally) is a community endeavour.

Sure, there are some cheaters, but most scientists behave ethically. In my short career, most of the reviews I’ve received have been genuinely helpful and I’ve published better papers because of them. Continue reading

Can too much Innovation be a bad thing?

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. – Jill Lepore

Innovation is one of the most overused buzzwords in the business world. Now it’s started turning up in discussions about research and policy, in government science goals and research funding priorities.

But there are two main caveats to the pro-Innovation argument that are often glossed over. The first is the word’s corporate connotations.

Once upon a time, innovation didn’t have a great reputation. It was a punishable crime to the worst degree. It was (ironically) reinvented in the 1930s, grounded in economic theory – it became seen as a source of positive economic change at a time when things weren’t going so well for some national economies. New products would get money flowing again, so the theory went. And a buzzword was born. Benoît Godin has done some excellent research on the evolution of the term and its place in society.

If you’re an ‘innovator’, you’re now a star. You can start trends and make lots of money. And because economic growth is the goal of most countries, innovation is now promoted, not punished. Continue reading

Local food for global thought

I recently visited the town of Bendigo for the first time, a beautiful heritage town in central Victoria, Australia. It was one of the first places gold was discovered in the state, sometime in the 1850s, and much of the town’s original business and residential districts still stand, in all their gold rush glory.

Bendigo CBD from Rosalind Park
Bendigo CBD from the poppet tower lookout in Rosalind Park

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Data, not just for scientists

Early last year I wrote a post on ecology and mathematics that was inspired by an online discussion happening at the time. Although comprehensive advanced maths skills are not essential to being an influential or inspiring ecologist, a good level of mathematical knowledge and understanding of statistical analysis is definitely necessary to create honest science and communicate the importance of your work to others.

But it’s not just ecologists who need mathematical common sense. Anyone who deals with, or is interested in science needs to understand the ambiguity of an average, or the difference between a regression and a correlation. In fact, anyone who cares about the society they live in should be aware how deeply statistics and data now influence the way we live – policies and decisions on anything from what product choices you find in retail stores to how much tax you pay are all based on data.

Why does this matter to us? Well, if those data are a bit dodgy, or haven’t been analysed and presented appropriately, problems arise. And when these kinds of data misrepresentations are used to fuel public opinion or inform government policy, there can be serious impacts on communities, individuals and ecosystems. Continue reading

Ecosystem services: our past, present and future

‘Tis the season for countdowns and annual nominations! Nature and Ecology rarely rate a mention in such frivolities, although some sites have listed insightful round-ups of the top environmental stories of 2013. Most scientific countdowns for 2013, or predictions for 2014, are dominated by gadgetry and technological fancy. So, I hereby doubly-nominate ecosystem services as the “most influential” ecological concept of 2013, and the “most likely to inspire positive change” in 2014! Continue reading

Genetic Monofication

Genetic modification (GM) has been on the radar for quite a few years – another really important issue that has been misrepresented and misinterpreted for too long to maintain any sort of clarity in the general public’s consciousness. The problems with GM (of crops or animals) are numerous and fall into three main categories, ethical, ecological and social…although it’s pretty hard to separate the three when discussing any given GM scenario.

Superweeds, superbugs (of both the insect and viral variety), reduced crop diversity, genetic pollution of non-GM organisms outside the GM field, increased suicides and legal intimidation in farming communities around the world, the infamous ‘revolving door’ between Big Biotech and US government agencies, claims that US embassies strategically planned to ‘penalise’ countries that opposed GM….take your pick and try and pinpoint one single dilemma therein, that is not somehow linked to another.

Yet all too often, the arguments for or against GM focus doggedly on one specific element, without considering how complex the whole subject really is. Continue reading

Home Grown

The other day I heard writer/journalist Steven Poole being interviewed on ABC radio about his new book You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture. I haven’t read the book, but going by this synopsis, I have a feeling I might thoroughly enjoy it!

However, there was one thing I heard Steven talk about that didn’t quite convince me. In a discussion on the rise of slow/local food scenes, he raised the issue that while some people choose this foodie path because of the perceived ethical benefits of eating local, others may argue that in doing so, they are doing an African farmer out of his sale of beans or tomatoes or something…which raises a completely different set of ethical complexities. Continue reading