In science, no work is completed until it has been picked to pieces

Dangerous dithering.

What does a scientist have to do to convince you? The answer used to be “wait until his critics die” – hence the physicist Max Planck’s assertion that science advances one funeral at a time.

But sometimes even that is not enough. Late last month, the smell researcher Luca Turin published striking new evidence supporting an idea first put forward by Sir Malcolm Dyson in 1938. Dyson presented his “vibrational” theory of how our sense of smell works to universal apathy. Three generations later, scientists are still saying “meh”.

That year, 1938, was also when it was first argued that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. The idea came from the steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar; the broad response was “implausible”. Today, in 2013, scientists have shifted: they generally agree that Callendar was right. Yet there remains a dangerous level of disagreement about the detail.

At least Turin’s scientific peers have presented him with a clear path to follow. Dyson’s idea was that when a molecule gets up our nose, its characteristic smell is created by the way the bonds within that molecule vibrate. In a clever piece of experimental work, Turin has shown that human beings can distinguish between two molecules that differ only in the way they vibrate. The two molecules tested were both cyclopentadecanone, but while one contained normal hydrogen atoms the other contained “deuterated” hydrogen, which has an added neutron in its atomic nucleus. The additional particle creates a difference in the way the molecules vibrate. And that is why, according to Turin, they smell different to us.

The experiment punches a hole in the accepted theory of smell, which says that smell experiences are triggered by differently shaped molecules fitting different receptors in the nose. This “lock and key” idea can’t explain why two identically shaped molecules smell different. But Turin’s critics said last month that before they will even consider accepting his theory, they want him to show exactly what goes on in human smell receptors.

They are right to make such demands. This is science, where no work is finished until it has been picked to pieces. But that is exactly why it has been so easy to do so little about climate change since 1938. Later this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will make some highly equivocal, backtracking announcements. In a report due for release in December, the IPCC will concede that we can’t be sure tropical cyclones will become more frequent, or that droughts will get worse. Worries that the Gulf Stream will collapse, tentatively raised in the 2007 IPCC report, are allayed: such an event is “unlikely” to occur in the foreseeable future.

Concern over details can have an unhelpful effect, masking the big picture on climate change – the one that Nicholas Stern, who wrote the UK government’s 2006 review on the science, said at Davos last month is “far, far worse” than we were led to believe originally. Until that, rather than the detail, becomes the focus, we can continue to dither over whether to do anything, let alone deciding what course we might take.

It does not matter a great deal that no one is willing to risk his career by backing Luca Turin – but to wait for absolute certainty over the details of climate change before we do anything about it will spell life or death for many. If science continues to advance one funeral at a time, its acceleration is assured; and there will be no shortage of funerals in a world that’s 4° warmer.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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“Predatory” journals are distorting the brave new world of open science

An outbreak of new journals in recent years threatens the potential benefits of open-access science

The modern, digital era of peer-reviewed science is changing the way high-quality research is being released. As soon as a study has been validated for accuracy, it’s almost immediately published online and covered by a dozen websites before the end of the working day. It can create a sense of collaboration, with more people finding ways to tackle serious challenges such as cancer and climate change. Or it can increase global competitiveness, with discoveries leading to new products and services.

However, there’s been a huge proliferation in recent years of new, obscure open-access journals, potentially hindering quality and verification. A new study published in BMC Medicine is claiming that such “predatory” journals are drastically altering the landscape for the worse, by “preying” on both readers and potential scientists throughout the process. (Incidentally, we can trust BMC Medicine on this. It’s one of many periodicals from BioMed Central, a well-respected subsidiary of the science publishing giant Springer Nature.)

The business model for journal publishing organisations varies. Most are commercial businesses, charging authors a fee to have their papers scrutinised and published, while also charging other individual readers or groups, such as universities, for access. Non-profit groups, like PLOS, only charge authors who have submitted their manuscripts, eventually releasing papers into the public after a round of fact-checking.

This can sometimes become a long, arduous process, given that a journal’s reputation is at stake, especially when publishing high-profile research or claims. We don’t have to look too far back to remember the implosion at the Lancet, with Andrew Wakefield’s unsubstantiated claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Some people (especially friends across the pond) still believe this nonsense. With this in mind, you can see how and why readers can become the ultimate target for misleading declarations in journals.

But it’s understandable why there’s an enormous weight behind having research published. It allows an academic to improve their future job prospects and salary levels, all while giving their work the approval they seek. After all, an academic’s list of published work is an extension of their CV. Just look at any university lecturer’s online profile and you’ll see a string of links to their published research on the same page.

This pressure to publish as much work as possible has led to an explosion in the number of articles by open-access publishers who carry between 10-99 different journals. Only four years ago, the market share was dominated by larger, long-established institutions who each carried 100 or more different journals, covering a range of scientific topics. The study also found “predatory” journals have increased the number of open-access articles from 53,000 in 2010 to approximately 420,000 from 8,000 various journals in 2014.

What may also be contributing to the pressure of becoming a well-cited author is the article processing charge (APC) amounts by “predatory” journals. Unsurprisingly, scientists want to save as much money as possible, with the average cost of publication in these publications approximately $178. This is a far cry from the many hundreds of dollars charged by widely-known and respected journals. For example, Scientific Reports, a journal offered by the powerful Nature Publishing Group, charges $1,495 to process a manuscript, excluding taxes. By having such low APCs, “predatory” publishers can make well-intentioned researchers victims just like their readers, at the same time as making money from them.

Where exactly are these new journals coming from? Investigators Professor Bo-Christer Björk and Cenyu Shen of Helsinki’s Hanken School of Economics note that 27 per cent of “predatory” publishers are based in India, 17.5 per cent in North America and 26.8 per cent in locations impossible to determine. It’s also telling that many of these journals often have the words “international” or “American” in their title in order to display a misleading sense of importance and prestige – something the study highlights.

What separates well-known journals from “predatory” ones is the often lengthy, tedious process it can take in order to publish a study. You can usually see this at the top of a research paper, with dates showing when it was submitted for review and also official publication.

However, even this can reveal major flaws within the peer-review system at some of the most prestigious science periodicals. This was proved by John Bohannon, correspondent for Science, who purposefully submitted fake documents riddled with major errors. In the end, the made-up study was accepted by 157 journals, and rejected by only 98. The story has its own Wikipedia page, so you know it’s true.

Creating hoaxes and half-truths about people or places is just part of everyday life with the internet. But this new (and reliable!) study is showing the possible negative outcome in the drive of pushing more science into the open. Perhaps it’s a small price to pay. Maybe we need to research it a bit more.