Mistaking the symptom for the disease: preprints in biomedical science

t-shirt celebrating preprints (created by Michael Eisen)
t-shirt for promoting preprints (by Michael Eisen)

Back in February, much significance was attributed to the fact that some biologists, including Nobel laureate Carol Greider, were posting their research articles directly on the web. Amy Harmon wrote about it for the New York Times and others looked for reasons why a culture of preprints—research published online before being submitted for peer-review—developed in physics, but not biology1,2.

Notably missing from this coverage, however, was a critical look at the preprint movement itself and the roots of the problem it aims to fix. Academic biomedical science today is plagued with hard issues. There’s the rich-get-richer phenomenon, where 50% of NIH grants go to a small number of already well-funded labs3. The competition for funding and a dearth of academic positions drive what Marc Kirschner called a “perverted view of impact”: an obsessive desire to measure and rank scientific progress, which is often reduced to number of publications in high-profile journals or perception of clinical relevance4. The system also suffers from rampant sexism, conscious and unconscious, that repels women away from science5,6,7. There is also the corrupting influence of money on science, including hawkish patenting practices that conflict with the university’s basic tenets8. Working within this system can be an exercise in dissonance: the incentives for success are at odds with promoting open, diverse and adventurous basic science.

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Harvard biotechnology conference whitewashes Israeli occupation

sts_conf

Last week, Harvard’s program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) hosted a conference titled “The Molecularization of Identity: Science and Subjectivity in the 21st Century”. It was advertised like an ordinary STS conference, but it wasn’t. I wrote about it here:

Harvard biotechnology conference whitewashes Israeli occupation

Yarden Katz is a fellow in the Dept. of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

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How to annoy Claude Shannon

Claude Shannon
Claude Shannon

From an interview of Claude Shannon with Robert Price…

Price: And for a long time I was under the misapprehension that you had been a student of Wiener’s [Norbert Wiener] before the war but that was never the case. You were in the same department together, right, and you must have seen each other, but you were never a student?

Shannon: I was a student in one class. I took a course in Fourier analysis.

Price: I see, and where were you?

Shannon: I didn’t have him as a doctoral student.

Price: No, I see. I was under that misapprehension for a while. Fortunately, I corrected that. But then where did you get the idea that information could be modeled, I mean when did you get it? You got it from Wiener, I believe,

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