31 July 2007

Lessons from speculations

The New York Academy of Sciences used to publish a magazine called The Sciences. It was a somewhat interesting publication (or somewhat dull, depending on your perspective) that superficially attempted to mix sciences with arts mostly by illustrating their articles with photographs of paintings and sculptures. Until recently, I had a complete set of issues from 1983 to 1992. But our ever-growing need for more space for new books and magazines forced me to donate most of the collection to the local non-profit used bookstore; I kept a few issues with more interesting articles.

During the sorting process, I re-read some of the articles that I had first read years earlier. One piece, titled Science's Miss Lonelyhearts by William H. Honig from the May/June 1984 issue, is worth mentioning here, because the lessons to be learned from it are as relevant today as they were back then.

Honig, an electronics engineer, was the founding editor in 1978 of Speculations in Science and Technology*, a journal that aimed to provide, in Honig's own words, "a forum for ideas that might someday prove useful even if, originally, they lacked support in established theoretical and experimental work." The journal had been born from Honig's personal frustrations with the conventional peer-review process that had apparently turned down all of his physics manuscripts submitted to traditional journals.

Honig was, however, no pseudoscientific crackpot and he subjected the manuscripts submitted to his journal to a "typical review process" that was nevertheless intended to be a bit more lenient than those of typical journals. Not surprisingly, Speculations received a lot of submissions from the (pseudo)scientific fringe. Most of these were about some aspect of modern or not so modern physics (the physics knowledge of one prospective author was, Honig notes, "up-to-date as of the year 1800").

Several common characteristics of fringe authors stand out in Honig's essay:

1. Seventy percent of the submissions were from people not affiliated with a university or a research institution. In contrast, 60% of the submissions accepted for publication were from affiliated scientists.

2. Most manuscripts were poorly written and their authors avoided developing their ideas, preferring to leave them at exploratory stages. Compared to the physics manuscripts, the submissions about the life sciences were better written and more relevant to the state of the biology at that time.

3. The rejected authors would accept no criticism. They became angry, abusive, threatening or manipulative. Some even offered bribes to have their papers published.

4. The authors of most of the rejected manuscripts were ignorant of the existing literature in their research areas.

Collecting and reading the literature relevant to one's research is a time-consuming burden. But it must be done. Science doesn't exist in a vacuum and can only be built on top of what is already there. While conducting a particular research project, I spend probably about 1/3 of my time in libraries or on the Internet looking up papers and books or reading them (another 1/3 of my time is spent collecting data and the remaining 1/3 writing up the results for publication). Literature research not only makes one aware of what has already been done and published, but it also teaches one the fundamentals, the details, the methods and the opposing ideas in one's area of interest.

When Honig left his post as editor in 1983, he had learned that "while traditional procedures for disseminating new theories are indeed elitist and may lock out good hypotheses dreamed up by outsiders, these procedures also screen out chaotic, useless, and divisive ideas." He had also realized that isolation from colleagues was the main reason behind the shortcomings of the prospective authors of Speculations.

Communication is indeed a very crucial element that keeps a scientist on the right track. Scientists compete with each other, but they also talk to each other and learn from each other. That's why there are scientific meetings. Many years ago when I was an inexperienced post doc, on the eve of a meeting we were planning to go, my mentor told me that "the real science was going to be done in the evenings in bars." What he was stressing was the importance of casual, friendly scientific conversations with other scientists usually done over a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer. I had more than one occasion to underline the "wisdom" of my mentor during the last World Congress of Malacology in Belgium. Two mornings, for example, I shared my breakfast table with a malacologist who is a leader in his field. We discussed the sex lives of slugs while drinking coffee and eating bread smeared with Nutella. He happily answered my questions about slug anatomy and told me about his research group's latest projects. That sort of information exchange is most fruitful and pleasant when done face-to-face. Working in isolation, on the other hand, is a one-way ticket to oblivion.

Here is an essay about Speculations in Science and Technology by David Pacchioli from 1993.

*Speculations in Science and Technology, last published by Springer, was discontinued after 1998. The tables of contents of its last 2 volumes are available here.

1 comment:

Kevin Z said...

Well said.

And the more multidisciplinary you are the more you better enjoy reading articles! I spend probably 40% of my time looking up or reading articles. For my dissertation I must know statistics, community ecology, molecular systematics, classical taxonomy and history and philososphy of science. I already have all my data, so now it is 40% literature, 40% analysis and 20% writing.