The scientist as inadvertent loser

Twice this week, I’d had occasion to write about how science is an immutably human enterprise and therefore some of its loftier ideals are aspirational at best, and about how transparency is one of the chief USPs of preprint repositories and post-publication peer-review. As if on cue, I stumbled upon a strange case of extreme scientific malpractice that offered to hold up both points of view.

In an article published January 30, three editors of the Journal of Theoretical Biology (JTB) reported that one of their handling editors had engaged in the following acts:

  1. “At the first stage of the submission process, the Handling Editor on multiple occasions handled papers for which there was a potential conflict of interest. This conflict consisted of the Handling Editor handling papers of close colleagues at the Handling Editor’s own institute, which is contrary to journal policies.”
  2. “At the second stage of the submission process when reviewers are chosen, the Handling Editor on multiple occasions selected reviewers who, through our investigation, we discovered was the Handling Editor working under a pseudonym…”
  3. Many forms of reviewer coercion
  4. “In many cases, the Handling Editor was added as a co-author at the final stage of the review process, which again is contrary to journal policies.”

On the back of these acts of manipulation, this individual – whom the editors chose not to name for unknown reasons but one of whom all but identified on Twitter as a Kuo-Chen Chou (and backed up by an independent user) – proudly trumpets the following ‘achievement’ on his website:

The same webpage also declares that Chou “has published over 730 peer-reviewed scientific papers” and that “his papers have been cited more than 71,041 times”.

Without transparencya and without the right incentives, the scientific process – which I use loosely to denote all activities and decisions associated with synthesising, assimilating and organising scientific knowledge – becomes just as conducive to misconduct and unscrupulousness as any other enterprise if only because it allows people with even a little more power to exploit others’ relative powerlessness.

a. Ironically, the JTB article lies behind a paywall.

In fact, Chen had also been found guilty of similar practices when working with a different journal, called Bioinformatics, and an article its editors published last year has been cited prominently in the article by JTB’s editors.

Even if the JTB and Bioinformatics cases are exceptional for their editors having failed to weed out gross misconduct shortly after its first occurrence – it’s not; but although there many such exceptional cases, they are still likely to be in the minority (an assumption on my part) – a completely transparent review process eliminates such possibilities as well as, and more importantly, naturally renders the process trustlessb. That is, you shouldn’t have to trust a reviewer to do right by your paper; the system itself should be designed such that there is no opportunity for a reviewer to do wrong.

b. As in trustlessness, not untrustworthiness.

Second, it seems Chou accrued over 71,000 citations because the number of citations has become a proxy for research excellence irrespective of whether the underlying research is actually excellent – a product of the unavoidable growth of a system in which evaluators replaced a complex combination of factors with a single number. As a result, Chou and others like him have been able to ‘hack’ the system, so to speak, and distort the scientific literature (which you might’ve seen as the stack of journals in a library representing troves of scientific knowledge).

But as long as the science is fine, no harm done, right? Wrong.

If you visualised the various authors of research papers as points and the lines connecting them to each other as citations, an inordinate number would converge on the point of Chou – and they would be wrong, led there not by Chou’s prowess as a scientist but misled there by his abilities as a credit-thief and extortionist.

This graphing exercise isn’t simply a form of visual communication. Imagine your life as a scientist as a series of opportunities, where each opportunity is contested by multiple people and the people in charge of deciding who ‘wins’ at each stage aren’t some or all of well-trained, well-compensated or well-supported. If X ‘loses’ at one of the early stages and Y ‘wins’, Y has a commensurately greater chance of winning a subsequent contest and X, lower. Such contests often determine the level of funding, access to suitable guidance and even networking possibilities, so over multiple rounds, by virtue of the evaluators at each step having more reasons to be impressed by Y‘s CV because, say, they had more citations, and fewer reasons to be impressed with X‘s, X ends up with more reasons to exit science and switch careers.

Additionally, because of the resources that Y has received opportunities to amass, they’re in a better position to conduct even more research, ascend to even more influential positions and – if they’re so inclined – accrue even more citations through means both straightforward and dubious. To me, such prejudicial biasing resembles the evolution of a Lorenz attractor: the initial conditions might appear to be the same to some approximation, but for a single trivial choice, one scientist ends up being disproportionately more successful than another.

The answer of course is many things, including better ways to evaluate and reward research, and two of them in turn have to be to eliminate the use of numbers to denote human abilities and to make the journey of a manuscript from the lab to the wild as free of opaque, and therefore potentially arbitrary, decision-making as possible.

Featured image: A still from an animation showing the divergence of nearby trajectories on a Lorenz system. Caption and credit: MicoFilós/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.