Is It Time to Pull the Alarm?

We talk about "trust" and "integrity," but are we actively working to restore these?

Is It Time to Pull the Alarm?
The Etch-a-Sketch has been shaken. Now, do we redraw the lines that we had before? Or do we draw new lines? — Scott Galloway, “Pivot” [podcast], September 25th

Scholarly publishing has been shaken — by Covid-19, by its own mistakes and missteps, and by opportunists exploiting our lower barriers to entry and false sense of security.

We’ve been shaken so much that it may be time to pull the alarm.

NAPCO Fire Pull Station, 4" Depth - 54TT19|FWC-CNV-PULL - Grainger

The past few weeks feel like they represent an inflection point for Open Science, preprints, predatory publishers, and the regulation of the scholarly record. Here’s a refresher on some of what has transpired:

  • The FBI has warned that journals are being used as vessels for misinformation. In a statement issued in late-September, the FBI stated: “Foreign intelligence services have used online journals, including some with a global reach, to exacerbate disunity and dysfunction in the United States while also misinforming or misleading readers.”
  • White supremacists are using preprints to dress up their bigotry in the cloak of science. The lead researcher on a study of this said, “I speculate that [white nationalists] are particularly fond of editorializing preprints because (a) this projects to their audience that they are on the bleeding edge of scientific progress, just like mainstream scientists, reinforcing their status within the broader far-right community and (b) there is virtually no competition with news media or science communicators in delivering a “public-friendly” interpretation of the  research, effectively inflating their scope of influence.” This has a bearing on the erosion or elimination of norms, which we have also participated in.
  • The downgrading of scientific communication, from papers —> preprints —> press releases. William Haselstine said about the Covid-19 infodemic and the way some players have been able to exploit the crisis by issuing premature claims or outright fabrications as preprints or press releases: “This is ‘publication by press release,’ and it’s damaging trust in the fundamental methods of science and medicine at a time when we need it most.”
  • The slow transformation of China from a competitor to an adversary, and how a weakened American state and scientific enterprise is part of this larger story. As H.R. McMaster summarized it last month: “You see it with the repression of freedom in Hong Kong. Maybe the greatest land grab in history if they can get away with it in the South China Sea. The threats toward Taiwan. And that’s to say nothing of the acceleration of this cultural genocide in Xinjiang. If anything, the Chinese Communist Party’s behavior during the Covid-19 crisis ought to remove any doubts about the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, and the threat they pose not just to the United States, but to all of our free and open societies.”
  • Steve Bannon using non-profits to fund the spread of misinformation from a Chinese scientist via preprints. If there has been a moment that to me demonstrates how vulnerable and exploited we’ve allowed ourselves to become, it is this — a well-known and potentially criminal political operative and “disruptor” overtly seeking to overturn the norms of society to favor the oligarchs he woos, can confidently plan to use an Open Science platform to push a debunked but seductive conspiracy theory about Covid-19, and in so doing generate millions of impressions directly and via media expansion through right-wing media, potentially distorting the world view of millions.

The scholarly communication ecosystem is suffering from too many sources of self-inflicted harm and degradation. From predatory journals to Sci-Hub to lax standards around information outputs, we’re being used by nation-state adversaries and well-funded political operatives to plant misinformation, spread conspiracy theories, and damage the very science we claim to defend and regulate.

These are also addressable issues. We can fix the design of preprint servers so they actually serve communities and authors, instead of attempting to create a substandard OA alternative. We can require more from journals before issuing DOIs, so that predatory publishers have a harder time gaining legitimacy via CrossRef. We can broadly implement defenses against Sci-Hub, which is likely a front for Russian intelligence services (e.g., there are free options that are easily implemented). We can embrace review of all kinds — peer, editorial, statistical, technical — and make it more impressive to get scientific claims into the record. (Yes, science should be hard and challenging.) We can serve the public by making it hard for propagandists, opportunists, and capitalists to exploit scientific outputs.

I think it’s time to redraw some lines, to raise some barriers, to create more prevention, and to understand that defenses are necessary in a world of aggressive actors who have come to view scientific reporting as something they can manipulate — for profit, for power, or for pleasure.

So let’s hearken to the alarm klaxons going off all around us. It’s time to fix some things.

Special Note: I’ve been hearing rumors that non-profits (and others) who have taken PPP loans from the US government (list here) are keeping those loans even as they are laying off employees. If you — or people you know — have been affected by this, please email me confidentially with some details so I can look into how broadly these practices are becoming. Thank you.

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