Sunday, September 20, 2009

15th century model for the 21st century??

What to say about a book that captured my attention about as much as the dictionary. Not to be disparaging as I recognize that this is an important topic, but the book needed some oomph.

Needless to say, there was one passage, near the end of Chapter 5, that struck me as a very acute interpretation of something that holds true to this day. It reads:
"Yet however sophisticated present findings have become, we still have to call upon a fifteenth-century invention to secure them. Even at present, a given scholarly discovery, whatever its nature (whether it entails using a shovel or crane, a code book, a tweezer, or carbon 14), has to be registered in print - announced in a learned journal and eventually spelled out in full - before it can be acknowledged as a contribution or put to further use (141)."
I confront this reality on a daily basis as a science/medical writer at UT Southwestern Medical Center. In my role as a senior communications specialist (basically PR), I witness firsthand our researchers' struggle to publish sometimes groundbreaking discoveries in scientific journals that carry clout in their respective fields. Peer-reviewed journals such as The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature, the Archives of Internal Medicine, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) have such stringent acceptance policies that only the most thoroughly vetted - and usually staid - research ever sees the light of publication. Researchers must secure approval for numerous peers in order for a paper to be considered, much less accepted. And once accepted, they must go through what often seems like an endless cycle of revisions in which they must answer every question posed to them. All this to get some new findings in print.

Open-access online journals have proliferated in recent years, but open-access doesn't mean that anything and everything will be published. There's still an approval process. In this sense, open access means that the material must be posted online for all to see, rather than available only to those with a subscription or some other inside track. The study doesn't have to be written in lay language either, somewhat limiting the materials' accessibility.

The problem with this system is that in order to be taken seriously - and receive grant money - researchers must publish their findings, no matter how minuscule or incremental they may be. As Eisenstein stated, the must be "registered in print - announced in a learned journal" to be considered worthy of further attention.

It makes sense that a study first published in the New England Journal of Medicine would have more clout than one printed in let's say Vogue. But who's to say what is valuable and what isn't? For all we know, someone could have discovered the cure for cancer - but it was so far-fetched that the researcher and his/her findings were shunned or flat-out ignored, never to see the light of day in a "scholarly" journal of any refute. I know several researchers who have stopped short of submitting research that turned out to be revolutionary because they initially considered the idea too far-fetched to be taken seriously. What hope is there for scientific and medical advancements if researchers censor themselves as well as their peers?

One might argue that scientists should immediately post everything online, but few researchers I've spoken with have any interest in publicizing early findings. They say there's inherent danger in publicizing their results or study methods too early; doing so would create an environment ripe for poaching others' ideas. So, you have a two-pronged problem here: Researchers need to publish their findings in print to get validation and support for their research. But, at the same time, though, they don't want to publish too early or publish far-fetched - even if they're valid - results out of fear that they'll either be subject to poaching or laughter.

I wish I had an answer to this problem. It seems very outdated to rely on a 15th century model, but no better solution has come to pass. In order for change to take place, there has to be both a new outlet and a collective belief amongst researchers that it's in their best interest to adapt to the new model.


EMChartreuse said...

Don't forget patents! Publishing is essential to the patent process. It's called "Prior Art" and it helps prove the inventor's claim to be the originator of the idea. In the US, Prior Art searches are the first step to the patent process.

John Kay said...

. For the first 30 or more pages especially, the book seems like a doctoral thesis, not because it is difficult to read (it’s not), but because Eisenstein laboriously declares the negative. It is almost as if she is scared to be sued if she makes a generalization.

Jax, I liked your observation of Eisenstein’s statement about the importance of written recommendations, which you see at UT Southwestern Medical Center. My brother is on the faculty of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Medical School. He too has to publish in medical journals. Now that he is established enough, other medical writers seek his approval. If Eisenstein is correct, then it seems that medical educators could benefit from EMAC.

Aline McKenzie said...

You slander dictionaries everywhere, madam! I love dictionaries -- it used to take me forever to look up a word, because I'd be distracted by - SQUIRREL! - the pretty pictures and cool words in the headings.

Online dictionaries, which fast, lose that element of serendipity.

I enjoyed Eisenstein's writing, but when I read her afterword, in which she said how much of her original first chapter was no longer true because of expanded scholarship in the field, I wish she'd revised the first chapter more.

KEHS said...

I should clarify that I don't mean to slander dictionaries. I actually love 'em. But since most people don't, I was trying to convey how dull I found the text. As I writer, I should have known better - but I got lazy. :-)

EMChartreuse said...

I really love the dictionary. Since I moved I can't find mine so I've had to look up words on line and it's just not the same. Godz, I am such a dork.

April said...

This does seem like a two-pronged problem, and who's to say what is relevant, important, or earthshattering? I believe that scientific and medical journals are more important than fashion magazines, but I have very little interest in fashion, and I think that medicine is imperative in our lives, and is something that directly affects me. I'm not sure what the answer is to the problem of publishing solutions or medical data. I guess I would say that just because something is discovered doesn't mean that it has to be published, and every thought or article written doesn't have to be presented to the world. Once something is written or created, it will continue to exist, regardless of whether anyone else sees it. That being said, the ideas that are formulated and brought into the world should be shown to others (especially in the medical field), but things can always be presented at a later date.

annisleung said...

I don't argee that scientists should publicize everything online immediately. They should post when the findings are valid and proved by other authority. The unsure findings will definitely scare the public.

By the way, I love online dictionary a lot. It helps anywhere I go with iPhone and my laptop.