Thursday, 16 October 2014

Silver bullets, snake oil and software patches

My computer's operating system is updated every month with various patches. Patches, by definition, are work arounds, fixes to problems that were missed in initial software development. I'm a Windows user, which means I am used when going to help forums to being told "the problem is Windows, it's fundamentally broken". In the eyes of linux and UNIX users, no amount of patching can ever make Windows a good operating system. There is no silver bullet to fixing its myriad flaws. That being said, 80% of the time, my computer works fine.
A couple of weeks ago, this brilliant article on the limits the open access amount is encountering came out. The key here to me is that Elsevier's actuaries don't view OA as a threat to Elsevier's business model. Actuaries are terrifying people: no one will puncture your views of 'oughts' more thoroughly. (As an aside, this is why I really want to know what insurance companies' actuaries are doing about global warming). In their discussion of why OA isn't a threat to Elsevier, the actuaries hit the nail on the head. Open access claims to be able to solve too much. All the ills in science (glamour chasing, the under representation of developing world scientists, the unfairness of taxpayers not having access to the research they fund, science communication) can be fixed if we just switch to open access. In response, opponents trot out their line of perfectly valid critiques (junior scientists need glam pubs to get jobs, who will pay for publication charges, how will we judge publication quality). And the same argument happens all over again, while, incidentally, Elsevier's bottom line stays healthy and scientists continue to chase publications that will win them job security. 
Does this pattern seem familiar? It sure resembles what happened last week in a twitter discussion of the usefulness of crowdfunding for scientific research. On the one side, the young Turks, denouncing the corrupt and anti-innovative nature of the NIH and NSF. On the other, the Established Scientists, arguing that no one was covering overheads, and that none of this funding scaled to reach the levels of the government funded scientific enterprise. Same debate, same rhetoric, same failure to reach a conclusion. 
I have no issue with open access, or crowdfunding. I am no fan of the status quo. Paywalling research is problematic. My dissertation research, unfunded by NSF, would have been funded several times over by the amounts that opponents of crowd funding deride as insignificant.  Yet I feel that the proponents of both are all making a fundamental mistake. They are viewing technocratic, process changes as solutions to much deeper, sociopolitical problems with the way modern science is run. Open access won't solve the issue of prestige, because prestige is deeply rooted in the social networks that underlie scientific hiring decisions, amplified by the hyper- competitive nature of the job search in  modern science, Crowdfunding won't solve the current funding crisis, because it cannot counter the increasing instability and uncertainty associated with science funding. More fundamentally, neither of these mechanism, nor many other solutions put forward by scientists, explicitly engage with the socio-political dynamics at the roots the problems they propose to solve.
Open access makes research available for consumption by all. It neither opposes profiteering (just look at the amount that AAAS thinks it can charge for its open access publication), nor prestige based publishing (ask any junior scientist). Crowdfunding may help you collect preliminary data, but it won't pay your salary if you're on a soft money position.
Technocratic fixes are software patches: they fix local problems in a broader system. But fixing the deep problems requires rewriting the code. That difficult, political work cannot be replaced by a silver bullet. And if you keep claiming your patch will be a silver bullet, you'll end up looking like you're peddling snake oil.

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