Science or Hierarchy?

There is a general feeling in the academic world: things could be done in a much better way. But what exactly has gone wrong? I would argue the main problem is that we have allowed ‘irrational authority’ (also known as hierarchy) to take over reason and knowledge.

To start, let me differentiate between rational and irrational authority. As the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm used to put it: “Rational authority is based on competence, and it helps the person who leans on it to grow. Irrational authority is based on power and serves to exploit the person subjected to it.”

That is, it is quite different to claim that an experiment or an article is wrong and correctly argue why (rational authority), than to claim that it is wrong simply because someone with power says so (hierarchy).

Publishing is a very clear example of hierarchy taking over knowledge and competence. The decision of publishing or not publishing an article is made by a person, namely the editor in charge of the paper. The basis on which this decision is made is meant to be scientific – that is, rational, based on knowledge or observation of nature. However, because it is impossible that the editors are specialists on the topic of each of the papers they review, they tend to trust the referees. Now, referees are supposed to be objective scientists who altruistically give their opinion on a paper for the good of science. However, an opaque reviewing process – authors never know the referees and the editors base their opinions on the referees’ one – grants the referees an authoritarian position over the authors. Not only is hierarchy created by the reviewing process, but also impunity. Because the authors will not know who the referees are, the referees do not feel the need to be rigorous. Thus, we see that the validity of a scientific article ends up being decided by a non-specialist (the editor) and a few other people (the referees) who are granted impunity by the editor, even if their review is not based on scientific principles. I believe this lowers the quality of the research that we carry out a great deal.

Another important hierarchy is one created by the different publishing companies or journals. By agreeing on the use of the ‘impact factor’ (IF)[1] as somewhat the measure of the quality of a journal, the scientific community immediately created another hierarchy based on the IF. In general terms, it is accepted that the best scientific journal on any topic is the one with the highest IF. Therefore, publishing in a high-IF journal immediately acknowledges a scientific work as prominent, whereas doing it in a low-IF journal classifies that same work as mediocre. It is true that the scientific community has the final word: some articles that have been published in a high-IF journal can be considered to be of low quality, and some articles published in low-IF journals are extremely influential. Nonetheless, the initial confusion created by the journal hierarchy can last for a long time. Again, the point here is that a small bunch of people gets to decide what quality, originality, difficulty, etc. means. This small bunch of people are the editors of the high-IF journals plus the referees that these editors choose to review their papers. In addition, the editors of high-IF tend to choose well-renown (senior) referees to carry out the review, making the process even more biased.

Notice that the opinion of these few people who, using the IF hierarchy, get to choose what quality, originality, relevance, etc. means is fed back by our opaque systems of funding. Because the high-IF journals are supposed to mean quality, most of the funding is spent on those projects and people who get to publish in those journals. That creates very little room for scientific dissidence. Scientists need to make one choice – they either work on what they think is important/interesting/original or they work on what a small bunch of people impose as quality. These two choices might superimpose some times, but not necessarily. This is how, with the aid of opaque funding schemes, hierarchical relations based on high-IF steer what researchers work on.

How do we get around all this? Can we figure out a way of publishing /sharing scientific work without creating hierarchies in the process? I believe that the answer is yes, and it is quite simple. I advocate for an open[2] self-managed transparent global publishing system. Imagine an internet platform where all research is published/shared. The different branches of science can be divided into different self-managed sections of the platform. Then, a group of scientists decide to share their work in the platform. Now, before doing that, each of the authors need to make sure that they have an account/profile in this platform. The profile of each scientist shows (at least) all the articles the scientist has contributed, as well as all the reviews that the scientist has carried out. In addition, all the profiles are completely transparent to all the members of the platform. Then, once the article is submitted to the platform, the review takes place publicly. That is, the rest of the scientists comment on the validity, quality, etc., in a voluntary and transparent fashion. Of course, the reader of the paper can also read the comments by the rest of the peers. This simple system ends the hierarchies described above since there are no journals and no editors. It stops the impunity from anonymous referees, since it is completely transparent. And last but not least, it promotes non-aggressive factual-based discussion – an activity which is very precious to grow as a researcher, and that unfortunately is hidden under the opaque publishing system.

I’ve had the chance to express this idea to different fellow scientists. I’ve always found it quite easy to express why irrational authority hampers scientific progress and how we can self-organize ourselves to fight it back. Hence, I am optimistic about a bright non-hierarchical science future ahead. In these discussions, one of the few concerns I heard was something like, “If the peer-reviewing process is as transparent as you describe it, there is a chance that famous professors won’t engage into it, as they would be scared of losing their reputation.” In a way, I was quite happy to hear this concern, because it really hits on the hierarchy issue again. If we have a reputation, we should be able to justify it. And if we can’t, maybe we don’t deserve that reputation anymore. That is, in science we value knowledge and competence, so it is positive to look up to or learn from those who have more knowledge and/or competences than us. This type of reputation is what Eric Fromm defined as rational authority, which helps the person who leans on it to grow. However, an unjustified reputation is very corrosive: it creates frustration among the ones who lean on it, and it gives the scientific authority to someone who does not possess it, creating confusion among the community as well as misleading it. The open self-managed transparent global system described above would help to dismantle some of these hierarchies that have been created within the community.

The reader will have figured out by now that I do not appreciate hierarchies. Indeed, I firmly believe that hierarchy (understood as irrational authority) is not positive in any aspect of our lives. However, when it comes to science, this is not a belief, but rather a postulate on which the scientific progress is based on. On one hand, science advances thanks to theories which are constructed using some logical principles and whose validity cannot be refuted using experimental data. Theories and observations become knowledge via consensus, which is reached after enough debate and experimental confirmations have been carried out. On the other hand, hierarchies limit scientific debate, impose consensus and destroy the logic on which scientific theories is based on. Thus, I believe that pointing out hierarchies or structures of unjustified authority in science is an obligation to any scientist.

Finally, notice that I have not discussed anything about how research is used to scam the taxpayers[3]. I believe that the hierarchy problem mentioned above could easily cohabit with a much fairer economic system.

1. The impact factor of journal A in the year X is defined as the total number of citations received by the articles published in A during the two preceding years (X-2, X-1), divided over the total number of articles published in A during X-2 and X-1. If A has IF=2.4 in year X, it means that all the articles published in A during years X-2 and X-1 accumulated an average of 2.4 citations in those two years.
2. The meaning of ‘open’ here is that given by the Open-source software community.
3. For those who don’t know what this rip-off is about. Let me briefly talk about two different big scams. On publishing: Researchers (most of the time, hired via state funds) work and get some results that can be interesting for other researchers. The authors decide to publish their contribution in a scientific journal and as a result they need to pay. The journal gets the copyright of the work. Once the paper is published, everyone (authors included!) must pay the publisher in order to read the authors work. On funding: States impose taxes on citizens. With some of those taxes, the state can fund highly risky research. When a result that could lead to a product is found, the researchers are encouraged to patent it. The state gives the intellectual property (IP) right to the authors and/or their institution. With the use of the patent, the state creates a monopoly for the authors of the patent for a certain period of time. During this time, the researchers can either try to set up a company and develop such product, or they can sell the IP of the idea to another company which will then own it and develop a product. Notice that the risk to develop a product at this point is much lower than at the beginning (imposed taxpayer’s investment). In any case, the initial investment of the taxpayer ends up being owned by a few hands. If these few hands manage to develop a product, the taxpayers will pay for a product that was initially developed thanks to their investment. Thanks to the privatization of ideas via IP, the state secures that wealth is not mutualised. Or maybe I don’t get this right and taxpayers are so grateful that their investments give rise to progress that they prefer to pay again for this progress instead of getting back their initial investment.


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