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Open peer review

June 29 2014 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

I do not usually read The Economist magazine. One may agree or not with the editorial standpoint of the magazine but it provides weekly international news contrary to national publications except the Courier international in France. The science section contains articles both on the latest scientific developments and on science politics and sociology. On the June 14th issue an article (“Let the light shine in, The Economist June 14th 2014) was devoted to the new trend of open review triggered by the heated discussion that has followed two recent big research news.

The way to ensure the quality of scientific research is the process of peer review. A scientist who did not participate to the research asses that not obvious mistake has been made. But it is clear that no single individual can evaluate in depth the work of sometime hundreds over many years, especially that the referee can judge the work based on an article of at most 30 pages. The standard refereeing process is clearly explained in the article for the general audience.

Scientific articles are never the final words. Instead they are the starting point for further researches, which can confirm or not the claimed findings or conclusions. In the cases discussed in the article, one research deals with a method to grow stem cells and the other on cosmology. Both researches stirred a lot of press and the results of the first could not be reproduced by other laboratories. The Bicep2 group detection of polarized light from the Big Bang is based on extremely complicated analyses that other groups disagree. In both cases the discussions have been intense on the social networks. The one-person refereeing process has been replaced now by this open review process. In the case of the stem cell research, fraud may have been involved. Nevertheless, discussions are parts of the research process.

Interestingly the cosmological results would be categorized as normal science since the aim of the project is to find the signature of inflation as predicted by theorists already in the 1970's to accommodate the standard Big Bang model. The results were announced by press release and press conference ahead of a peer-reviewed publication. The open refereeing has been prompt to check both results. Replicating and checking results are part of the research process. We all do our best to avoid mistake, but making mistakes is also part of the research. As more researchers scrutinize the work of others, obvious mistakes are found and corrected. After all researchers are human and nobody should blame them for making involuntary mistakes. But frauds should be sanctionned.

A recent paper I have co-signed is being discussed on a Facebook group dedicated to my personal field of research. Virtual discussion places on the internet are complementing the conferences where researchers gather to present and discuss the latest results.

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“The structure of scientific revolution” by Thomas S. Kuhn, a hard-to-read essential book

June 24 2014 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

I am an academic researcher and as anyone who belongs to a small community with all his unspoken rules, customs, and idiosyncrasies, I am curious but also a bit scared to read about how we, as a community, behave. When I met someone who is much more inclined to the philosophy of science, I was suggested to read what is widely considered the most influential book about scientific advances by Thomas S. Kuhn “The structure of scientific revolution”.

 

As an astronomer, I have heard about the concept of paradigm shift, which is when a new theory is replacing an exiting one that fails to explain many experimental or in case of astronomy, observational data. A paradigm is a temporary consensus of the community, who may show resistance is accepting the new theory. According to Kuhn, scientific advances are like social revolutions where new social models replace those that are not anymore able to satisfy the need of the societies. Similarly to the social revolutions, the scientific revolutions are necessary. They are lead by a few individuals with early followers and also resistance from proponents of the failing old paradigms. Kuhn was one of the first to analyze the sociology of the scientists in the context of their time to draw his conclusions. Kuhn considered the scientific endeavor that aims at consolidating existing paradigms as “normal science”. Improving instruments to obtain better measurements is “normal” science. Refining theories is “normal” science. Therefore most scientific activities can be categorized as “normal” science. Many failures of existing paradigms in explaining refined measurements or new ones cumulate into “crises” that make the fertile soil for new ideas. There is no revolutionary science without normal science.

 

The idea of paradigm shift is appealing but the book itself is not straightforward to read to say the least. I did not expect to embark into a long reading journey as I was bringing the short book to all the places I was traveling to. I read the book in short flights, in long-haul flights, in trains, in a car, in coaches, in a truck, and in a ferry. The book even served as a makeshift tripod to take pictures of a solar eclipse. Why did it take me so long to finish it? The book was not written in the clear way a philosophy/sociology book on science should be. I found the book convoluted and I have to read most chapters a few times before grasping the ideas. Our society is know confronted with an overflow of information, either in form of texts, sounds, images, or movies, and we are more and more accustomed to deal with short, direct-to-the-point essays. I am not anymore willing to read long and overcomplicated essays that require some effort to read and to grasp.

 

Although Kuhn's concepts are keys to the modern view of scientific research and progress, his view on “normal science” may let none scientists to believe that scientists are either conservative people who want to preserve the status quo or people who only aim is to deny existing theories to propose new, more sucessful ones. Kuhn discussed a few examples but I found them not so compelling and their descriptions are scattered over many chapters. The story of the discovery of the element oxygen does not captivate me much. Either the discovery was made by Antoine Lavoisier or English clergy man Joseph Priestley is discussed at length without a purpose. Other examples such as the long controversy on the concept of plate tectonic would have been more appropriate. Another criticism I have is that Kuhn did not actually apply modern scientific method of social science. Instead he argued that he based his thinking after studying the historical accounts of how scientists researched in the past. Overall I find that his discussion is single-sided. He gave examples that support his views but there may be cases where the scientific progress occurs smoothly. After all his essay is about philosophy of science and he may get away with this.

 

Kuhn's book introduces many concepts that are familiar to many scientists even if they have not read his book. I do not know how much I am unconsciously influenced by his concepts in my research. I am not particularly researching to “revolutionize” my specific research field. Could we overturn a theory without first mastering it? Revolution carries the romantic charm of unconventionality and scientists are dreamers. Already as a “normal” scientist I feel I am “uncommon” in the society, and as any scientist I sometime dream of being the one who will revolutionize my research field.

 

Contemporary research is teared apart between revolutionary and safe “normal” science. I use the word “safe” science on purpose because predicting the outcomes of “safe” research is easier than that of unconventional research. Convincing science funding agencies about future outcomes is central to modern scientific research. Funding science is betting on which new paradigms will prevail in the future. Like with sport events, there are signs that a team will win a tournament but this is never certain.   

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