Quality Costs: Gibberish, STEM Journals, and the Bottom Line

A 2009 study conducted by the National Humanities Alliance examined the flagship journals of eight scholarly organizations to weigh the cost of publishing humanities and social science research against the costs of publishing science, technology, engineering, and medical (STEM) research.  Mary Waltham, the consultant who authored the study, found that humanities and social science journals average $526 per page, a figure that doubles STEM journals’ average of $266.

When this study debuted five years ago, the muttering among my colleagues in “expensive” fields was that it only went to show that we do a far better job than the hastily cobbled-together, cheap productions sometimes issued by STEM fields.  Since then, we’ve been awaiting proof of our bias, and last month, we may have found it.  The journal Nature reported that the STEM-heavy publishers Springer and Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) had recently been forced to remove 120 nonsense papers from published journals.  A French computer scientist named Cyril Labbé had developed a program for detecting papers generated by software called SCIgen, much to the frustration of academic tricksters everywhere.  He has so far informed IEEE of 100 fakes and Springer of sixteen.  A least one of the papers was “authored” by scholars who had no idea their names were being used in such a way.

There are many stages in which an elementary standard of quality control could have eliminated nonsense papers from the pool—upon initial receipt, when the editors could review and desk-reject; at the peer-review stage, when a colleague could question authenticity; at the editing stage, when the copy editor could discover the gibberish.  It would appear that, in a minimum of 120 instances, at least two STEM publishers squandered repeated opportunities to provide their readership with genuine, useful research.

Arcane (Social Science) Vocabulary: NIMBY, Cultural Capital, and Pipelines

"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" appear...

“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” appeared in Rosalind and Helen, 1819. Probably this post doesn’t measure up. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Working in social science publishing, I encounter some pretty boring stuff.  While I like living in a world of ideas, not all of them are for everybody; as a reader, not maker, of intellectual output, my personal investment in familiarizing myself with anything that doesn’t inspire me is minimal.  There are a few exceptions, however–ideas that have intrigued, then beckoned, then set up shop in my head.  They’re words that explain things that I have encountered in my daily life and that help us express what’s going on under the hood of society (which, hopefully, is social science’s reason for being–or the good examples of it, anyhow).  Here are three.

Note: where I’m able, I’ve provided links; if articles are behind paywalls, I’ve provided full citations.

NIMBY refers to a well-documented phenomenon in local activism.  Say the newspapers that you read are full of the negative effects of fracking.  You ignore the news, day after day, year after year . . . until a company tries to set up a well in the field behind your house.  Suddenly you’re calling your senator, carrying signs in demonstrations, and chaining yourself to menacing construction equipment.  All because as soon as you heard the news, you thought to yourself, “Not In My BackYard.”  You’ll find a scholarly treatment in “Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 95, no. 1 (July 1989), pp. 1-37.

The second useful concept I’ve stumbled upon is “cultural capital.”  French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu uses this term in his masterpiece Distinction (Harvard University Press, 1984) to describe the system by which privilege functions and persists.  Bourdieu uses an economic metaphor to explain how knowledge and experience in various types of cultural fields can be used by some people to protect or increase their advantage.  For example, a white-collar professional with a college education, professional clothing, and an acquaintance with art history would have an easier time making wealthy friends at an upscale  gallery opening than, say, a worker wearing overalls whose primary expertise lies in landscaping.  In other words, the white-collar professional arrives at the gallery with more “capital” (that is, knowledge and experience) to spend than the landscaper, and can invest that capital in such a way to to advance herself in a high-status context.

The third term is the flexible concept of the “pipeline.”  Social science scholars use this word to refer to the long-term process by which careers are built (or really, as we’ll see, denied).  One example of this is the tenure pipeline for women; while women have been achieving parity in incoming classes of many graduate programs for years, the number of full professors who are female is still relatively small.  Where is the “leak” in the pipe, asks this International Studies Perspectives article?  Another common application of the term “pipeline” is to the difficulties of young, poor minorities, particularly men: the school-to-prison pipeline.  Have overly punitive, zero-tolerance policies in high schools created a direct path from the principal’s office to the courtroom?  If you’re interested in more, check out  Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor M. Rios (NYU Press, 2011).

And so . . . welcome to my world!  Or at least the fun part, with the neat ideas.  I’ll censor the reams and reams of (subjectively) boring stuff I read for the benefit of you, my readers.  Your gratitude may be directed toward the comments section.