Jugdging science by proxies: A short and incomplete history

In this post I’ll be looking at the question of why scientific careers today depend so much on the Journal Impact Factor (JIF). And the acquisition of as much third-party funding as possible. Or, more generally, why the content, originality and reliability of research results are often a secondary matter when commissions talk their heads off about who to include in their own ranks. And who not. Or which grant applications deserve to be funded. In short, follow me on a brief and incomplete history of how and why we ended up judging the quality of science through proxies such as JIF and amount of third party funding. Perhaps a historical perspective will also yield clues as to how we can overcome this mess. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start where it all began, with the founding fathers of modern science. Continue reading

Peer review is dead, long live peer review!

We all have been there: After a long wait and increasing tension, an email arrives from the editotial office. With an increasing heart rate we open the email. “Thank you for submitting your manuscript to our Journal. Your manuscript was sent for external peer review, which is now complete. Based on our evaluation and the comments of external reviewers, your manuscript did not achieve a sufficient priority for further consideration, and we have decided not to pursue your manuscript for publication. While we understand you may be disappointed with this decision, we hope the reviewer comments will help you revise your manuscript and submit it to another journal. Thank you for the privilege of reviewing your work.’ After the initial shock, we take a look at the reviews in the attachment. Reviewer 1 found the work quite good, some minor issues, all fixable, with well-meaning suggestions. But Reviewer 2! Has he even read the article? Did he confuse it with another paper on his desk? In any case, this unknown ‘expert’ was totally incompetent, but still dared to pour several pages of slurry over 3 years of our hard work and its highly relevant results.

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Science meets politics, or: Survival of the ideas that fit

Despite the fact that the number of cases is now rising sharply again and we have now entered a lockdown ‘light’, we in Germany are rightly pleased that we have so far come through the corona crisis much better than many of our neighbors or the USA. Was the ‘German way’ perhaps so successful because politicians in Germany had an open ear for science and therefore prescribed the right measures based on evidence?

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From mouse to man through the valley of death?

Translation’ – from mouse to human and back – the mantra and eternal quest of university medicine! Where else than in academic medical centers can you find all this under one roof: basic biomedical and clinical research, the patients necessary for clinical trials, government funding, as well as motivated and excellently trained personnel! ‘Translation’ is as old as academic medicine itself – but the term for it was only coined in the 1980s and since then it has adorned the websites and mission statements of all university hospitals worldwide. Translation has certainly been a model of success – just think of, treatment of chronic neurological disorders like epilepsy, Parkinson’or multiple sklerosis, therapies of some forms of cancer, or HIV. Continue reading

“The Ioannidis Affair”

On March 17th, just as many countries were taking draconian measures to contain the SARS-COV-2 pandemic, the Greek-American meta-researcher and epidemiologist John Ioannidis, whom I often quote in my posts proclaimed a “fiasco in the making‘! With strong language and a few ad hoc estimations of COVID fatality rates he warned that based on poor data or no evidence at all politicians might inflict incalculable damage on society, possibly much worse than what a virus, putatatively as dangerous as influenza, could cause. As one of the most highly cited researchers in the world and a vocal critic of quality problems in biomedicine, his COVID related interviews, opinion pieces and articles since then have received a great deal of attention, in the scientific community, in the lay press, and especially among his worldwide fan base. Continue reading

We don’t need animal experiments! We get our drugs from the pharmacy!

Research using animals is a sensitive issue. Anyone who does animal experiments, like myself, is reluctant to talk about it, at least outside our natural habitat, the laboratory or scientific conventions. Institutions where animal experiments are carried out are also quite shy about the topic. Recently, the Max Planck Society left Nikos Logothetis (MPI Tübingen) standing in the rain when he was targeted by a media campaign. Now he and some of his laboratory staff are off to Shanghai… The websites of prominent research institutes feature all kinds of colorful illustrations showing immunohistochemistry slides, doctors and students in white coats with pipettes in their hands, sitting at computers or their microscopes. But rats or mice are conspicuously missing! They proudly display their research activities, and enthusiastically advertise (future) research breakthroughs towards completely new and effective therapies. But no reference is made to animal experiments on campus!

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World sensation: Increase in life expectancy by more than 10 years!

Anyone who follows this blog must get the impression that I am a nag and misanthropist. Nothing and nobody seems to please me. I alway find the sample sizes too small, the statistics too lazy, the data hand-picked, or the results too positive and the conclusions drawn from them too exaggerated. Also, I find the peer review system unreliable, not to mention support of mainstream research and giving to those who already have (‘Matthew effec’)  by the funding agencies. I even dared to critsize the Nobel Prize an atavistic instrument celebrating the lonely, white male reseacher and genius. Artificial intelligence I find stupid, and the academic career system the core of all these evils. To name but just a few examples.

But that is far from the truth! I am a science enthusiast! I am convinced that science is the best that the 1500 grams of protein and fat encapsulated in our skull have ever produced. Yes, I am a science nut. So with this entry, at the beginning of the new decade, let’s start with a proper hymn to biomedical science. Continue reading

Diet: Is nutrition science a more reliable source of advice than your grandmother?

Meat consumption is bad for your health. It gives you cancer, heart attacks, stroke, you name it. Says nutrition science. And they must know. After all, it’s a science. Is it, really?

A few years ago, Jonathan Schoenfeld and John Ioannidis took a standard cookbook and randomly selected 50 frequently occurring ingredients (sugar, coffee, salt, etc.). They then carried out a systematic literature search, asking whether there were epidemiologicial studies that had investigated the cancer risk of these ingredients. And they found what they were looking for. For 80% of the ingredients at least one study existed, for many even several. Of 264 of these studies, 103 found that the ingredient investigated increased the risk of cancer, while 88 reduced the risk! So  after all Joe Jackson was right: ‘Everything gives you cancer’! But wait a minute: Milk? Veal? Orange juice? Continue reading

Why do WE trust the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but not the climate skeptics?

The societal acceptance of the results of our daily work as scientists is dire. The majority of the US population does not explain evolution with Darwin, but with Holy Scripture. Measles is on the rise again worldwide, because vaccination opponents smell a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry to make children autistic. A substantial proportion of the population does not believe that climate change is man-made. They believe that if you fear climate change you are hysterical, and manipulated  by interested scientists competing for funding and fame. Homeopaths treat disease with sugar pills, while the health insurers, with our money, foot the bill.

A popular recipe against this increasing rejection of relevant scientific findings is to provide more and better science education in schools and the media. Inspired by a lecture of the American sociologist and historian of science Steven Shapin, I respectfully disagree.

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