Science in the 21st century: social, political, and economic issues
This new report is ready to be downloaded (in pdf format) from the
It is a /perspective/ of 16 pages long. This is the abstract:
This report presents a nonidealized vision of 21st century science. It
handles some social, political, and economic problems that affect the
heart of scientific endeavour and are carrying important consequences
for scientists and the rest of society.
The problems analyzed are the current tendency to limit the size of
scholarly communications, the funding of research, the rates and page
charges of journals, the wars for the intellectual property of the data
and results of research, and the replacement of impartial reviewing by
anonymous censorship. The scope includes an economic analysis of PLoS'
finances, the wars APS versus Wikipedia and ACS versus NIH, and a list
of thirty four Nobel Laureates whose awarded work was rejected by peer
Several suggestions from Harry Morrow Brown, Lee Smolin, Linda Cooper,
and the present author for solving the problems are included in the
report. The work finishes with a brief section on the reasons to be
optimists about the future of science.
Some fragments from the report:
This failure to embrace up-to-the-minute mastery of one's own field
by a thorough reading of the relevant literature exerts a highly
negative effect, I believe, on the standards and work ethic of our
current student apprentices.
Sadly, however, the prevailing tendency toward "thin-sliced science",
the so-called "salami science", seems to retain its stronghold over
Electronic publishing could offer authors limitless space to explain
their ideas and discuss their new findings. Surprisingly, though,
online manuscripts are often bound by the same space constraints as
In the early part of the postwar period career was science-driven,
motivated mostly by absorption with the great enterprise of discovery,
and by genuine curiosity as to how nature operates. By the last decade
of the century far too many, especially of the young people, were
seeing science as a competitive interpersonal game, in which the winner
was not the one who was objectively right as the nature of scientific
reality, but the one who was successful at getting grants, publishing
in Physical Review Letters, and being noticed in the news pages of
Nature, Science, or Physics Today...
In the present system, scientists feel lots of pressure to follow
established research programs led by powerful senior scientists. Those
who choose to follow their own programs understand that their career
prospects will be harmed. That there are still those with the courage
to go their own way is underappreciated.
Laymen rarely appreciate how centralized scientific research has become
in the last fifty years. Funding for my own area of physics, general
relativity, is located in one and only one division of one and only one
bureau of the federal government, the National Science Foundation. If
the referees for a grant proposal submitted to this division of that
bureau happen not to like your work, your grant proposal will not be
As a consequence, chemists, physicists, engineers, and material
scientists interested in recent work  published in the journal Nano
Letters would purchase it by $25, which is over $12 per published page!
According to analysis of PLoS finances performed in July of 2008, done
by third-parties, the model has been kept afloat financially by some
$17.3 million in philanthropic grants, since its launch in 2002.
The actual role that economic factors play on the selection of what
will be published is evident when the society of physicists advises to
authors with «Accepted manuscripts will not be forwarded to production
until the publication charges are paid in full».
My only interpretation of the recent actions by the ACS [American
Chemical Society] Board and management is that it is no longer trying
to be a scientific society striving towards the goals of its
Congressional charter, which is to represent the best interests of the
scientists who form its membership. Rather it seems to be a commercial
enterprise whose principle objective is to accumulate money.
The 1949 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to HIDEKI YUKAWA «for his
prediction of the existence of mesons on the basis of theoretical work
on nuclear forces». His paper was rejected by Nature. Physical Review
also rejected a similar manuscript in 1937.
The development by HERBERT CHARLES BROWN of the techniques that
permitted the usage of boron-containing compounds as crucial reagents
in organic synthesis was awarded with a share of the 1979 Nobel Prize
in Chemistry to him. One of the referees who reviewed BROWN'S key paper
stated that «there are nothing new about the reaction...» and
«moreover, the reactions produce organoboranes for which there are no
known-applications. Consequently rejection is recommended».
Leading academic journals refused to publish LOUIS J. IGNARRO'S
discovery that NO is crucial to the life process, the discovery that
was awarded with other third of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or
Both papers were rejected, the first after a half-year delay. By then,
in 1977, over a thousand copies of the first preprint had been shipped.
This has been my full experience. Papers on established subjects are
immediately accepted. Every novel paper of mine, without exception, has
been rejected by the refereeing process. The reader can easily gather
that I regard this entire process as a false guardian and wastefully
The pressure for conformity is enormous. I have experienced it in
editors' rejection of submitted papers, based on venomous criticism of
anonymous referees. The replacement of impartial reviewing by
censorship will be the death of science.
As reported in the news, the list of thirty four Nobel Laureates whose
awarded work was rejected by peer review would be a complete shock for
readers. However, it seems other issues received much more attention!
For instance, one of readers expressed her surprise and indignation
because the American Physical Society, withdrew its initial offer to
publish two studies in /Physical Review Letters/ because the authors
did not want to transfer the copyright of their work to that Society.
An informal poll, what issue has surprised you more?
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