Quality control, part 2: the sciences

Science done the old-fashioned way. Click here for details.

Science done the old-fashioned way. Click here for details.

In my last post, I discussed the implications of interconnected world of the Internet as it failed to track down the Boston bombers before traditional methods did. In this post, I discuss the broader implications as they pertain to my own profession and the sciences in general.

“The best thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a voice. The worst thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a voice.” This saying has become far too widespread to track down who originated it, and it’s hard to deny that it’s true. Ideally, if everyone has a voice, we still want the good stuff to be widely read and the bad stuff to be suppressed, but how do we do that? This is the problem of quality control.

Science, of course, has a very good system of quality control in place. It’s called peer review. All scientific articles are looked over by other scientists to make sure they make sense before they’re published. The system works pretty well, but times are changing, and we as scientists and scientifically-minded citizens have to be aware of what the Internet is doing.

One of the best things about the Internet is that it’s an incredibly powerful democratizing force. Not only does it give everyone a voice, but it also tears down the financial barriers that can get in the way. Look no further than Wikipedia, which for all its faults is nearly as accurate as an expensive print encyclopedia and far more expansive. It’s no textbook, but knowledge, often even advanced knowledge, has never been easier or cheaper to get.

The sciences are gradually getting the message. Many scientific journals now make back issues publicly available for free online. Hopefully, this trend will accelerate (something which would be invaluable for anyone who needs to do their own homework on medical research, among other things). In my own field of astrophysics, it gets even better, because we have arXiv.

arXiv (pronounced “archive”) is a free database for pre-prints of scientific papers maintained by the Cornell University Library. These are the articles as first submitted to journals, before peer review. Anyone can submit an article with minimal oversight and have it be seen the next day. Physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists all post articles to arXiv, but by the numbers, astrophysicists appear to use it most heavily. Nearly all new English-language papers in the field get posted there at the same time they are submitted to traditional journals.

arXiv is valuable for several reasons. For one, it allows instant feedback: any major errors in a paper will be spotted by the community at large long before the peer review process sorts them out. Second, it keeps all the other astronomers much more up-to-date on the work that’s being done. It a field that moves as fast as astrophysics, it’s vital to stay ahead of the curve. For this reason, most astrophysicists pay at least as much attention to arXiv as to the journals, although we still go to the journals for the peer-reviewed versions if they’ve been published.

Third, it’s an easy one-stop shop for anyone else who has an interest in the latest developments in the field, whether they’re a scientist or not. It consolidates all the journals, is easily searchable, and is updated with the latest news daily, even if the articles aren’t always the final versions.

Of course, the downside of arXiv is those two words, “minimal oversight”, from a few paragraphs back. The website is used so widely in the field because it is so easy to post there. But that also means that it’s easy to post erroneous or pseudoscientific articles as well. In practice, though, there aren’t that many, since the site isn’t used that much by non-scientists, and there is some oversight–joke articles like this one may be left up, but obviously bad ones can be taken down.

Astrophysics is a small field, with only 50 or so new articles per day, and it’s usually easy to spot any bad apples from the titles alone. Other fields are much larger, but the work of just a few people should still be sufficient to keep things running smoothly. I’d like to see more fields picking up this model in the future.

Speaking as an astrophysicist, I think our system works. arXiv creates a powerful democratizing force in the field, while peer review cleans things up. Thus, we have harnessed the power of the Internet while maintaining the old quality control structure.

But what happens when the old quality control structure breaks down, like in the case of the other half of my blog’s title? More on that in the next post.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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