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BREAKING . . . . . . . PNAS updates its slogan!

I’m so happy about this, no joke.

Here’s the story. For awhile I’ve been getting annoyed by the junk science papers (for example, here, here, and here) that have been published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the editorship of Susan T. Fiske. I’ve taken to calling it PPNAS (“Prestigious proceedings . . .”) because so many news outlets seem to think the journal is so damn prestigious. Indeed, if PNAS just published those articles and nobody listened, it would be fine. I have a blog where I can publish any old things that I want; Susan T. Fiske has a journal where she can publish articles by her friends and other papers that she personally thinks are interesting and important. The problem is that, to many in the outside world, publication in PPNAS is a signal of quality, and organs such as NPR will report PPNAS articles without appropriate skepticism.

One thing that bugged me about PPNAS was this self-description on their website:

So I contacted someone at the National Academy of Sciences, asking if they could do something about that false statement on its webpage: “PNAS publishes only the highest quality scientific research.”

No journal is perfect, it’s no slam on PNAS to say that they publish some low quality papers. But that statement seems weird in that it puts the National Academy of Sciences in the position of defending some extremely bad papers that the journal has happened to mistakenly publish.

And . . . they fixed it. Here’s the new version:

They strive to publish only the highest quality scientific research. That’s exactly right! I’m so glad they fixed that. I’m not being ironic here. I really mean it.

PNAS no longer has a demonstrably false statement on their webpage. Progress happens one step at a time, and I welcome this step. Good on ya, PNAS!

P.S. Just to be clear, let me emphasize that the message of this post is positive positive positive. PNAS is a journal that publishes lots of excellent papers. It publishes some duds, but that’s unavoidable if you publish 3000 papers a year. Editors are busy, peer reviewers are unpaid and don’t always know what they’re doing, and it can be hard for everyone involved to keep up with the latest scientific developments. And PNAS sometimes publishes papers that are outside its areas of core competence (PNAS publishing on baseball makes about as much sense as Bill James writing on physics), but, even here, I can see the virtue of stepping out on occasion, living on the edge. Little is lost by such experiments and there’s always the potential for unexpected connections. Striving to publish only the highest quality scientific research is an excellent aim, and I’m glad that’s what the National Academy of Sciences is doing.

16 Comments

  1. Lee Jussim says:

    All the difference in the world between, “WE published it so it is now a fact, and an important one at that!” and “We published it, and we work hard to only accept really good papers, but, you know, we are not perfect, and so some postpub peer review and critique is probably justified, to help all of us separate the wheat from the chaff.”

    • Andrew says:

      Lee:

      Rather than speaking of separating the wheat from the chaff, I’d rather say that lots of papers can have issues. Even if a paper is the highest quality scientific research, it can still have value. I’d rather think of post-publication review not as a process of identifying bad papers, but rather as identifying problems and directions for further work. I also don’t like the “chaff” formulation because I feel that researchers are already under tremendous pressure to present their results as if they are flawless, offering unambiguous and consequential conclusions. So I don’t want post-publication review to be one more thing for authors to be afraid of. Rather, I’d hope that authors of published papers would welcome post-publication review and see it as a way to learn and do better. We should all want our work to be discussed, right?

  2. Wow! That’s huge. Thank you for persuading PNAS to make this change.

  3. JFA says:

    So if they publish more than 150 duds, would we reject the null that they are actually striving? Sorry… couldn’t resist.

  4. Carol says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Kudos! But unfortunately the original “every published paper is peer-reviewed” now has become “every paper undergoes rigorous peer review.” Every paper — EVERY PAPER! — undergoes rigorous — RIGOROUS! — peer review. Right. +1. -1. And that equals zero.

    Carol

    • Andrew says:

      Carol:

      I’d give PNAS a break on that one. “Rigorous” peer review is not precisely defined. I’ve handled some PNAS papers and I do send them to expert reviewers. It’s also possible that PNAS has changed its policy in light of the air rage and himmicanes embarrassments, and so maybe their peer review really is more rigorous than it was a year ago.

  5. Josiah says:

    I think Andrew is just being ironic here. Well played.

  6. Dave Meyer says:

    Andrew, I’m not convinced yet that you’ve achieved much progress. What does ‘strive’ really mean; what should it mean? If and when you get ‘sometimes’ added as well to the formerly offending sentence, then I’ll be convinced that you’ve really accomplished an increase for Truth in Advertizing…

  7. Guive says:

    So do we not get to call it PPNAS anymore?

  8. Sofia says:

    Very nice. My husband mentioned this (with background) in his Social Psychology methodological workshop yesterday. Hopefully some of his students get the message.

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