Two propositions for academic literature

It’s not a great time for science, I would say. I am not speaking in terms of advancement, of course. Science and technology are ubiquitous nowadays, and every day we make progresses we could only dream of a few years ago, in several fields (but see here). Medicine, AI, material science, data science. However, it is quite clear that in some cases – especially in the US and in Europe – science is increasingly seen not as an instrument for the progress of humanity, but rather as a tool in the hands of the élite and of the evil forces of capitalism. Sometimes also unable to reach desirable targets – such as with the social sciences or with automation. Some also talk about a new Dark Age, as in futuristic Medieval times.

The academic world is to blame for relevant part of this dissatisfaction. For many reasons. First because of the message: “Science is not democratic” (see also here). Meaning that “you cannot establish a scientific truth through voting”, only studying and acquiring knowledge you can get to the truth. An idea that is quite obvious and somehow indisputable, but that has led many to think that no kind of dissent is worth listening, when coming from outside the scientific community. If you haven’t studied, if you don’t know what you are talking about, you are just a dunce. Just let the experts work, please, “do not talk to driver”. Losing from sight the facts that: (a) science actually is democratic, mainly because it’s falsifiable, transparent, and reproducible; (b) scientists are wrong, quite often; (c) pluralism, dissent and criticism – from any source – are the key to avoid mistakes and to find new solutions when a change of perspective is required.

The second relevant issue – deeply linked to the first one – is related to the closedness of academia, increasingly similar to a sect of self-referential, cultured and refined ponderers. According to many, the purpose of education, research, study, science and ultimately knowledge, is knowledge itself. All the other consequences are just “positive spillovers” for what is mainly an intellectual activity, logically distinct from the progress of humanity in terms of wellbeing, freedom, civilisation, and social advancement. They do research because it’s what they like, because it’s what they are good at. Why should they care about doing something useful for society? Why should they care about being understood by “the masses”? You choose a research topic to find a niche, to get funded and published, not to solve problems. Who cares about priorities? Priority setting is a form of control over science, and as such it is intrinsically fascist. No one should interfere, even if someone chooses a PhD only because the academia is (might be) a safe alternative to the labor market. Even when there is no form of academic enhancement, but only a run to further education, to avoid competition or to satisfy ever increasing standards.

All of this is particularly true for economics. Very often deprived from its strongly political nature, and sold as neutral and scientific truth. Frequently “too hard to understand” for the common people, who could not bear the burden of such a complex reality (see here). Frequently wrong, however, since always ready to be transformed into a mantra. Also economics – traditionally the most materialist of all social sciences – is now victim of the influence of fields such as the pure sciences or philosophy, giving in to the temptation of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Often with results that, for the love of rigour, it fails even in bringing new knowledge, innovative notions and experiences to the community.

This is why I make here two little propositions for academic literature, with the main intent of opening a fruitful debate on the role of knowledge and research, especially in the social sciences. These ideas go in the direction of dealing with some basic scientific issues: (a) to give more relevance and transparency to the role of reviewers (see also here, here, and here), which should emerge more explicitly; (b) to increase the standardisation in scientific publications; (c) to facilitate the analysis, comprehension, replication, and comparability of the studies.

1. Scientific conclusions vs experienced interpretation

Or, as in an Italian saying: gettare il cuore oltre l’ostacolo.

Very often the results of a study are not so straightforward or conclusive. Scientifically, they are subject to a number of caveats, there might be limitations in the data, and other sources of influence could somehow hide what is really going on. This is why the authors should include – in what is now a standardised format and sequence: Introduction > Theoretical framework > Empirical strategy > Results > Robustness checks > Conclusion – a paragraph in which they try to go beyond what can be concluded with scientific certainty, explicating their deeper sensations and impressions about the phenomenon they are studying. “We are not sure, given the results, that an intervention is working? Well, our impression is that it actually works/does not work because…”.

This might be important for three reasons: (1) the authors of a paper usually work on the topic for years, and acquire knowledge that usually goes beyond what is published, and goes also beyond the job done by the reviewers; (2) currently, the same role is played by the language, by the tone and by some arguments used by the authors, which often try to make their position explicit when commenting and interpreting the results; giving autonomy to these impressions could help clarifying what is the deeper view (and intent?) of the author, depurating the scientific part from any judgement; (3) of course, it would intensify the circulation of knowledge, both by providing more practical and usable (circumstantial) conclusions and by clarifying more in detail what future research should focus on.

This is usually done in conferences, debates and discussions on the papers, and also in the educational works that many academic researchers produce – often based on their academic writings. However, it is time to bring this knowledge in the academic publications, opening up this closed environment with all means available.

There is also another important consequence of this approach – to me the most relevant. In this section of the paper, the authors also have the opportunity to analyse and prevent any misinterpretation of their work. Not only those based on scientific and reasonable grounds, but also those that twist the scientific results to serve their ideological point of view. In this case, the authors can openly warn against these mistaken interpretations, getting ahead of these damaging operations and without ignoring the public and political relevance of their scientific activity. All the research made by Piketty and colleagues – summarised in Capital – is a good example for this: after the publication of the book, Capital is cited everywhere, with all sorts of interpretations, usually contradicting each other and simply wrong. This should be avoided as much as possible, and it is the authors’ responsibility to do so.

2. Transparency of choices, strengths and weaknesses

All papers look good, once they are published. Well, at least a majority of them. Many papers, however, have parts that are more fragile and parts that are stronger. And, most of all, in any scientific work the authors opt for some directions instead of others, choosing solutions that might be determinant for their own results or for their interpretations.

This process should be more transparent and should be inserted in its own section of each publication. Not only the authors, together with the reviewers, should explicate their choices and their stream of ideas, but the reviewers themselves, anonymously and without the consent of the authors, should write a short review of the study in which they list the main strengths and weaknesses of the paper, once again underlining the critical choices made in the publication process.

Once again, the aim of this proposition is not only linked to increasing the transparency within the academia, but it is also to enhance the circulation of knowledge, which is often embodied not only in the results but (mainly?) in the process of obtaining and analyzing these results.

To conclude: these propositions are not resolvent nor decisive. But I argue that they would have an impact. Even if the most important and immediate measures to incentivate the spreading of scientific knowledge would probably be to knock down the high prices and fees related to academic papers and venues (see also here), an open debate should also start on the very way in which the academia produces knowledge. A change of mindset is required: science is not for the benefit of scientists, it is for the benefit of society.


[F.O.]
Featured image: Carlo Crivelli, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1476)

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