You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Duck Penis Paradox

Is too much Internet pop science drowning out the serious stuff?

Paull Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

About ten years ago, Michael Eisen embarked on a mission to blow up the academic establishment. Eisen—a voluble geneticist at Berkeley—had become obsessed with the notion that the most prestigious scientific journals, the kind that make careers and confer legitimacy upon the published, were working against the very mission of science.

His theory goes something like this: The “glamour magazines,” as he calls them, have been around forever. Nature since 1869, Science since 1880. Not many of their circulations top 100,000—small by the standards of commercial media—but since scientists and science journalists need access to new studies to do their jobs, the journals can basically charge whatever they want, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for a single title annually.

But that’s not the worst of it, in Eisen’s view. He believes the journals are also strangling the pace of research itself. A scientist will usually submit a paper to the most prestigious publication possible. For the next several weeks or months, she will wait to hear if it has been deemed worthy of consideration—in which case it will be sent out to other academics for further evaluation. If the paper is rejected, the author will try the next relevant journal, still seeking to maximize “impact factor,” a crude measure of influence based on the number of times a journal’s papers are cited in other scholarly publications. And so on down the food chain.

“If your goal were to get your work out to your colleagues as fast as possible,” says Eisen, “you’d be better off loading your paper onto a rocket ship, sending it to Mars, and beaming it back to Earth.”

Eisen’s first attempt at bucking the system didn’t go well. In 2001, he and a biochemist pal organized a boycott of “the bad publishers” that refused to make their archives available in the public domain. They encouraged “all scientists of all nations” not to publish, review, or subscribe to the offending journals. More than 22,000 of their colleagues complied in theory—but since researchers actually need to publish to advance their careers, most of them balked.

“It shocks me on a daily basis how, in a community whose whole raison d’être is to push the limits of what we know and what we can do, that that attitude doesn’t apply to how the field operates,” Eisen told me, adding: “We realized that, if we wanted to change the system ... we’d have to do it ourselves.”

Illustration by Eric Pfeiffer 

The leaders of this boycott effort, already using the moniker “the Public Library of Science” (or PLOS for short), developed a new plan: a nonprofit dedicated to rapidly publishing academic papers and making them available for free online—no passwords, no paywalls. PLOS Biology launched in October 2003; PLOS One, a more ambitious mega-journal featuring research across disciplines, came along in 2006. “We were laughed at as naïve California hippie idealists,” Eisen recalls.

Now, from a spacious office in San Francisco, a staff of 15 editors puts out the world’s largest scientific journal by volume. In 2013, PLOS One published 31,500 papers—about 90 new articles every day, more than Science puts out in a month. And the organization’s cultural influence is huge. Studies first appearing in PLOS One are regularly written up by journalists from The New York Times, NPR, the BBC, and, yes, The New Republic. Nobel Prize winners are published with some regularity. Randy Schekman, former editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—one of the most official journals of them all—calls PLOS One “a smashing success.”

So, in many ways, Eisen has won. More people have more access to more studies than ever before. Science has never been so democratic. It’s just not clear whether democracy is what science needs.

PLOS One’s most viewed paper ever is about fellatio among fruit bats. Another widely circulated study was about the shape of duck penises. (They’re spiral.) But that’s not the site’s typical fare. On a random Wednesday this month, PLOS One published a report on how the brains of autistic children respond to the faces of loved ones versus strangers. It also posted a study that tested whether certain calcium-blocking drugs lead to breast cancer. There was a report on dog collars and one on dementia and one on the metabolism of salmon. Then 127 more studies after that. By the end of the day, I found myself impressed by the amount of material that had been added to the sum total of human knowledge. I also had a headache.

It’s precisely this kind of intellectual variety, however, that Eisen craves—and that he thinks the popular journals have been foolish to dismiss. “Everybody would love it if you could shake a Magic 8 Ball for each paper and it would tell you if it’s important or unimportant,” Eisen says. “It’s impossible to tell at a given moment what observations will actually stand the test of time.” Think of nutritional science, where studies suggest carbohydrate-heavy diets one decade and have Americans shunning bread and pasta the next. A couple years ago, Stanford medic John Ioannidis selected 50 random ingredients called for by the Boston Cooking School Cook Book and found that 80 percent of them had been linked to cancer somewhere in the scientific literature. If you ask several scientists whether or not a paper should be published, says Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, “They don’t agree much more than you’d expect by chance. ... It’s not much better than a lottery.”

As such, PLOS espouses a “publish first, judge later” policy. Eisen envisions a world that would dispense with peer review altogether, where researchers would present their findings as soon as they felt ready, and other scientists would evaluate the data and conclusions and weigh in publicly as they read. Editors’ personal biases would be taken out of the process, and scientific progress could accelerate. “I’m perfectly capable of reading papers in my field and deciding whether they’re valid or not,” Eisen says. The media and the general public, meanwhile, would learn to appreciate study results for what they are—new ideas, not inviolable facts—and follow the related research as it developed.

Eisen is aware of how radical and potentially dangerous that view is. PLOS One’s practice of throwing up as many studies as possible means that sometimes its findings aren’t just giggle-inducing (spiral duck penises) but downright flawed. Last year, a study claiming that clenching the right and left fists in sequence would help improve people’s memories got picked up by journalists all around the world before psychologists took note and debunked it. Their criticism was so nasty—and the paper itself so flawed—that some PLOS users feared it would undermine the entire open-access movement. PLOS One has recently staffed up, though it still only vets studies to make sure that the most basic protocols have been followed. “We get a lot of quite crazy submissions,” says Damian Pattinson, PLOS One’s editorial director. “People who claim to have proven Einstein wrong in their garden shed, that kind of thing.”

The problem with Eisen’s method runs deeper than letting the occasional clunker of a study slip through. For one, most scientists can’t pick up a paper in another field and understand it, let alone evaluate it. Researchers are also busy securing their own grants and jockeying for tenure. “They would rather do science than comment on other people’s science,” says Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis.

There’s a chilling effect to seeing your work corrected in public, too. “I’d rather have peer reviewers point out the problems with my paper in private,” says Christakis. Others don’t think academics—particularly social scientists writing on controversial topics like race and class—should have to think so much about public opinion; journals offer some protection from the politics of the day. John Holmwood, a professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, fears post-publication peer review would expose scholars to “populist attack.” Biologist Eric Moss is concerned about another kind of politics: Without the anonymous critique afforded by peer review, the academy would become “more Hollywood than it already is,” he says. “Kisses on the cheek.”

As elitist as it may sound, a paper in PLOS One (which you have to pay up to $1,350 to have published) just doesn’t carry the same weight as a paper in Science. “If you try to do the right thing and make your research available online, you’re actually shooting yourself in the foot career-wise,” says Ethan Perlstein, a molecular cell biologist. “How many times have we all read the abstract in PLOS One and rolled our eyes?” asked a commenter on the site itself.

It all comes down to confidence. The traditional journals may be inefficient, but they serve a purpose. By establishing a hierarchy, they help direct scientists’ and journalists’ limited attention to the research that deserves it. Even Eisen admits that his jumbled approach is imperfect. “If you want science to be a meritocracy,” he told me, “you have to have some measure of merit.” And for all of the good that he and PLOS One have done so far, they haven’t figured out how to fix that part of the system.