Episode 17: Jahed Momand talks decentralizing publishing

Get good and cranky with us as we talk about power structures, money and centralization in academic publishing, and how similar some of those structures are to what we deal with in trade.

Jahed Momand is a former scientist (biophysics) who went into industry (data science), specifically charged with deriving effect sizes for medical interventions for personalized medicine, only to discover that from the perspective of bayesian inference, most of the medical science literature was total nonsense. That kicked off his investigations of the crises engulfing scientific publishing.

Jahed fought his way to the interview through a fog induced by the responsibility of just having become a father of chickens.

Incidentally, since we recorded this, the UC System ended its multi-million dollar subscription to Elsevier. Big ups.

Minute by Minute

1:34 —

We introduce Jahed Momand and his scientific bio, as well as a deep sense of foreboding about the crisis engulfing scientific publishing.

3:37 —

He experiences the frustration of working in biophysics and the article he contributed to in a absurd review purgatory. It’s like the spinning wheel of death, but for publishing research.

7:24 —

A crisis of meaning about how the research he contributes to the study of biology.
10:05 — Moving on from studying biophysics, Jahed starts working in data science, back before it was cool. Aggressive head nodding and eye-rolling ensues regarding the tech industry. Hang in for the definition of “epistemic” (which Emily always forgets)…spoiler: it’s not about the tinier books of the Bible.

14:45 —

We learn the definition of “Bayesian inference”, which is, to COMPLETELY oversimplify, how people update beliefs based on evidence. Aaaand it’s already time to start questioning the meaning of truth.

16:13 —

Statistical probabilities don’t always take all the existing conditions and possibilities into account. He begins to explain his point about his “total nonsense” claim in his bio.

20:35 —

How are articles published in academic articles selected? Are they objectively chosen, or are the way they’re approved skewed by popular and traditional beliefs? Yes, these are leading questions.

23:24 —

We return to the more concrete drama of how long it takes someone’s article to go through the peer review process. What keeps an article into development hell? Jahed uses the example of changing ingrained beliefs about adult neurogenesis, and how scientists who challenge the status quo of beliefs within the community can put their careers in jeopardy.

Note:Joseph Altman 1965 published the first findings of a Neurogenesis in the adult brain Michael Kaplan extended the findings. Here’s the original Kaplan paper on adult neurogenesis.

26:15 —

Pasko Rakic‘s career is alive and well. (Post-pro verification: He’s the guy who said “I don’t know how neurons behave in New Mexico, but they don’t do that in Connecticut.”) Other people who challenge the paradigm have experienced pushback again and again before the knowledge could be accepted. For people who live in academica, status, career advancement, and basically a person’s entire life is wrapped up in being able to publish research, so getting denied isn’t just a matter of brushing your shoulders off.

28:15 —

Emily and Corinne draw the “this is the way it’s always been done” comparison from scientific to trade publishing. There’s always a power dynamic, especially in the extremely centralized publishing world, both when it comes to academic and trade. Jahed names the top three power columns, and their gob-stopping profit margins. Elsevier’s profit margin, for instance, is 36%.

Great quote from that article by the way:

What other industry receives its raw materials from its customers, gets those same customers to carry out the quality control of those materials, and then sells the same materials back to the customers at a vastly inflated price?

—Adrian Sutton

32:12 —

Here’s a breakdown of the graduate student’s role in research and how that contributes to published work, upon which the progression of their careers hinges. Oh, and also, you have to pay a hefty sum to get published. Much like a vanity press.

36:53 —

What happens once the paper is submitted?

39:12 —

Here’s another similarity between all forms of publishing: people who love what they do editorially are conditioned to be uncomfortable with payment. You’re expected to do things for free, and with intense deadlines, because you love it and your work is important. See: David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs.

44:48 —

We talk a bit about who holds the reins in scientific publishing, and what mechanisms move a paper along once they decide it should be published (by some totally objective process). There’s also a nod to the Public Library of Science (PLOS), and co-founder Michael Eisen.

46:57 —

Jahed talks about Aaron Swartz’s history of activism on behalf of open publishing, his untimely death by suicide, and this quote:

“Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing articles to those at universities in the First World but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

49:10 —

What happens after the article is finally published? If you have an institutional license, maybe you can look at it, but a normal person? $100/article at least.

51:00 —

A story of subjectivity and backstabbing in academic publishing: the discovery of leptin.

54:33 —

What are the alternatives? We go from the normies to the weirder ideas. Also did y’all know Corinne was in a sorority? Corinne was in a sorority, you guys.

59:36 —

Please join Jahed and Emily in the “Nassim-Taleb-blocked-us” Club—all it takes is making fun of his Vibrams on Twitter. Also—who is getting all this damn money?

1:01:47 —

Quick sidebar about Elizabeth Holmes, Bad Blood, and Theranos. Correction: it was actually a Vanity Fair article, not from the New Yorker.

1:03:23 —

This is now a blockchain podcast. Welcome to hybrid blockscout. Or hybrid chainscout? Some people are trying to use the concept of blockchain to change how scientific publishing functions.

1:12:15 —

How can we keep our organizations from falling into a hierarchy/oligarchy? What kind of communities are open to trying new things? What do we need to give up to create a new academic publishing paradigm? Seriously asking.

1:13:50 —

Use the #hybridpubchain hashtag to talk with @hybridpubscout and @againstutopia with your ideas about decentralized publishing.

1:14:53 —

Jahed plugs his Twitter account and Against Utopia, his newsletter essay series, and his Patreon.

Remember to clean your bedroom and read books.

Hybrid Pub Scout is connecting a community of readers, writers, and publishing professionals to build a better publishing world. Sign up here for free podcast updates and news about all the amazing projects that our contributors are putting out. 

Share this post!

Join our troop

Be a part of our growing community of readers, writers, and publishing professionals who are working together to create a better literary world!