Thursday, June 25, 2020

Peer review: How is that working out for ya?

A paragraph from a form editor in chief of a major journal in my specialty area:

Less than a month later, this got me into trouble. Apparently I had upset some Very Important People by “desk-rejecting” their papers, which means I turned them down on the basis of serious methodological flaws before sending out the work to other reviewers. (This practice historically accounted for about 30 percent of the rejections at this journal.) My bosses—the committee that hires the editor in chief and sets journal policy—sent me a warning via email. After expressing concern about “toes being stepped on,” especially the toes of "visible ... scholars whose disdain will have a greater impact on the journal's reputation," they forwarded a message from someone whom they called "a senior, highly respected, award-winning social psychologist." That psychologist had written them to say that my decision to reject a certain manuscript was "distasteful." I asked for a discussion of the scientific merits of that editorial decision and others, but got nowhere.
The rest of the article is worth reading. Peer review is not all it's cracked up to be. Peer review is better than nothing, and definitely better than government meddling into what gets published. However, it only works to the extent that eminent scholars can't do an end-run around editorial decisions, and of course the extent to which peer reviewers have sufficient information to make informed decisions.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Weapons Effect Theory?

I'd honestly never thought of the phenomenon known as the weapons effect to be a theory in any meaningful sense of the term, but evidently there are folks who do. Not sure what a theoretical model would look like, or if it would be all that helpful, given that the evidence that would underpin the theory seems to be on shaky ground to begin with. If I have some spare time, would love to play around with this idea of what a weapons effect theory would look like and what would be needed to provide confirmatory and falsifiable evidence. Probably more me just sorting something out. Anyway, I guess we read something new every day.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Another university cuts ties with Elsevier

This time, it's MIT. Whether or not you wish to buy MIT's avowal of a principled stand for open access, we can at least acknowledge that there is a pattern developing. I am under the impression (based on meetings I've been part of in the last couple months) that my university system is getting ready to do likewise - although more for budgetary reasons. See, a subscription to Elsevier's stable of journals is very expensive. And yes, Elsevier does have some open access options, but when you're looking at spending $3000 or more per published article, that's untenable. That would practically bust my departmental and College budget (for publication of one article!), given the cuts we are facing this coming fiscal year. The STEM College at my university will be most directly affected, but so too will those of us in the behavioral and social sciences in my College. There are workarounds. Interlibrary loan still works. No patience for that? Use a browser with a VPN (like Opera) and use Sci-Hub. You'll get your article either way. No muss. No fuss.

Here's a radical idea, although hardly novel or original: Open access should be the norm, rather than the exception. In the meantime, if you can, make preprints public. There are many options available. What we produce as scientific workers is intended to be a public good and should be treated as such. Here's another radical idea (also not novel or original): reclaim scientific publishing as a public good that is operated within the public sector rather than privatized. Maybe we can give non-profit organizations that respect open access a pass, but otherwise, the fruits of our labor should be driven by the needs of our citizens - from the peer review process all the way to the finished published article, and archived data and code. Finally, yet another radical idea: do away with all these metrics that give journals "prestige". What matters more is the work itself. Where it appears is of less importance. Finally, we need to provide public support to post-peer reviewers. That in itself can be a full-time job for those who have the interest and talent to pursue it. Published work can and should be scrutinized. Heck, mine has. I'm grateful for that. The initial peer review process is adequate for the purposes of initial filtering, but insufficient for catching all the many potential flaws with the papers that are reviewed. There are folks like Elizabeth Bik, Nick Brown, James Heathers, etc., who do invaluable work data sleuthing on a very regular basis. If anything, we need more who are willing to jump into the fray. To do that, they need a way to make a living and do so with adequate job security.

Ultimately, the goal is supposed to be in the spirit of George Miller's notion of giving away the science of Psychology in the public interest. Our system that exists - the one where the public pays taxes so that scientists can submit research to journals run by for-profit companies that farm out peer review to people who do so for no compensation, and upon publication the same public is charged yet again for access to that information - is flat out insane and unsustainable. If we can come out the other side of this already turbulent decade with a system of scientific publishing that is publicly owned and is freely available to the public, at least one thing will have gone right.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A different type of busy

For much of the past decade, I have been locked into a routine each summer. I teach multiple summer courses (the load depends on student demand and whatnot), score AP Psych exams, and sometimes go to a conference. I also try to catch up on data analyses to whatever extent possible, so that I can get write-ups drafted enough for possible submission. This summer would be no different. With three summer courses (two from UAFS and one from eVersity), AP Reading in Tampa, and then repliCATS and SIPS in Victoria, BC, June alone was going to be insanely busy. By the latter half of July things would slow down and I'd use that time to take a bit of breather and then to move on whatever projects needed attention, prior to another fall semester. Just business as usual.

Then COVID-19 came along. By mid-March, I was already working from home. Any seated courses were flipped online. I am used to teaching online, so although that was an adjustment for all of us (I had to figure out on the fly how to quickly transition and smooth out the rough edges, and my students had to figure out all sorts of things, including how to find wifi hotspots to do their work), it was mostly doable. It did put a halt to some research work I had lined up with a student. We got one piece of the project completed before everything went sideways. Travel restrictions, budget cuts, the very real concerns of spending hours on airplanes and in airports, etc., ended my trips to Tampa and Victoria, BC. My professional development plan that I had sent in to my dept. chair and Dean was null and void. Ended up being the least of my concerns. We've learned, hopefully, a lot over the last few months about this particular novel coronavirus. We've also seen some of the socioeconomic fault lines that this pandemic has laid bare. The protests we've witnessed the last two weeks are in some ways an example of how the pandemic made very apparent the systemic racism that pervades my particular nation. Combine with an egregious example of police brutality, and we're witnessing a possible sea change in our society - the outcomes of which are unclear.

What is clear is that everything I thought I'd do the usual way - conferences in person, grading AP exams in person, spending tons of times in bars, restaurants, crowded convention centers, crowded meeting rooms, airplanes, airports, etc. - was no more. And yet it appears I will be as busy as ever. My summer courses were already online anyway, with the exception of the second summer session, which was flipped online several weeks ago. The wildcard was eVersity, which is still establishing its course rotation. The introductory psych course got the green light, and I had a contract to sign. The AP reading will go on, but online instead of in Tampa. How much I make depends on how far above 35 hours I can or will go that week. The good folks at SIPS refunded our conference fees and set up an online version of the conference free of charge. We'll do a lot of Zoom sessions. I'll participate and contribute as I can later this month. In essence, I will apparently be just as busy these next few weeks as I would have been anyway, without ever leaving my den (which has now been transformed into my home office).

My first and most intensive round of classes is already underway. Mid-June will be very busy, and then everything simmers down, so that by the latter two weeks of July, I can focus on the matters that I am eager to work on. It may even be a busier July than expected, as I am attached to an applied project, strictly in a data analytic capacity, examining potential gender differences (and I am using gender in the proper sense here) in academic performance pre-COVID lockdown and post-COVID lockdown. The leads on that one have the theoretical rationale down. I'm there to crunch numbers once the database is made available. And although that project is specific to my institution as we figure out how to adapt and serve our student base, the hope is that it can enlighten other educators and administrators going forward.

I don't know how much I will get to blog over the coming weeks. Activity here had been a bit light to begin with the last three months. I chalk it up to the extra effort that went into working with my students as they confronted various obstacles (lost jobs, extra shifts, family health emergencies, general anxiety and depression due to isolation, etc), my own elevated stress level, and sorting out how to work with far more distractions than I had ever experienced. After all, I still am just barely young enough to have kids living at home, etc. It's been an adjustment. Like many of you, I was overwhelmed with the sheer scope of the pandemic, and I can't really say that has gone away. My state is one of those where cases are still spiking. Knock in wood, I should stay healthy, if a bit frazzled.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Varieties of Racism

What follows is a table that offers a nuanced approach to racism. In this case, the point is that there are several combinations of racism along the following dimensions: individual/institutional and overt/covert. Each has harmful consequences for those affected. These sorts off tables can be very important for understanding each other's blind spots as well as those of our social institutions. I suspect that a lot of the friction encountered in confronting racism comes from covert unintentional acts at either the individual or institutional level. Getting those involved to see it and to take steps to reform is likely to be a long-term work in progress.

This diagram comes from a textbook by Ponterotto, Utsey, and Pedersen (2006).

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

A few thoughts about violence

Given recent events, it seems like this would be a good time to spend some time discussing how violence is defined. Much of what I discuss relies on books by Chasin (2004) and Bulhan (1985). I will start simply by saying up front that there are multiple forms of violence that are fundamentally different - at least quantitatively if not qualitatively. I will also state up front that I accept that violence begets violence, but unless we're explicit as to the forms of violence with which we are dealing, we'll fail to understand where the onus of responsibility lay for a particular violent act.

Most of us are more than familiar with interpersonal violence. If one were to simply ask any random acquaintance to give a definition of violence, it would in all probability be restricted to violence in an interpersonal sphere. Spend the first few minutes of any local evening news program in any major urban area, and one will be inundated with stories of some of the most typical forms of interpersonal violence: rape, aggravated assault, robbery, murder or attempted murder, and so on. One might even get the (false) impression that the nearby neighborhoods or the world at large are terrifyingly dangerous places. Interpersonal violence can be as minor as a fistfight all the way to being life-threatening or life-ending. That said, it tends to be easily noticeable and hence relatively easy to seek condemnation and/or efforts for violence prevention (the latter of which I find quite commendable and in fact utterly necessary). The other forms of violence, as we will see, are considerably more insidious - and often aren't even recognized as violence by most people.

One of those forms of violence is organizational violence, which involves explicit decisions made by individuals as part of their formal roles in organizations, such as the military, police, CIA, or a corporate bureaucracy which lead to physical harm or death. Although the decision-makers involved in organizational violence might have no direct interpersonal role in the harm caused to their victims, and in fact may even be abhorred by the actual process of violent actions such as torture and murder (e.g., Arendt, 1963), they are nonetheless committing a form of violence. A classic 20th century example of organizational violence involves the various bureaucratic decisions made by such individuals as Adolph Eichmann, whose paperwork paved the way for the deaths of untermenschen in Central and Eastern Europe during the Nazi era. Executive orders, legislation, or in this day and age a mere tweet by an elected leader may be sufficient for unleashing acts as visible as firing teargas and rubber bullets into a crowd of entirely nonviolent demonstrators in order to give a national leader a photo op at a nearby church, to the far less visible forms of harm to others - such as elimination of unemployment benefits, denied access to public healthcare (e.g., Medicaid) once one is unemployed, etc. In each case, the end result is that people get harmed in some tangible way. Such violence can also be found in the private sector in the form of drafting of memos at some corporate headquarters leading to the unemployment, displacement, or starvation of whole communities in order to ostensibly improve profit margins. In some cases, the bureaucrats involved are consciously aware that their actions will lead to the suffering and potential death of others; often though there is - as Hannah Arendt has duly noticed - no thought given to the human consequences of these particular bureaucratic acts of violence. Often organizational violence can lead to what is called "blowback" - typically in the form of interpersonal violence as a reaction. Turns out the targets of such violence do get understandably angry, and that anger only festers over time if there is no restitution.

Structural violence refers to physical harm (including death) suffered by a particular group of people who do not have access to the same services and benefits as the rest of society. Often, though not always, structural violence and organizational violence co-occur. What most of us fail to recognize is that structural violence is often the most deadly and insidious forms of violence. To take a few words from the book,  by Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan (1985):

Structural violence is a feature of social structures. This form of violence is inherent in the established modes of social relations, distribution of goods and services, and legal practices of dispensing justice. Structural violence involves more than the violation of fairness and justice. [p. 136]

Structural violence is the most lethal form of violence because it is the least discernible; it causes premature deaths in the largest number of persons; and it presents itself as the natural order of things. A situation of oppression rests primarily on structural violence which in turn fosters institutional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal violence. Structural violence pervades the prevailing values, the environment, social relations, and individual psyches. The most visible indicators of structural violence are differential rates of mortality, morbidity, and incarceration among groups in the same society. In particular, a situation of oppression increases the infant mortality rate and lowers the life expectancy for the oppressed. [p. 155]
We see these differential rates in the US in terms of differences in life expectancy of African Americans versus Euro-Americans, as well as in the disproportionate rates of incarceration between different racial/ethnic groups, differences in income that disproportionately disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities, and so on. This year alone, we learned that African Americans were much more prone to die of COVID-19 than their Euro-American counterparts. A lifetime of differences in opportunities, patterns of mistreatment by authorities, access to healthcare, and so on appear to be predictors. The structural violence in this case will also fall underneath the radar because it is built into the very fabric of the oppressors' worldview. After all, the injustices that exist can be written off as human nature, some form of moral failings, etc. "It's just the way it is," many might say. Those oppressed may be written off as less intelligent, as not belonging and unable to fit in, etc. The deaths caused from the stress of being oppressed, and without adequate access to fundamental human needs for survival are no less real, even if they don't make the headlines of our various corporate controlled newspapers and news channels. Again, it is crucial to recognize that is in the case of organizational violence, structural violence can and often does lead to blowback - as we have seen in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Fortunately, most of that blowback has been remarkably nonviolent and restrained, given the very visible anger and frustration expressed by those most affected by a system and set of societal filters and norms stacked against them.

What I'm driving at here is simply that if one wants to understand what is now an on-going set of protests and occasional riots in the US at this point in time, it is imperative that we get our heads around the root causes of those forms of mass behavior. To fail to address in particular the organizational and structural origins of what might appear to the more sheltered as violence, is to not only further victimize those who've already been victimized but inevitably makes tangible violence prevention efforts impossible. To condemn those who simply may be reacting to lengthy periods of oppression without extracting some form of tangible retribution from those who have perpetrated organizational and structural violence is shallow at best.