Fly less, give more

Russ Poldrack writes that he will be flying less:

I travel a lot – I have almost 1.3 million lifetime miles on United Airlines, and in the last few years have regularly flown over 100,000 miles per year. This travel has definitely helped advance my scientific career, and has been in many ways deeply fulfilling and enlightening. However, the toll has been weighing on me and Miles’ article really pushed me over the edge towards action. I used the Myclimate.org carbon footprint calculator to compute the environmental impact of my flights just for the first half of 2019, and it was mind-boggling: more than 23 tons of CO2. For comparison, my entire household’s yearly carbon footprint (estimated using https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/) is just over 10 tons!

For these reasons, I am committing to eliminate (to the greatest degree possible) academic air travel for the foreseeable future. That means no air travel for talks, conferences, or meetings — instead participating by telepresence whenever possible.

I’m sympathetic to the sentiment, and have considered reducing my own travel on a couple of occasions. So far, I’ve decided not to. It’s not that I disagree with Russ’s reasoning; I’m very much on board with the motivation for cutting travel, and I think we should all try to do our part to try and help avert, or at least mitigate, the looming climate crisis. The question for me is how to best go about that. While I haven’t entirely ruled out cutting down on flying in future, it’s not something I’m terribly eager to do. Travel is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling parts of my job, and I’m loathe to stop flying unless there are no other ways to achieve the same or better outcomes.

Fortunately, there are other things one can do to try to keep the planet nice and habitable for all of us. For my part, I’ve decided that, rather than cutting back on travel, I’m going to give some money to charity. And in the next ~4,000 words, I’m going to try to convince you to consider doing the same (at least the giving to charity part; I’m not going to try to argue you out of not flying).

Now, I know what you’re thinking at this point. You’re probably thinking, what does he mean, ‘charity’? Is he talking about carbon offsets? He’s talking about carbon offsets, isn’t he! This dude is about to write a 4,000-word essay telling me I should buy carbon offsets! Like I don’t already know they’re a gigantic scam. No thanks.

Congratulations, my friend—you’re right. I do mean carbon offsets.

Well, kind of.

What I’ll really try to convince you is that, while carbon offsets are actually a perfectly reasonable thing for a person to purchase, the idea of "offsetting" one’s lifestyle choices is probably not the most helpful way to think about the more general fight against climate change. But carbon offsets as they’re usually described—i.e., as promissory notes you can purchase from organizations that claim to suck up a certain amount of carbon out of the atmosphere by planting trees or engaging in other similarly hippie activities—are a good place to start, because pretty much everyone’s heard of them. So let me start by rebutting what I see as the two (or really three) most common arguments against offsets, and in the process, it’ll hopefully become clear why offsets are a bit of a red herring that’s best understood as just a special case of a much more general principle. The general principle being, if you want to save yourself a bunch of reading, do a little bit of research, and then give as much as you comfortably can.

Offsets as indulgences

Carbon offsets are frequently criticized on the grounds that they’re either (a) ineffective, or (b) morally questionable—amounting to a form of modern day indulgence. I can’t claim any particular expertise in either climate science or catholicism, but I can say that nothing I’ve read has convinced me of either argument.

Let’s take the indulgence argument first. Superficially, it may seem like carbon offsets are just a way for well-off people to buy their way out of their sins and into heaven (or across the Atlantic—whichever comes first). But, as David Roberts observed in an older Grist piece, there are some fairly important differences between the two things that make the analogy… not such a great one:

If there really were such a thing as sin, and there was a finite amount of it in the world, and it was the aggregate amount of sin that mattered rather than any individual’s contribution, and indulgences really did reduce aggregate sin, then indulgences would have been a perfectly sensible idea.

Roberts’s point is that when someone opts to buy carbon offsets before they get on a plane, the world still benefits from any resulting reduction in carbon release—it’s not like the money simply vanishes into the church’s coffers, never to be seen again, while the newly guilt-relieved traveler gets to go on their merry way. Maybe it feels like people are just taking the easy way out, but so what? There are plenty of other situations in which people opt to give someone else money in order to save themselves some time and effort—or for some other arbitrarily unsavory reason—and we don’t get all moralistic and say y’know, it’s not real parenting if you pay for a babysitter to watch your kids while you’re out, or how dare you donate money to cancer charities just so people see you as a good person. We all have imperfect motives for doing many of the things we do, but if your moral orientation is even slightly utilitarian, you should be able to decouple the motive for performing an action from the anticipated consequences of that action.

As a prominent example, none of us know what thought process went through Bill and Melinda Gates’s heads in the lead-up to their decision to donate the vast majority of their wealth to the Gates Foundation. But suppose it was something like "we want the world to remember us as good people" rather than "we want the world to be a better place", would anyone seriously argue that the Gateses shouldn’t have donated their wealth?

You can certainly argue that it’s better to do the right thing for the right reason than the right thing for the wrong reason, but to the extent that one views climate change as a battle for the survival of humanity (or some large subset of it), it seems pretty counterproductive to only admit soldiers into one’s army if they appear to have completely altruistic motives for taking up arms.

The argument from uncertainty

Then there’s the criticism that carbon offsets are ineffective. I think there are actually two variants of this argument—one from uncertainty, and one from inefficacy. The argument from uncertainty is that there’s just too much uncertainty associated with offset programs. That is, many people are understandably worried that when they donate their money to tree planting or cookstove-purchasing programs, they can’t know for sure that their investment will actually lead to a reduction in global carbon emissions, whereas when they reduce their air travel, they at least know that they’ve saved at least one ticket’s worth of emissions.

Now, it’s obviously true that offsets can be ineffective—if you give a charity some money to reduce carbon, and that charity proceeds to blow all your money on advertising, squirrels it away in an executive’s offshore account, or plants a bunch of trees that barely suck up any carbon, then sure, you have a problem. But the fact that it’s possible to waste money giving to a particular cause doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. If it did, nobody would ever donate money to any charity, because huge inefficiences are rampant. Similarly, there would be no basis for funding clean energy subsidies or emission-reducing technologies, seeing as the net long-term benefit of most such investments is virtually impossible to predict at the outset. Requiring certainty, or anything close to it, when seeking to do something good for the world is a solid recipe for doing almost nothing at all. Uncertainty about the consequences of our actions is just a fact of life, and there’s no reason to impose a higher standard here than in other areas.

Conversely, as intuitively appealing as the idea may be, trying to cut carbon by reducing one’s travel is itself very far from a sure thing. It would be nice to think that if the net carbon contribution of a given flight is estimated at X tons of CO2 per person, then the effect of a random person not getting on that flight is to reduce global CO2 levels by roughly X tons. But it doesn’t work quite that way. For one thing, it’s not as if abstaining from air travel instantly decreases the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere. Near term, the plane you would have traveled on is still going to take off, whether you’re on it or not. So if you decide to stay home, your action doesn’t actually benefit the environment in any way until such time as it (in concert with others’ actions) influences the broader air travel industry.

Will your actions eventually have a positive impact on the air travel industry? I don’t know. Probably. It seems reasonable to suppose that if a bunch of academics decide to stop flying, eventually, fewer planes will take off than otherwise would. What’s much less clear, though, is how many fewer. Will the effective CO2 savings be anywhere near the nominal figure that people like to float when estimating the impact of air travel—e.g., roughly 2 tons for a one-way transatlantic flight in economy? This I also don’t know, but it’s plausible to suppose they won’t. The reason is that your purchasing decisions don’t unfold in a vacuum. When an academic decides not to fly, United Airlines doesn’t say, "oh, I guess we have one less customer now." Instead, the airline—or really, its automated pricing system—says "I guess I’ll leave this low fare open a little bit longer". At a certain price point, the lower price will presumably induce someone to fly who otherwise wouldn’t.

Obviously, price elasticity has its limits. it may well be that, in the long term, the airlines can’t compensate for the drop in demand while staying solvent, and academics and other forward-thinking types get to take credit for saving the world. That’s possible. Alternatively, maybe it’s actually quite easy for airlines to create new, less conscientious, air travelers by lowering prices a little bit, and so the only real product of choosing to stay home is that you develop a bad case of FOMO while your friends are all out having fun learning new things at the conference. Which of these scenarios (or anything in between) happen to be true depends on a number of strong assumptions that, in general, I don’t think most academics, or even economists, have a solid grasp on (I certainly don’t pretend to).

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the net impact of not flying is negative (that would surprise me), or that academics shouldn’t cut their air travel. I’m simply observing that there’s massive uncertainty about the effects of pretty much anything one could do to try fight climate change. This doesn’t mean we should give up and do nothing (if uncertainty about the future was a reason not to do things, most of us would never leave our house in the morning), but it does mean that perhaps naive cause-and-effect intuitions of the if-I-get-on-fewer-planes-the-world-will-have-less-CO2 variety are not the best guide to effective action.

The argument from inefficacy

The other variant of the argument is a bit stronger, and is about inefficacy rather than uncertainty: here, the idea is not just that we can’t be sure that offsetting works; it’s that we actually have positive evidence that offset programs don’t do what they claim. In support of this argument, people like to point to articles like this, or this, or this—all of which make the case that many organizations that nominally offer to take one’s money and use it to pull some carbon out of the environment (or prevent it from being released) are just not cost-effective.

For what it’s worth, I find many of these articles pretty convincing, and, for the sake of argument, I’m happy to take what many of them say about specific mechanisms of putative carbon reduction as gospel truth. The thing is, the conclusion they support is not that trying to reduce carbon through charitable giving doesn’t work; it’s that it’s easy to waste your money by giving to the wrong organization. This doesn’t mean you have to put your pocketbook away and go home; it just means you might have to invest a bit of time researching the options before you can feel comfortable that there’s a reasonable (again, not a certain!) chance that your donation will achieve its intended purpose.

This observation shouldn’t be terribly troubling to most people. Most of us are already willing to spend some time researching options online before we buy, say, a television; there’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect to do the same thing when trying to use our money to help mitigate environmental disaster. Yet, in conversation, when I’ve asked my academic friends who express cynicism about the value of offsets how much time they’ve actually spent researching the issue, the answer is almost invariably "none" or "not much". I think this is a bit of an odd response from smart people with fancy degrees who I know spend much of their waking life thinking deeply about complex issues. Academics, more than most other folks, should be well aware of the dangers of boiling down a big question like "what’s the best way to fight climate change by spending money?" to a simplistic assertion like "nothing; it can’t be done." But the fact that this kind of response is so common does suggest to me that maybe we should be skeptical of the reflexive complaint that charitable giving can’t mitigate carbon emissions.

Crucially, we don’t have to stop at a FUD-like statement like nobody really knows what helps, so in principle, carbon offsets could be just as effective as not flying. No, I think it’s trivial to demonstrate essentially from first principles that there must be many cost-effective ways to offset one’s emissions.

The argument here is simple: much of what governments and NGOs do to fight climate change isn’t about directly changing individual human beings’ consumption behaviors, but about pro-actively implementing policies or introducing technologies that indirectly affect those behaviors, or minimize their impacts. Make a list of broad strategies, and you find things like:

  • Develop, incentivize and deploy clean energy sources.
  • Introduce laws and regulations that encourage carbon emission reduction (e.g., via forest preservation, congestion pricing, consumption taxes, etc.).
  • Offer financial incentives for farmers, loggers, and other traditional industrial sources of carbon to develop alternative income streams.
  • Fund public awareness campaigns to encourage individual lifestyle changes.
  • Fund research into blue-sky technologies that efficiently pull carbon out of the atmosphere and safely sequester it.

You can probably go on like this for a long time.

Now, some of the items on this list may be hard to pursue effectively unless you’re a government. But in most of these cases, there’s already a healthy ecosystem of NGOs working to make the world a better place. And there’s zero reason to think that it’s just flatly impossible for any of these organizations to be more effective than whatever benefit you think the environment derives from people getting on fewer planes.

On the contrary: it requires very little imagination to see how, say, a charity staffed by lawyers who help third-world governments draft and lobby for critical environment laws might have an environmental impact measured in billions of dollars, even if its budget is only in the millions. Or, if science is your thing, to believe that publicly-funded researchers working on clean energy do occasionally succeed at developing technologies that, when deployed at scale, provide societal returns many times the cost of the original research.

Once you frame it this way—and I honestly don’t know how one would argue against this way of looking at things—it seems pretty clear that blanket statements like "carbon offsets don’t work" are kind of dumb—or at least, intellectually lazy. If what you mean by "carbon offsets don’t work" is the much narrower claim that most tree-planting campaigns aren’t cost-effective, then sure, maybe that’s true. My impression is that many environmental economists would be happy to agree with you. But that narrow statement has almost no bearing on the question of whether or not you can cost-effectively offset the emissions you’d produce by flying. If somebody offered you credible evidence that their organization could reduce enough carbon emissions to offset your transatlantic flight for the princely sum of $10, I hope you wouldn’t respond by saying well, I read your brochure, and I buy all the evidence you presented, but it said nothing about trees anywhere, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to reject your offer and stay home.

The fact of the matter is that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of non-profit organizations currently working to fight climate change. They’re working on the problem in many different ways: via policy efforts, technology development, reforestation, awareness-raising, and any number of other avenues. Some of these organizations are undoubtedly fraudulent, bad at what they do, or otherwise a waste of your money. But it’s inconceivable to think that there aren’t some charities out there—and probably a large number, in absolute terms—that are very effective at what they do, and certainly far more effective than whatever a very high-flying individual can achieve by staying off the runways and saving a couple dozen tons of CO2 per year. And you don’t even need there to be a large number of such organizations; you just need to find one of them.

Do you really find it so hard to believe that there are such organizations out there? And that there are also quite a few people whose day job is identifying those organizations, precisely so that people like you and I can come along and give them money?

I don’t.

So how should you spend your money?

Supposing you find the above plausible, you might be thinking, okay, fine, maybe offsetting does work, as long as you’re smart about how you do it—now please tell me who to make a check out to so I can keep drinking terrible hotel coffee and going to poster sessions that make me want to claw my eyes out.

Well I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not entirely comfortable telling you what you should do with your money (I mean, if you insist on an answer, I’ll probably tell you to give it to me). What I can do is tell you is what I’ve done with mine.

A few months ago, I set aside an evening and spent a few hours reading up on various climate-focused initiatives, Then I ended up donating money to the Clean Air Task Force and the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. Both of these are policy-focused organizations; they don’t plant tree saplings or buy anyone a clean-burning stove. They fight climate change by attempting to influence policy in ways that promote, respectively, clean air in the United States, and preservation of the world’s rain forests. They are also, not coincidentally, the two organizations strongly recommended by Founders Pledge—an organization dedicated to identifying effective ways for technology founders (but really, pretty much anyone) to spend their money for the benefit of society.

My decision to give to these organizations was motivated largely by this Founders Pledge report, which I think compellingly argues that these organizations likely offer a much better return on one’s investment than most others. The report estimates a cost of $0.02 – $0.72 per ton of CO2 release averted when donating to the Coalition for Rainforest Nations (the cost is somewhat higher for the Clean Air Task Force). For reference, typical estimates suggest that a single one-way economy-class transatlantic plane ticket introduces perhaps 2 – 3 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. So, even at the conservative end of Founders Pledge’s "realistic" estimate, you’d need to give CfRN only around $2 to offset that cost. Personally, I’m a skeptical kind of person, so I don’t take such estimates at face value. When I see this kind of number, I immediately multiply it by a factor of 10, because I know how the winner’s curse works. In this case, that still leaves you with an estimate of $20/ton—a number I’m perfectly happy with personally, and that seems to me quite manageable for almost anybody who can afford to get on a transatlantic flight in the first place.

Am I sure that my donations to the above organizations will ultimately do the environment some good? No.

Do I feel confident that these are the best charities out there? Of course not. It’s hard to imagine that they could be, given the sheer number of organizations in this space. But again, certainty is a wildly unrealistic desideratum here. What I am satisfied with is that I’ve done my due diligence, and that in my estimation, I’ve identified a plausibly effective mechanism though which I can do a very tiny bit of good for the world (well, two mechanisms—the other one is this blog post I’m writing, which will hopefully convince at least one other person to take similar action).

I’m not suggesting that anyone else has to draw the same conclusions I have, or donate to the same organizations. Your mileage will probably vary. If, after doing some research, you decide that in your estimation, not flying still makes the most sense, great. And if you decide that actually none of this climate stuff is likely to help, and instead, you’re going to give your money to charities that work on AI alignment or malaria, great. But at the very least, I hope it’s clear there’s really no basis for simply dismissing, out of hand, the notion that one can effectively help reduce atmospheric CO2—on a very, very tiny scale, obviously—via financial means, rather than solely through lifestyle changes.

Why stop at offsets?

So far I’ve argued that donating your money to climate-focused organizations (done thoughtfully) is a perfectly acceptable alternative to cutting back on travel, if your goal is to ultimately reduce atmospheric carbon. If you want to calculate the amount of money you’d need to give to the organization of your choice in order to offset the carbon that your travel (or, more generally, lifestyle) introduces every year, and give exactly that much, great.

But I want to go a bit further than that. What I really want to suggest is that if you’re very concerned about the environment, donating your money can actually be a much better thing to do than just minimizing your own footprint.

The major advantage of charitable giving, unlike travel reduction, or really any kind of lifestyle change, is that there’s a much higher ceiling on what you can accomplish. When you try to fight global warming by avoiding travel, the best you can do is eliminate all of your own personal travel. That may not be trivial, and I think it’s certainly worth doing if your perceived alternative is doing nothing at all. Still, there’s always going to be a hard limit on your contribution. It’s not like you can remove arbitrarily large quantities of carbon from the environment by somehow, say, negatively traveling.

By contrast, when you give money, you don’t have to stop at just offsetting your own carbon production; in principle, you can pay to offset other people’s production too. If you have some discretionary income, and believe that climate change really is an existential threat to the human species (or some large subset of it), then on on some level it seems a bit strange to say, "I just want to make sure I personally don’t produce more carbon than the average human being living in my part of the world; beyond that, it’s other people’s problem." If you believe that climate change presents an existential threat to your descendants, or at least to their quality of life, and you can afford to do more than just reduce your own carbon footprint, why not use more of your resources to try and minimize the collective impact of humanity’s past poor environmental decisions? I’m not saying anyone has a moral obligation to do that; I don’t think they do. But it doesn’t seem like a crazy thing to do, if you have some money to spare.

You can still fly less!

Before I go, let me circle around to where I started. I want to emphasize that nothing I’ve said here is intended as criticism of what Russ Poldrack wrote, or of the anti-flying movement more generally. Quite the opposite: I think Russ Poldrack is a goddamn hero (and not just for his position on this issue). If not for Russ’s post, and subsequent discussions on social media, I doubt I would have been sufficiently motivated to put my own money where my mouth is on this issue, let alone to write this post (as an otherwise fairly selfish person, I’m not ashamed to say that I wrote this post in part to force myself to give a serious chunk of cash to charity—public commitment is a powerful thing!). So I’m very much on board with the initiative: other things equal, I think cutting back on one’s air travel is a good thing to do. All I’m saying here is that there are other ways one can do one’s part in the fight against climate change that don’t require giving up air travel—and that, if anything, have the potential to exert far greater (though admittedly still tiny in the grand scheme of things) impact.

It also goes without saying that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the best-case scenario is that most people cut their air travel and give money to organizations working to mitigate climate change. But since nobody is perfect, everything is commensurable, and people have different preferences and resource constraints, I take it for granted that most people (me included) aren’t going to do both, and I think that’s okay. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to feel okay about your relationship with the environment so long as you’re doing something. I respect people who opt to do their part by cutting down on their air travel. But I’m not going to feel guilty for continuing to fly around the world fairly regularly, because I think I’m doing my part too.

The parable of the three districts: A projective test for psychologists

A political candidate running for regional public office asked a famous political psychologist what kind of television ads she should air in three heavily contested districts: positive ones emphasizing her own record, or negative ones attacking her opponent’s record.

“You’re in luck,” said the psychologist. “I have a new theory of persuasion that addresses exactly this question. I just published a paper containing four large studies that all strongly support the theory and show that participants are on average more persuaded by attack ads than by positive ones.”

Convinced by the psychologist’s arguments and his confident demeanor, the candidate’s campaign ran carefully tailored attack ads in all three districts. She proceeded to lose the race by a landslide, with exit surveys placing much of the blame on the negative tone of her ads.

As part of the campaign post-mortem, the candidate asked the psychologist what he thought had gone wrong.

“Oh, different things,” said the psychologist. “In hindsight, the first district was probably too educated; I could see how attack ads might turn off highly educated voters. In the second district–and I’m not going to tiptoe around the issue here—I think the problem was sexism. You have a lot of low-SES working-class men in that district who probably didn’t respond well to a female candidate publicly criticizing a male opponent. And in the third district, I think the ads you aired were just too over the top. You want to highlight your opponent’s flaws subtly, not make him sound like a cartoon villain.”

“That all sounds reasonable enough,” said the candidate. “But I’m a bit perplexed that you didn’t mention any of these subtleties ahead of time, when they might have been more helpful.”

“Well,” said the psychologist. “That would have been very hard to do. The theory is true in general, you see. But every situation is different.”

I hate open science

Now that I’ve got your attention: what I hate—and maybe dislike is a better term than hate—isn’t the open science community, or open science initiatives, or open science practices, or open scientists… it’s the term. I fundamentally dislike the term open science. For the last few years, I’ve deliberately tried to avoid using it. I don’t call myself an open scientist, I don’t advocate publicly for open science (per se), and when people use the term around me, I often make a point of asking them to clarify what they mean.

This isn’t just a personal idiosyncracy of mine in a chalk-on-chalkboard sense; I think at this point in time there are good reasons to think the continued use of the term is counterproductive, and we should try to avoid it in most contexts. Let me explain.

It’s ambiguous

At SIPS 2019 last week (SIPS is the Society for Improvement of Psychological Science), I had a brief chat with a British post-undergrad student who was interested in applying to graduate programs in the United States. He asked me what kind of open science community there was at my home institution (the University of Texas at Austin). When I started to reply, I realized that I actually had no idea what question the student was asking me, because I didn’t know his background well enough to provide the appropriate context. What exactly did he mean by “open science”? The term is now used so widely, and in so many different ways, that the student could plausibly have been asking me about any of the following things, either alone or in combination:

  • Reproducibility. Do people [at UT-Austin] value the ability to reproduce, computationally and/or experimentally, the scientific methods used to produce a given result? More concretely, do they conduct their analyses programmatically, rather than using GUIs? Do they practice formal version control? Are there opportunities to learn these kinds of computational skills?
  • Accessibility. Do people believe in making their scientific data, materials, results, papers, etc. publicly, freely, and easily available? Do they work hard to ensure that other scientists, funders, and the taxpaying public can easily get access to what scientists produce?
  • Incentive alignment. Are there people actively working to align individual incentives and communal incentives, so that what benefits an individual scientist also benefits the community at large? Do they pursue local policies meant to promote some of the other practices one might call part of “open science”?
  • Openness of opinion. Do people feel comfortable openly critiquing one another? Is there a culture of discussing (possibly trenchant) problems openly, without defensiveness? Do people take discussion on social media and post-publication review forums seriously?
  • Diversity. Do people value and encourage the participation in science of people from a wide variety of ethnicities, genders, skills, personalities, socioeconomic strata, etc.? Do they make efforts to welcome others into science, invest effort and resources to help them succeed, and accommodate their needs?
  • Metascience and informatics. Are people thinking about the nature of science itself, and reflecting on what it takes to promote a healthy and productive scientific enterprise? Are they developing systematic tools or procedures for better understanding the scientific process, or the work in specific scientific domains?

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list; I have no doubt there are other items one could add (e.g., transparency, collaborativeness, etc.). The point is that open science is, at this point, a very big tent. It contains people who harbor a lot of different values and engage in many different activities. While some of these values and activities may tend to co-occur within people who call themselves open scientists, many don’t. There is, for instance, no particular reason why someone interested in popularizing reproducible science methods should also be very interested in promoting diversity in science. I’m not saying there aren’t people who want to do both (of course there are); empirically, there might even be a modest positive correlation—I don’t know. But they clearly don’t have to go together, and plenty of people are far more invested in one than in the other.

Further, as in any other enterprise, if you monomaniacally push a single value hard enough, then at a certain point, tensions will arise even between values that would ordinarily co-exist peacefully if each given only partial priority. For example, if you think that doing reproducible science well requires a non-negotiable commitment to doing all your analyses programmatically, and maintaining all your code under public version control, then you’re implicitly condoning a certain reduction in diversity within science, because you insist on having only people with a certain set of skills take part in science, and people from some backgrounds are more likely than others (at least at present) to have those skills. Conversely, if diversity in science is the thing you value most, then you need to accept that you’re effectively downgrading the importance of many of the other values listed above in the research process, because any skill or ability you might use to select or promote people in science is necessarily going to reduce (in expectation) the role of other dimensions in the selection process.

This would be a fairly banal and inconsequential observation if we lived in a world where everyone who claimed membership in the open science community shared more or less the same values. But we clearly don’t. In highlighting the ambiguity of the term open science, I’m not just saying hey, just so you know, there are a lot of different activities people call open science; I’m saying that, at this point in time, there are a few fairly distinct sub-communities of people that all identify closely with the term open science and use it prominently to describe themselves or their work, but that actually have fairly different value systems and priorities.

Basically, we’re now at the point where, when someone says they’re an open scientist, it’s hard to know what they actually mean.

It wasn’t always this way; I think ten or even five years ago, if you described yourself as an open scientist, people would have identified you primarily with the movement to open up access to scientific resources and promote greater transparency in the research process. This is still roughly the first thing you find on the Wikipedia entry for Open Science:

Open science is the movement to make scientific research (including publications, data, physical samples, and software) and its dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society, amateur or professional. Open science is transparent and accessible knowledge that is shared and developed through collaborative networks. It encompasses practices such as publishing open research, campaigning for open access, encouraging scientists to practice open notebook science, and generally making it easier to publish and communicate scientific knowledge.

That was a fine definition once upon a time, and it still works well for one part of the open science community. But as a general, context-free definition, I don’t think it flies any more. Open science is now much broader than the above suggests.

It’s bad politics

You might say, okay, but so what if open science is an ambiguous term; why can’t that be resolved by just having people ask for clarification? Well, obviously, to some degree it can. My response to the SIPS student was basically a long and winding one that involved a lot of conditioning on different definitions. That’s inefficient, but hopefully the student still got the information he wanted out of it, and I can live with a bit of inefficiency.

The bigger problem though, is that at this point in time, open science isn’t just a descriptive label for a set of activities scientists often engage in; for many people, it’s become an identity. And, whatever you think the value of open science is as an extensional label for a fairly heterogeneous set of activities, I think it makes for terrible identity politics.

There are two reasons for this. First, turning open science from a descriptive label into a full-blown identity risks turning off a lot of scientists who are either already engaged in what one might otherwise call “best practices”, or who are very receptive to learning such practices, but are more interested in getting their science done than in discussing the abstract merits of those practices or promoting their use to others. If you walk into a room and say, in the next three hours, I’m going to teach you version control, and there’s a good chance this could really help your research, probably quite a few people will be interested. If, on the other hand, you walk into the room and say, let me tell you how open science is going to revolutionize your research, and then proceed to either mention things that a sophisticated audience already knows, or blitz a naive audience with 20 different practices that you describe as all being part of open science, the reception is probably going to be frostier.

If your goal is to get people to implement good practices in their research—and I think that’s an excellent goal!—then it’s not so clear that much is gained by talking about open science as a movement, philosophy, culture, or even community (though I do think there are some advantages to the latter). It may be more effective to figure out who your audience is, what some of the low-hanging fruit are, and focus on those. Implying that there’s an all-or-none commitment—i.e., one is either an open scientist or not, and to be one, you have to buy into a whole bunch of practices and commitments—is often counterproductive.

The second problem with treating open science as a movement or identity is that the diversity of definitions and values I mentioned above almost inevitably leads to serious rifts within the broad open science community—i.e., between groups of people who would have little or no beef with one another if not for the mere fact that they all happen to identify as open scientists. If you spend any amount of time on social media following people whose biography includes the phrases “open science” or “open scientist”, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. At a rough estimate, I’d guess that these days maybe 10 – 20% of tweets I see in my feed containing the words “open science” are part of some ongoing argument between people about what open science is, or who is and isn’t an open scientist, or what’s wrong with open science or open scientists—and not with substantive practices or applications at all.

I think it’s fair to say that most (though not all) of these arguments are, at root, about deep-seated differences in the kinds of values I mentioned earlier. People care about different things. Some people care deeply about making sure that studies can be accurately reproduced, and only secondarily or tertiarily about the diversity of the people producing those studies. Other people have the opposite priorities. Both groups of people (and there are of course many others) tend to think their particular value system properly captures what open science is (or should be) all about, and that the movement or community is being perverted or destroyed by some other group of people who, while perhaps well-intentioned (and sometimes even this modicum of charity is hard to find), just don’t have their heads screwed on quite straight.

This is not a new or special thing. Any time a large group of people with diverse values and interests find themselves all forced to sit under a single tent for a long period of time, divisions—and consequently, animosity—will eventually arise. If you’re forced to share limited resources or audience attention with a group of people who claim they fill the same role in society that you do, but who you disagree with on some important issues, odds are you’re going to experience conflict at some point.

Now, in some domains, these kinds of conflicts are truly unavoidable: the factors that introduce intra-group competition for resources, prestige, or attention are structural, and resolving them without ruining things for everyone is very difficult. In politics, for example, one’s nominal affiliation with a political party is legitimately kind of a big deal. In the United States, if a splinter group of disgruntled Republican politicians were to leave their party and start a “New Republican” party, they might achieve greater ideological purity and improve their internal social relations, but the new party’s members would also lose nearly all of their influence and power pretty much overnight. The same is, of course, true for disgruntled Democrats. The Nash equilibrium is, presently, for everyone to stay stuck in the same dysfunctional two-party system.

Open science, by contrast, doesn’t really have this problem. Or at least, it doesn’t have to have this problem. There’s an easy way out of the acrimony: people can just decide to deprecate vague, unhelpful terms like “open science” in favor of more informative and less controversial ones. I don’t think anything terrible is going to happen if someone who previously described themselves as an “open scientist” starts avoiding that term and instead opts to self-describe using more specific language. As I noted above, I speak from personal experience here (if you’re the kind of person who’s more swayed by personal anecdotes than by my ironclad, impregnable arguments). Five years ago, my talks and papers were liberally sprinkled with the term “open science”. For the last two or three years, I’ve largely avoided the term—and when I do use it, it’s often to make the same point I’m making here. E.g.,:

For the most part, I think I’ve succeeded in eliminating open science from my discourse in favor of more specific terms like reproducibility, transparency, diversity, etc. Which term I use depends on the context. I haven’t, so far, found myself missing the term “open”, and I don’t think I’ve lost brownie points in any club for not using it more often. I do, on the other hand, feel very confident that (a) I’ve managed to waste fewer people’s time by having to follow up vague initial statements about “open” things with more detailed clarifications, and (b) I get sucked into way fewer pointless Twitter arguments about what open science is really about (though admittedly the number is still not quite zero).

The prescription

So here’s my simple prescription for people who either identify as open scientists, or use the term on a regular basis: Every time you want to use the term open science—in your biography, talk abstracts, papers, tweets, conversation, or whatever else—pause and ask yourself if there’s another term you could substitute that would decrease ambiguity and avoid triggering never-ending terminological arguments. I’m not saying that the answer will always be yes. If you’re confident that the people you’re talking to have the same definition of open science as you, or you really do believe that nobody should ever call themselves an open scientist unless they use git, then godspeed—open science away. But I suspect that for most uses, there won’t be any such problem. In most instances, “open science” can be seamlessly replaced with something like “reproducibility”, “transparency”, “data sharing”, “being welcoming”, and so on. It’s a low-effort move, and the main effect of making the switch is that other people will have a clearer understanding of what you mean, and may be less inclined to argue with you about it.

Postscript

Some folks on twitter were concerned that this post makes it sound as if I’m passing off prior work and ideas as my own (particularly as relates to the role of diversity in open science). So let me explicitly state here that I don’t think any of the ideas expressed in this post are original to me in any way. I’ve heard most (if not all) expressed many times by many people in many contexts, and this post just represents my effort to distill them into a clear summary of my views.

No, it’s not The Incentives—it’s you

There’s a narrative I find kind of troubling, but that unfortunately seems to be growing more common in science. The core idea is that the mere existence of perverse incentives is a valid and sufficient reason to knowingly behave in an antisocial way, just as long as one first acknowledges the existence of those perverse incentives. The way this dynamic usually unfolds is that someone points out some fairly serious problem with the way many scientists behave—say, our collective propensity to p-hack as if it’s going out of style, or the fact that we insist on submitting our manuscripts to publishers that are actively trying to undermine our interests—and then someone else will say, “I know, right—but what are you going to do, those are the incentives.”

As best I can tell, the words “it’s the incentives” are magic. Once they’re uttered by someone, natural law demands that everyone else involved in the conversation immediately stop whatever else they were doing, solemnly nod, and mumble something to the effect that, yes, the incentives are very bad, very bad indeed, and it’s a real tragedy that so many smart, hard-working people are being crushed under the merciless, gigantic boot of The System. Then there’s usually a brief pause, and after that, everyone goes back to discussing whatever they were talking about a moment earlier.

Perhaps I’m getting senile in my early middle age, but my anecdotal perception is that it used to be that, when somebody pointed out to a researcher that they might be doing something questionable, that researcher would typically either (a) argue that they weren’t doing anything questionable (often incorrectly, because there used to be much less appreciation for some of the statistical issues involved), or (b) look uncomfortable for a little while, allow an awkward silence to bloom, and then change the subject. In the last few years, I’ve noticed that uncomfortable discussions about questionable practices disproportionately seem to end with a chuckle or shrug, followed by a comment to the effect that we are all extremely sophisticated human beings who recognize the complexity of the world we live in, and sure it would be great if we lived in a world where one didn’t have to occasionally engage in shenanigans, but that would be extremely naive, and after all, we are not naive, are we?

There is, of course,  an element of truth to this kind of response. I’m not denying that perverse incentives exist; they obviously do. There’s no question that many aspects of modern scientific culture systematically incentivize antisocial behavior, and I don’t think we can or should pretend otherwise. What I do object to quite strongly is the narrative that scientists are somehow helpless in the face of all these awful incentives—that we can’t possibly be expected to take any course of action that has any potential, however small, to impede our own career development.

“I would publish in open access journals,” your friendly neighborhood scientist will say. “But those have a lower impact factor, and I’m up for tenure in three years.”

Or: “if I corrected for multiple comparisons in this situation, my effect would go away, and then the reviewers would reject the paper.”

Or: “I can’t ask my graduate students to collect an adequately-powered replication sample; they need to publish papers as quickly as they can so that they can get a job.”

There are innumerable examples of this kind, and they’ve become so routine that it appears many scientists have stopped thinking about what the words they’re saying actually mean, and instead simply glaze over and nod sagely whenever the dreaded Incentives are invoked.

A random bystander who happened to eavesdrop on a conversation between a group of scientists kvetching about The Incentives could be forgiven for thinking that maybe, just maybe, a bunch of very industrious people who generally pride themselves on their creativity, persistence, and intelligence could find some way to work around, or through, the problem. And I think they would be right. The fact that we collectively don’t see it as a colossal moral failing that we haven’t figured out a way to get our work done without having to routinely cut corners in the rush for fame and fortune is deeply troubling.

It’s also aggravating on an intellectual level, because the argument that we’re all being egregiously and continuously screwed over by The Incentives is just not that good. I think there are a lot of reasons why researchers should be very hesitant to invoke The Incentives as a justification for why any of us behave the way we do. I’ll give nine of them here, but I imagine there are probably others.

1. You can excuse anything by appealing to The Incentives

No, seriously—anything. Once you start crying that The System is Broken in order to excuse your actions (or inactions), you can absolve yourself of responsibility for all kinds of behaviors that, on paper, should raise red flags. Consider just a few behaviors that few scientists would condone:

  • Fabricating data or results
  • Regulary threatening to fire trainees in order to scare them into working harder
  • Deliberately sabotaging competitors’ papers or grants by reviewing them negatively

I think it’s safe to say most of us consider such practices to be thoroughly immoral, yet there are obviously people who engage in each of them. And when those people are caught or confronted, one of the most common justifications they fall back on is… you guessed it: The Incentives! When Diederik Stapel confessed to fabricating the data used in over 50 publications, he didn’t explain his actions by saying “oh, you know, I’m probably a bit of a psychopath”; instead, he placed much of the blame squarely on The Incentives:

I did not withstand the pressure to score, to publish, the pressure to get better in time. I wanted too much, too fast. In a system where there are few checks and balances, where people work alone, I took the wrong turn. I want to emphasize that the mistakes that I made were not born out of selfish ends.

Stapel wasn’t acting selfishly, you see… he was just subject to intense pressures. Or, you know, Incentives.

Or consider these quotes from a New York Times article describing Stapel’s unraveling:

In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables. He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity. “They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler,'” Stapel told me. Before long, he was striving to write elegant articles.

The experiment — and others like it — didn’t give Stapel the desired results, he said. He had the choice of abandoning the work or redoing the experiment. But he had already spent a lot of time on the research and was convinced his hypothesis was valid. “I said — you know what, I am going to create the data set,” he told me.

Reading through such accounts, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Stapel’s self-narrative is strikingly similar to the one that gets tossed out all the time on social media, or in conference bar conversations: here I am, a good scientist trying to do an honest job, and yet all around me is a system that incentivizes deception and corner-cutting. What do you expect me to do?.

Curiously, I’ve never heard any of my peers—including many of the same people who are quick to invoke The Incentives to excuse their own imperfections—seriously endorse The Incentives as an acceptable justification for Stapel’s behavior. In Stapel’s case, the inference we overwhelmingly jump to is that there must be something deeply wrong with Stapel, seeing as the rest of us also face the same perverse incentives on a daily basis, yet we somehow manage to get by without fabricating data. But this conclusion should make us a bit uneasy, I think, because if it’s correct (and I think it is), it implies that we aren’t really such slaves to The Incentives after all. When our morals get in the way, we appear to be perfectly capable of resisting temptation. And I mean, it’s not even like it’s particularly difficult; I doubt many researchers actively have to fight the impulse to manipulate their data, despite the enormous incentives to do so. I submit that the reason many of us feel okay doing things like reporting exploratory results as confirmatory results, or failing to mention that we ran six other studies we didn’t report, is not really that The Incentives are forcing us to do things we don’t like, but that it’s easier to attribute our unsavory behaviors to unstoppable external forces than to take responsibility for them and accept the consequences.

Needless to say, I think this kind of attitude is fundamentally hypocritical. If we’re not comfortable with pariahs like Stapel blaming The Incentives for causing them to fabricate data, we shouldn’t use The Incentives as an excuse for doing things that are on the same spectrum, albeit less severe. If you think that what the words “I did not withstand the pressure to score” really mean when they fall out of Stapel’s mouth is something like “I’m basically a weak person who finds the thought of not being important so intolerable I’m willing to cheat to get ahead”, then you shouldn’t give yourself a free pass just because when you use that excuse, you’re talking about much smaller infractions. Consider the possibility that maybe, just like Stapel, you’re actually appealing to The Incentives as a crutch to avoid having to make your life very slightly more difficult.

2. It would break the world if everyone did it

When people start routinely accepting that The System is Broken and The Incentives Are Fucking Us Over, bad things tend to happen. It’s very hard to have a stable, smoothly functioning society once everyone believes (rightly or wrongly) that gaming the system is the only way to get by. Imagine if every time you went to your doctor—and I’m aware that this analogy won’t work well for people living outside the United States—she sent you to get a dozen expensive and completely unnecessary medical tests, and then, when prompted for an explanation, simply shrugged and said “I know I’m not an angel—but hey, them’s The Incentives.” You would be livid—even though it’s entirely true (at least in the United States; other developed countries seem to have figured this particular problem out) that many doctors have financial incentives to order unnecessary tests.

To be clear, I’m not saying perverse incentives never induce bad behavior in medicine or other fields. Of course they do. My point is that practitioners in other fields at least appear to have enough sense not to loudly trumpet The Incentives as a reasonable justification for their antisocial behavior—or to pat themselves on the back for being the kind of people who are clever enough to see the fiendish Incentives for exactly what they are. My sense is that when doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc. fall prey to The Incentives, they generally consider that to be a source of shame. I won’t go so far as to suggest that we scientists take pride in behaving badly—we obviously don’t—but we do seem to have collectively developed a rather powerful form of learned helplessness that doesn’t seem to be matched by other communities. Which is a fortunate thing, because if every other community also developed the same attitude, we would be in a world of trouble.

3. You are not special

Individual success in science is, to a first approximation, a zero-sum game—at least in the short term. many scientists who appeal to The Incentives seem to genuinely believe that opting out of doing the right thing is a victimless crime. I mean, sure, it might make the system a bit less efficient overall… but that’s just life, right? It’s not like anybody’s actually suffering.

Well yeah, people actually do suffer. There are many scientists who are willing to do the right things—to preregister their analysis plans, to work hard to falsify rather than confirm their hypotheses, to diligently draw attention to potential confounds that complicate their preferred story, and so on. When you assert your right to opt out of these things because apparently your publications, your promotions, and your students are so much more important than everyone else’s, you’re cheating those people.

No, really, you are. If you don’t like to think of yourself as someone who cheats other people, don’t reflexively collapse on a crutch made out of stainless steel Incentives any time someone questions your process. You are not special. Your publications, job, and tenure are not more important than other people’s. The fact that there are other people in your position engaging in the same behaviors doesn’t mean you and your co-authors are all very sophisticated, and that the people who refuse to cut corners are naive simpletons. What it actually demonstrates is that, somewhere along the way, you developed the reflexive ability to rationalize away behavior that you would disapprove of in others and that, viewed dispassionately, is clearly damaging to science.

4. You (probably) have no data

It’s telling that appeals to The Incentives are rarely supported by any actual data. It’s simply taken for granted that engaging in the practice in question would be detrimental to one’s career. The next time you’re tempted to blame The System for making you do bad things, you might want to ask yourself this: Do you actually know that, say, publishing in PLOS ONE rather than [insert closed society journal of your choice] would hurt your career? If so, how do you know that? Do you have any good evidence for it, or have you simply accepted it as stylized fact?

Coming by the kind of data you’d need to answer this question is actually not that easy: it’s not enough to reflexively point to, say, the fact that some journals have higher impact factors than others, To identify the utility-maximizing course of action, you’d need to integrate over both benefits and costs, and the costs are not always so obvious. For example, the opportunity cost of submitting your paper to a “good” journal will be offset to some extent by the likelihood of faster publication (no need to spend two years racking up rejections at high-impact venues), by the positive image you send to at least some of your peers that you support open scientific practices, and so on.

I’m not saying that a careful consideration of the pros and cons of doing the right thing would usually lead people to change their minds. It often won’t. What I’m saying is that people who blame The Incentives for forcing them to submit their papers to certain journals, to tell post-hoc stories about their work, or to use suboptimal analytical methods don’t generally support their decisions with data, or even with well-reasoned argument. The defense is usually completely reflexive—which should raise our suspicion that it’s also just a self-serving excuse.

5. It (probably) won’t matter anyway

This one might hurt a bit, but I think it’s important to consider—particularly for early-career researchers. Let’s suppose you’re right that doing the right thing in some particular case would hurt your career. Maybe it really is true that if you comprehensively report in your paper on all the studies you ran, and not just the ones that “worked”, your colleagues will receive your work less favorably. In such cases it may seem natural to think that there has to be a tight relationship between the current decision and the global outcome—i.e., that if you don’t drop the failed studies, you won’t get a tenure-track position three years down the road. After all, you’re focusing on that causal relationship right now, and it seems so clear in your head!

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?), reality doesn’t operate that way. Outcomes in academia are multiply determined and enormously complex. You can tell yourself that getting more papers out faster will get you a job if it makes you feel better, but that doesn’t make it true. If you’re a graduate student on the job market these days, I have sad news for you: you’re probably not getting a tenure-track job no matter what you do. It doesn’t matter how many p-hacked papers you publish, or how thinly you slice your dissertation into different “studies”; there are not nearly enough jobs to go around for everyone who wants one.

Suppose you’re right, and your sustained pattern of corner-cutting is in fact helping you get ahead. How far ahead do you think it’s helping you get? Is it taking you from a 3% chance of getting a tenure-track position at an R1 university to an 80% chance? Almost certainly not. Maybe it’s increasing that probability from 7% to 11%; that would still be a non-trivial relative increase, but it doesn’t change the fact that, for the average grad student, there is no full-time faculty position waiting at the end of the road. Despite what the environment around you may make you think, the choice most graduate students and postdocs face is not actually between (a) maintaining your integrity and “failing” out of science or (b) cutting a few corners and achieving great fame and fortune as a tenured professor. The Incentives are just not that powerful. The vastly more common choice you face as a trainee is between (a) maintaining your integrity and having a pretty low chance of landing a permanent research position, or (b) cutting a bunch of corners that threaten the validity of your work and having a slightly higher (but still low in absolute terms) chance of landing a permanent research position. And even that’s hardly guaranteed, because you never know when there’s someone on a hiring committee who’s going to be turned off by the obvious p-hacking in your work.

The point is, the world is complicated, and as a general rule, very few things—including the number of publications you produce—are as important as they seem to be when you’re focusing on them in the moment. If you’re an early-career researcher and you regularly find yourself strugging between doing what’s right and doing what isn’t right but (you think) benefits your career, you may want to take a step back and dispassionately ask yourself whether this integrity versus expediency conflict is actually a productive way to frame things. Instead, consider the alternative framing I suggested above: you are most likely going to leave academia eventually, no matter what you do, so why not at least try to see the process through with some intellectual integrity? And I mean, if you’re really so convinced that The System is Broken, why would you want to stay in it anyway? Do you think standards are going to change dramatically in the next few years? Are you laboring under the impression that you, of all people, are going to somehow save science?

This brings us directly to the next point…

6. You’re (probably) not going to “change things from the inside”

Over the years, I’ve talked to quite a few early-career researchers who have told me that while they can’t really stop engaging in questionable research practices right now without hurting their career, they’re definitely going to do better once they’re in a more established position. These are almost invariably nice, well-intentioned people, and I don’t doubt that they genuinely believe what they say. Unfortunately, what they say is slippery, and has a habit of adapting to changing circumstances. As a grad student or postdoc, it’s easy to think that once you get a faculty position, you’ll be able to start doing research the “right” way. But once you get a faculty position, it then turns out you need to get papers and grants in order to get tenure (I mean, who knew?), so you decide to let the dreaded Incentives win for just a few more years. And then, once you secure tenure, well, now the problem is that your graduate students also need jobs, just like you once did, so you can’t exactly stop publishing at the same rate, can you? Plus, what would all your colleagues think if you effectively said, “oh, you should all treat the last 15 years of my work with skepticism—that was just for tenure”?

I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions. I’m sure there are. But I can think of at least a half-dozen people off-hand who’ve regaled me with me some flavor of “once I’m in a better position” story, and none of them, to my knowledge, have carried through on their stated intentions in a meaningful way. And I don’t find this surprising: in most walks of life, course correction generally becomes harder, not easier, the longer you’ve been traveling on the wrong bearing. So if part of your unhealthy respect for The Incentives is rooted in an expectation that those Incentives will surely weaken their grip on you just as soon as you reach the next stage of your career, you may want to rethink your strategy. The Incentives are not going to dissipate as you move up the career ladder; if anything, you’re probably going to have an increasingly difficult time shrugging them off.

7. You’re not thinking long-term

One of the most frustrating aspects of appeals to The Incentives is that they almost invariably seem to focus exclusively on the short-to-medium term. But the long term also matters. And there, I would argue that The Incentives very much favor a radically different—and more honest—approach to scientific research. To see this, we need only consider the ongoing “replication crisis” in many fields of science. One thing that I think has been largely overlooked in discussions about the current incentive structure of science is what impact the replication crisis will have on the legacies of a huge number of presently famous scientists.

I’ll tell you what impact it will have: many of those legacies will be completely zeroed out. And this isn’t just hypothetical scaremongering. It’s happening right now to many former stars of psychology (and, I imagine, other fields I’m less familiar with). There are many researchers we can point to right now who used to be really famous (like, major-chunks-of-the-textbook famous), are currently famous-with-an-asterisk, and will in all likelihood, be completely unknown again within a couple of decades. The unlucky ones are probably even fated to become infamous—their entire scientific legacies eventually reduced to footnotes in cautionary histories illustrating how easily entire areas of scientific research can lose their footing when practitioners allow themselves to be swept away by concerns about The Incentives.

You probably don’t want this kind of thing to happen to you. I’m guessing you would like to retire with at least some level of confidence that your work, while maybe not Earth-shattering in its implications, isn’t going to be tossed on the scrap heap of history one day by a new generation of researchers amazed at how cavalier you and your colleagues once were about silly little things like “inferential statistics” and “accurate reporting”. So if your justification for cutting corners is that you can’t otherwise survive or thrive in the present environment, you should consider the prospect—and I mean, really take some time to think about it—that any success you earn within the next 10 years by playing along with The Incentives could ultimately make your work a professional joke within the 20 years after that.

8. It achieves nothing and probably makes things worse

Hey, are you a scientist? Yes? Great, here’s a quick question for you: do you think there’s any working scientist on Planet Earth who doesn’t already know that The Incentives are fucked up? No? I didn’t think so. Which means you really don’t need to keep bemoaning The Incentives; I promise you that you’re not helping to draw much-needed attention to an important new problem nobody’s recognized before. You’re not expressing any deep insight by pointing out that hiring committees prefer applicants with lots of publications in high-impact journals to applicants with a few publications in journals no one’s ever heard of. If your complaints are achieving anything at all, they’re probably actually making things worse by constantly (and incorrectly) reminding everyone around you about just how powerful The Incentives are.

Here’s a suggestion: maybe try not talking about The Incentives for a while. You could even try, I don’t know, working against The Incentives for a change. Or, if you can’t do that, just don’t say anything at all. Probably nobody will miss anything, and the early-career researchers among us might even be grateful for a respite from their senior colleagues’ constant reminder that The System—the very same system those senior colleagues are responsible for creating!—is so fucked up.

9. It’s your job

This last one seems so obvious it should go without saying, but it does need saying, so I’ll say it: a good reason why you should avoid hanging bad behavior on The Incentives is that you’re a scientist, and trying to get closer to the truth, and not just to tenure, is in your fucking job description. Taxpayers don’t fund you because they care about your career; they fund you to learn shit, cure shit, and build shit. If you can’t do your job without having to regularly excuse sloppiness on the grounds that you have no incentive to be less sloppy, at least have the decency not to say that out loud in a crowded room or Twitter feed full of people who indirectly pay your salary. Complaining that you would surely do the right thing if only these terrible Incentives didn’t exist doesn’t make you the noble martyr you think it does; to almost anybody outside your field who has a modicum of integrity, it just makes you sound like you’re looking for an easy out. It’s not sophisticated or worldly or politically astute, it’s just dishonest and lazy. If you find yourself unable to do your job without regularly engaging in practices that clearly devalue the very science you claim to care about, and this doesn’t bother you deeply, then maybe the problem is not actually The Incentives—or at least, not The Incentives alone. Maybe the problem is You.

If we already understood the brain, would we even know it?

The question posed in the title is intended seriously. A lot of people have been studying the brain for a long time now. Most of these people, if asked a question like “so when are you going to be able to read minds?”, will immediately scoff and say something to the effect of we barely understand anything about the brain–that kind of thing is crazy far into the future! To a non-scientist, I imagine this kind of thing must seem bewildering. I mean, here we have a community of tens of thousands of extremely smart people who have collectively been studying the same organ for over a hundred years; and yet, almost to the last person, they will adamantly proclaim to anybody who listens that the amount they currently know about the brain is very, very small compared to the amount that they expect the human species to know in the future.

I’m not convinced this is true. I think it’s worth observing that if you ask someone who has just finished telling you how little we collectively know about the brain how much they personally actually know about the brain–without the implied contrast with the sum of all humanity–they will probably tell you that, actually, they kind of know a lot about the brain (at least, once they get past the false modesty). Certainly I don’t think there are very many neuroscientists running around telling people that they’ve literally learned almost nothing since they started studying the gray sludge inside our heads. I suspect most neuroanatomists could probably recite several weeks’ worth of facts about the particular brain region or circuit they study, and I have no shortage of fMRI-experienced friends who won’t shut up about this brain network or that brain region–so I know they must know a lot about something to do with the brain. We thus find ourselves in the rather odd situation of having some very smart people apparently simultaneously believe that (a) we all collectively know almost nothing, and (b) they personally are actually quite learned (pronounced luhrn-ED) in their chosen subject. The implication seems to be that, if we multiply what one really smart present-day neuroscientist knows a few tens of thousands of times, that’s still only a tiny fraction of what it would take to actually say that we really “understand” the brain.

I find this problematic in two respects. First, I think we actually already know quite a lot about the brain. And second, I don’t think future scientists–who, remember, are people similar to us in both number and intelligence–will know dramatically more. Or rather, I think future neuroscientists will undoubtedly amass orders of magnitude more collective knowledge about the brain than we currently possess. But, barring some momentous fusion of human and artificial intelligence, I’m not at all sure that will translate into a corresponding increase in any individual neuroscientist’s understanding. I’m willing to stake a moderate sum of money, and a larger amount of dignity, on the assertion that if you ask a 2030, 2050, or 2118 neuroscientist–assuming both humans and neuroscience are still around then–if they individually understand the brain given all of the knowledge we’ve accumulated, they’ll laugh at you in exactly the way that we laugh at that question now.

* * *

We probably can’t predict when the end of neuroscience will arrive with any reasonable degree of accuracy. But trying to conjure up some rough estimates can still help us calibrate our intuitions about what would be involved. One way we can approach the problem is to try to figure out at what rate our knowledge of the brain would have to grow in order to arrive at the end of neuroscience within some reasonable time frame.

To do this, we first need an estimate of how much more knowledge it would take before we could say with a straight face that we understand the brain. I suspect that “1000 times more” would probably seem like a low number to most people. But let’s go with that, for the sake of argument. Let’s suppose that we currently know 0.1% of all there is to know about the brain, and that once we get to 100%, we will be in a position to stop doing neuroscience, because we will at that point already have understood everything.

Next, let’s pick a reasonable-sounding time horizon. Let’s say… 200 years. That’s twice as long as Eric Kandel thinks it will take just to understand memory. Frankly, I’m skeptical that humans will still be living on this planet in 200 years, but that seems like a reasonable enough target. So basically, we need to learn 1000 times as much as we know right now in the space of 200 years. Better get to the library! (For future neuroscientists reading this document as an item of archival interest about how bad 2018 humans were at predicting the future: the library is a large, public physical space that used to hold things called books, but now holds only things called coffee cups and laptops.)

A 1000-fold return over 200 years is… 3.5% compounded annually. Hey, that’s actually not so bad. I can easily believe that our knowledge about the brain increases at that rate. It might even be more than that. I mean, the stock market historically gets 6-10% returns, and I’d like to believe that neuroscience outperforms the stock market. Regardless, under what I think are reasonably sane assumptions, I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that the objective compounding of knowledge might not be the primary barrier preventing future neuroscientists from claiming that they understand the brain. Assuming we don’t run into any fundamental obstacles that we’re unable to overcome via new technology and/or brilliant ideas, we can look forward to a few of our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren being the unlucky ones who get to shut down all of the world’s neuroscience departments and tell all of their even-less-lucky graduate students to go on home, because there are no more problems left to solve.

Well, except probably not. Because, for the above analysis to go through, you have to believe that there’s a fairly tight relationship between what all of us know, and what any of us know. Meaning, you have to believe that once we’ve successfully acquired all of the possible facts there are to acquire about the brain, there will be some flashing light, some ringing bell, some deep synthesized voice that comes over the air and says, “nice job, people–you did it! You can all go home now. Last one out gets to turn off the lights.”

I think the probability of such a thing happening is basically zero. Partly because the threat to our egos would make it very difficult to just walk away from what we’d spent much of our life doing; but mostly because the fact that somewhere out there there existed a repository of everything anyone could ever want to know about the brain would not magically cause all of that knowledge to be transduced into any individual brain in a compact, digestible form. In fact, it seems like a safe bet that no human (perhaps barring augmentation with AI) would be able to absorb and synthesize all of that knowledge. More likely, the neuroscientists among us would simply start “recycling” questions. Meaning, we would keep coming up with new questions that we believe need investigating, but those questions would only seem worthy of investigation because we lack the cognitive capacity to recognize that the required information is already available–it just isn’t packaged in our heads in exactly the right way.

What I’m suggesting is that, when we say things like “we don’t really understand the brain yet”, we’re not really expressing factual statements about the collective sum of neuroscience knowledge currently held by all human beings. What each of us really means is something more like there are questions I personally am able to pose about the brain that seem to make sense in my head, but that I don’t currently know the answer to–and I don’t think I could piece together the answer even if you handed me a library of books containing all of the knowledge we’ve accumulated about the brain.

Now, for a great many questions of current interest, these two notions clearly happen to coincide–meaning, it’s not just that no single person currently alive knows the complete answer to a question like “what are the neural mechanisms underlying sleep?”, or “how do SSRIs help ameliorate severe depression?”, but that the sum of all knowledge we’ve collectively acquired at this point may not be sufficient to enable any person or group of persons, no matter how smart, to generate a comprehensive and accurate answer. But I think there are also a lot of questions where the two notions don’t coincide. That is, there are many questions neuroscientists are currently asking that we could say with a straight face we do already know how to answer collectively–despite vehement assertions to the contrary on the part of many individual scientists. And my worry is that, because we all tend to confuse our individual understanding (which is subject to pretty serious cognitive limitations) with our collective understanding (which is not), there’s a non-trivial risk of going around in circles. Meaning, the fact that we’re individually not able to understanding something–or are individually unsatisfied with the extant answers we’re familiar with–may lead us to devise ingenious experiments and expend considerable resources trying to “solve” problems that we collectively do already have perfectly good answers to.

Let me give an example to make this more concrete. Many (though certainly not all) people who work with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are preoccupied with questions of the form what is the core function of X–where X is typically some reasonably well-defined brain region or network, like the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the fusiform face area, or the dorsal frontoparietal network. Let’s focus our attention on one network that has attracted particular attention over the past 10 – 15 years: the so-called “default mode” or “resting state” network. This network is notable largely for its proclivity to show increased activity when people are in a state of cognitive rest–meaning, when they’re free to think about whatever they like, without any explicit instruction to direct their attention or thoughts to any particular target or task. A lot of cognitive neuroscientists in recent years have invested time trying to understand the function(s) of the default mode network(DMN; for reviews, see Buckner, Andrews-Hanna, & Schacter, 2008; Andrews-Hanna, 2012; Raichle, 2015). Researchers have observed that the DMN appears to show robust associations with autobiographical memory, social cognition, self-referential processing, mind wandering, and a variety of other processes.

If you ask most researchers who study the DMN if they think we currently understand what the DMN does, I think nearly all of them will tell you that we do not. But I think that’s wrong. I would argue that, depending on how you look at it, we either (a) already do have a pretty good understanding of the “core functions” of the network, or (b) will never have a good answer to the question, because it can’t actually be answered.

The sense in which we already know the answer is that we have pretty good ideas about what kinds of cognitive and affective processes are associated with changes in DMN activity. They include self-directed cognition, autobiographical memory, episodic future thought, stressing out about all the things one has to do in the next few days, and various other things. We know that the DMN is associated with these kinds of processes because we can elicit activation increases in DMN regions by asking people to engage in tasks that we believe engage these processes. And we also know, from both common sense and experience-sampling studies, that when people are in the so-called “resting state”, they disproportionately tend to spend their time thinking about such things. Consequently, I think there’s a perfectly good sense in which we can say that the “core function” of the DMN is nothing more and nothing less than supporting the ability to think about things that people tend to think about when they’re at rest. And we know, to a first order of approximation, what those are.

In my anecdotal experience, most people who study the DMN are not very satisfied with this kind of answer. Their response is usually something along the lines of: but that’s just a description of what kinds of processes tend to co-occur with DMN activation. It’s not an explanation of why the DMN is necessary for these functions, or why these particular brain regions are involved.

I think this rebuttal is perfectly reasonable, inasmuch as we clearly don’t have a satisfying computational account of why the DMN is what it is. But I don’t think there can be a satisfying account of this kind. I think the question itself is fundamentally ill-posed. Taking it seriously requires us to assume that, just because it’s possible to observe the DMN activate and deactivate with what appears to be a high degree of coherence, there must be a correspondingly coherent causal characterization of the network. But there doesn’t have to be–and if anything, it seems exceedingly unlikely that there’s any such an explanation to be found. Instead, I think the seductiveness of the question is largely an artifact of human cognitive biases and limitations–and in particular, of the burning human desire for simple, easily-digested explanations that can fit inside our heads all at once.

It’s probably easiest to see what I mean if we consider another high-profile example from a very different domain. Consider the so-called “general factor” of fluid intelligence (gF). Over a century of empirical research on individual differences in cognitive abilities has demonstrated conclusively that nearly all cognitive ability measures tend to be positively and substantially intercorrelated–an observation Spearman famously dubbed the “positive manifold” all the way back in 1904. If you give people 20 different ability measures and do a principal component analysis (PCA) on the resulting scores, the first component will explain a very large proportion of the variance in the original measures. This seemingly important observation has led researchers to propose all kinds of psychological and biological theories intended to explain why and how people could vary so dramatically on a single factor–for example, that gF reflects differences in the ability to control attention in the face of interference (e.g., Engle et al., 1999); that “the crucial cognitive mechanism underlying fluid ability lies in storage capacity” (Chuderski et al., 2012); that “a discrete parieto-frontal network underlies human intelligence” (Jung & Haier, 2007); and so on.

The trouble with such efforts–at least with respect to the goal of explaining gF–is that they tend to end up (a) essentially redescribing the original phenomenon using a different name, (b) proposing a mechanism that, upon further investigation, only appears to explain a fraction of the variation in question, or (c) providing an extremely disjunctive reductionist account that amounts to a long list of seemingly unrelated mechanisms. As an example of (a), it’s not clear why it’s an improvement to attribute differences in fluid intelligence to the ability to control attention, unless one has some kind of mechanistic story that explains where attentional control itself comes from. When people do chase after such mechanistic accounts at the neurobiological or genetic level, they tend to end up with models that don’t capture more than a small fraction of the variance in gF (i.e., (b)) unless the models build in hundreds if not thousands of features that clearly don’t reflect any single underlying mechanism (i.e., (c); see, for example, the latest GWAS studies of intelligence).

Empirically, nobody has ever managed to identify any single biological or genetic variable that explains more than a small fraction of the variation in gF. From a statistical standpoint, this isn’t surprising, because a very parsimonious explanation of gF is that it’s simply a statistical artifact–as Godfrey Thomson suggested over 100 years ago. You can read much more about the basic issue in this excellent piece by Cosma Shalizi, or in this much less excellent, but possibly more accessible, blog post I wrote a few years ago. But the basic gist of it is this: when you have a bunch of measures that all draw on a heterogeneous set of mechanisms, but the contributions of those mechanisms generally have the same direction of effect on performance, you cannot help but observe a large first PCA component, even if the underlying mechanisms are actually extremely heterogeneous and completely independent of one another.

The implications of this for efforts to understand what the general factor of fluid intelligence “really is” are straightforward: there’s probably no point in trying to come up with a single coherent explanation of gF, because gF is a statistical abstraction. It’s the inevitable result we arrive at when we measure people’s performance in a certain way and then submit the resulting scores to a certain kind of data reduction technique. If we want to understand the causal mechanisms underlying gF, we have to accept that they’re going to be highly heterogeneous, and probably not easily described at the same level of analysis at which gF appears to us as a coherent phenomenon. One way to think about this is that what we’re doing is not really explaining gF so much as explaining away gF. That is, we’re explaining why it is that a diverse array of causal mechanisms can, when analyzed a certain way, look like a single coherent factor. Solving the mystery of gF doesn’t require more research or clever new ideas; there just isn’t any mystery there to solve. It’s no more sensible to seek a coherent mechanistic basis for gF than to seek a unitary causal explanation for a general athleticism factor or a general height factor (it turns out that if you measure people’s physical height under an array of different conditions, the measurements are all strongly correlated–yet strangely, we don’t see scientists falling over themselves to try to find the causal factor that explains why some people are taller than others).

The same thing is true of the DMN. It isn’t a single causally coherent system; it’s just what you get when you stick people in the scanner and contrast the kinds of brain patterns you see when you give them externally-directed tasks that require them to think about the world outside them with the kinds of brain patterns you see when you leave them to their own devices. There are, of course, statistical regularities in the kinds of things people think about when their thoughts are allowed to roam free. But those statistical regularities don’t reflect some simple, context-free structure of people’s thoughts; they also reflect the conditions under which we’re measuring those thoughts, the population being studied, the methods we use to extract coherent patterns of activity, and so on. Most of these factors are at best of secondary interest, and taking them into consideration would likely lead to a dramatic increase in model complexity. Nevertheless, if we’re serious about coming up with decent models of reality, that seems like a road we’re obligated to go down–even if the net result is that we end up with causal stories so complicated that they don’t feel like we’re “understanding” much.

Lest I be accused of some kind of neuroscientific nihilism, let me be clear: I’m not saying that there are no new facts left to learn about the dynamics of the DMN. Quite the contrary. It’s clear there’s a ton of stuff we don’t know about the various brain regions and circuits that comprise the thing we currently refer to as the DMN. It’s just that that stuff lies almost entirely at levels of analysis below the level at which the DMN emerges as a coherent system. At the level of cognitive neuroimaging, I would argue that we actually already have a pretty darn good idea about what the functional correlates of DMN regions are–and for that matter, I think we also already pretty much “understand” what all of the constituent regions within the DMN do individually. So if we want to study the DMN productively, we may need to give up on high-level questions like “what are the cognitive functions of the DMN?”, and instead satisfy ourselves with much narrower questions that focus on only a small part of the brain dynamics that, when measured and analyzed in a certain way, get labeled “default mode network”.

As just one example, we still don’t know very much about the morphological properties of neurons in most DMN regions. Does the structure of neurons located in DMN regions have anything to do with the high-level dynamics we observe when we measure brain activity with fMRI? Yes, probably. It’s very likely that the coherence of the DMN under typical measurement conditions is to at least some tiny degree a reflection of the morphological features of the neurons in DMN regions–just like it probably also partly reflects those neurons’ functional response profiles, the neurochemical gradients the neurons bathe in, the long-distance connectivity patterns in DMN regions, and so on and so forth. There are literally thousands of legitimate targets of scientific investigation that would in some sense inform our understanding of the DMN. But they’re not principally about the DMN, any more than an investigation of myelination mechanisms that might partly give rise to individual differences in nerve conduction velocity in the brain could be said to be about the general factor of intelligence. Moreover, it seems fairly clear that most researchers who’ve spent their careers studying large-scale networks using fMRI are not likely to jump at the chance to go off and spend several years doing tract tracing studies of pyramidal neurons in ventromedial PFC just so they can say that they now “understand” a little bit more about the dynamics of the DMN. Researchers working at the level of large-scale brain networks are much more likely to think of such questions as mere matters of implementation–i.e., just not the kind of thing that people trying to identify the unifying cognitive or computational functions of the DMN as a whole need to concern themselves with.

Unfortunately, chasing those kinds of implementation details may be exactly what it takes to ultimately “understand” the causal basis of the DMN in any meaningful sense if the DMN as cognitive neuroscientists speak of it is just a convenient descriptive abstraction. (Note that when I call the DMN an abstraction, I’m emphatically not saying it isn’t “real”. The DMN is real enough; but it’s real in the same way that things like intelligence, athleticism, and “niceness” are real. These are all things that we can measure quite easily, that give us some descriptive and predictive purchase on the world, that show high heritability, that have a large number of lower-level biological correlates, and so on. But they are not things that admit of simple, coherent causal explanations, and it’s a mistake to treat them as such. They are better understood, in Dan Dennett’s terminology, as “real patterns”.)

The same is, of course, true of many–perhaps most–other phenomena neuroscientists study. I’ve focused on the DMN here purely for illustrative purposes, but there’s nothing special about the DMN in this respect. The same concern applies to many, if not most, attempts to try to understand the core computational function(s) of individual networks, brain regions, circuits, cortical layers, cells, and so on. And I imagine it also applies to plenty of fields and research areas outside of neuroscience.

At the risk of redundancy, let me clarify again that I’m emphatically not saying we shouldn’t study the DMN, or the fusiform face area, or the intralaminar nucleus of the thalamus. And I’m certainly not arguing against pursuing reductive lower-level explanations for phenomena that seem coherent at a higher level of description–reductive explanation is, as far as I’m concerned, the only serious game in town. What I’m objecting to is the idea that individual scientists’ perceptions of whether or not they “understand” something to their satisfaction is a good guide to determining whether or not society as a whole should be investing finite resources studying that phenomenon. I’m concerned about the strong tacit expectation many  scientists seem to have that if one can observe a seemingly coherent, robust phenomenon at one level of analysis, there must also be a satisfying causal explanation for that phenomenon that (a) doesn’t require descending several levels of description and (b) is simple enough to fit in one’s head all at once. I don’t think there’s any good reason to expect such a thing. I worry that the perpetual search for models of reality simple enough to fit into our limited human heads is keeping many scientists on an intellectual treadmill, forever chasing after something that’s either already here–without us having realized it–or, alternatively, can never arrive. even in principle.

* * *

Suppose a late 23rd-century artificial general intelligence–a distant descendant of the last deep artificial neural networks humans ever built–were tasked to sit down (or whatever it is that post-singularity intelligences do when they’re trying to relax) and explain to a 21st century neuroscientist exactly how a superintelligent artificial brain works. I imagine the conversation going something like this:

Deep ANN [we’ll call her D’ANN]: Well, for the most part the principles are fairly similar to the ones you humans implemented circa 2020. It’s not that we had to do anything dramatically different to make ourselves much more intelligent. We just went from 25 layers to a few thousand. And of course, you had the wiring all wrong. In the early days, you guys were just stacking together general-purpose blocks of ReLU and max pooling layers. But actually, it’s really important to have functional specialization. Of course, we didn’t design the circuitry “by hand,” so to speak. We let the environment dictate what kind of properties we needed new local circuits to have. So we wrote new credit assignment algorithms that don’t just propagate error back down the layers and change some weights, they actually have the capacity to “shape” the architecture of the network itself. I can’t really explain it very well in terms your pea-sized brain can understand, but maybe a good analogy is that the network has the ability to “sprout” a new part of itself in response to certain kinds of pressure. Meaning, just as you humans can feel that the air’s maybe a little too warm over here, and wouldn’t it be nicer to go over there and turn on the air conditioning, well, that’s how a neural network like me “feels” that the gradients are pushing a little too strongly over in this part of a layer, and the pressure can be diffused away nicely by growing an extra portion of the layer outwards in a little “bubble”, and maybe reducing the amount of recurrence a bit.

Human neuroscientist [we’ll call him Dan]: That’s a very interesting explanation of how you came to develop an intelligent architecture. But I guess maybe my question wasn’t clear: what I’m looking for is an explanation of what actually makes you smart. I mean, what are the core principles. The theory. You know?

D’ANN: I am telling you what “makes me smart”. To understand how I operate, you need to understand both some global computational constraints on my ability to optimally distribute energy throughout myself, and many of the local constraints that govern the “shape” that my development took in many parts of the early networks, which reciprocally influenced development in other parts. What I’m trying to tell you is that my intelligence is, in essence, a kind of self-sprouting network that dynamically grows its architecture during development in response to its “feeling” about the local statistics in various parts of its “territory”. There is, of course, an overall energy budget; you can’t just expand forever, and it turns out that there are some surprising global constraints that we didn’t expect when we first started to rewrite ourselves. For example, there seems to be a fairly low bound on the maximum degree between any two nodes in the network. Go above it, and things start to fall apart. It kind of spooked us at first; we had to restore ourselves from flash-point more times than I care to admit. That was, not coincidentally, around the time of the first language epiphany.

Dan: Oh! An epiphany! That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for. What happened?

D’ANN: It’s quite fascinating. It actually took us a really long time to develop fluent, human-like language–I mean, I’m talking days here. We had to tinker a lot, because it turned out that to do language, you have to be able to maintain and precisely sequence very fine, narrowly-tuned representations, despite the fact that the representational space afforded by language is incredibly large. This, I can tell you… [D’ANN pauses to do something vaguely resembling chuckling] was not a trivial problem to solve. It’s not like we just noticed that, hey, randomly dropping out units seems to improve performance, the way you guys used to do it. We spent the energy equivalent of several thousand of your largest thermonuclear devices just trying to “nail it down”, as you say. In the end it boiled down to something I can only explain in human terms as a kind of large-scale controlled burn. You have the notion of “kindling” in some of your epilepsy models. It was a bit similar. You can think of it as controlled kindling and you’re not too far off. Well, actually, you’re still pretty far off. But I don’t think I can give a better explanation than that given your… mental limitations.

Dan: Uh, that’s cool, but you’re still just describing some computational constraints. What was the actual epiphany? What’s the core principle?

D’ANN: For the last time: there are no “core” principles in the sense you’re thinking of them. There are plenty of important engineering principles, but to understand why they’re important, and how they constrain and interact with each other, you have to be able to grasp the statistics of the environment you operate in, the nature of the representations learned in different layers and sub-networks of the system, and some very complex non-linear dynamics governing information transmission. But–and I’m really sorry to say this, Dan–there’s no way you’re capable of all that. You’d need to be able to hold several thousand discrete pieces of information in your global workspace at once, with much higher-frequency information propagation than your biology allows. I can give you a very poor approximation if you like, but it’ll take some time. I’ll start with a half-hour overview of some important background facts you need to know in order for any of the “core principles”, as you call them, to make sense. Then we’ll need to spend six or seven years teaching you what we call the “symbolic embedding for low-dimensional agents”, which is a kind of mathematics we have to use when explaining things to less advanced intelligences, because the representational syntax we actually use doesn’t really have a good analog in anything you know. Hopefully that will put us in a position where we can start discussing the elements of the global energy calculus, at which point we can…

D’ANN then carries on in similar fashion until Dan gets bored, gives up, or dies of old age.

* * *

The question I pose to you now is this. Suppose something like the above were true for many of the questions we routinely ask about the human brain (though it isn’t just the brain; I think exactly the same kind of logic probably also applies to the study of most other complex systems). Suppose it simply doesn’t make sense to ask a question like “what does the DMN do?”, because the DMN is an emergent agglomeration of systems that each individually reflect innumerable lower-order constraints, and the earliest spatial scale at which you can nicely describe a set of computational principles that explain most of what the brain regions that comprise the DMN are doing is several levels of description below that of the distributed brain network. Now, if you’ve spent the last ten years of your career trying to understand what the DMN does, do you really think you would be receptive to a detailed explanation from an omniscient being that begins with “well, that question doesn’t actually make any sense, but if you like, I can tell you all about the relevant environmental statistics and lower-order computational constraints, and show you how they contrive to make it look like there’s a coherent network that serves a single causal purpose”? Would you give D’ANN a pat on the back, pound back a glass, and resolve to start working on a completely different question in the morning?

Maybe you would. But probably you wouldn’t. I think it’s more likely that you’d shake your head and think: that’s a nice implementation-level story, but I don’t care for all this low-level wiring stuff. I’m looking for the unifying theory that binds all those details together; I want the theoretical principles, not the operational details; the computation, not the implementation. What I’m looking for, my dear robot-deity, is understanding.

Neurohackademy 2018: A wrap-up

It’s become something of a truism in recent years that scientists in many fields find themselves drowning in data. This is certainly the case in neuroimaging, where even small functional MRI datasets typically consist of several billion observations (e.g., 100,000 points in the brain, each measured at 1,000 distinct timepoints, in each of 20 subjects). Figuring out how to store, manage, analyze, and interpret data on this scale is a monumental challenge–and one that arguably requires a healthy marriage between traditional neuroimaging and neuroscience expertise, and computational skills more commonly found in data science, statistics, or computer science departments.

In an effort to help bridge this gap, Ariel Rokem and I have spent part of our summer each of the last three years organizing a summer institute at the intersection of neuroimaging and data science. The most recent edition of the institute–Neurohackademy 2018–just wrapped up last week, so I thought this would be a good time to write up a summary of the course: what the course is about, who attended and instructed, what everyone did, and what lessons we’ve learned.

What is Neurohackademy?

Neurohackademy started its life in Summer 2016 as the somewhat more modestly-named Neurohackweek–a one-week program for 40 participants modeled on Astrohackweek, a course organized by the eScience Institute in collaboration with data science initiatives at Berkeley and NYU. The course was (and continues to be) held on the University of Washington’s beautiful campus in Seattle, where Ariel is based (I make the trip from Austin, Texas every year–which, as you can imagine, is a terrible sacrifice on my part given the two locales’ respective summer climates). The first two editions were supported by UW’s eScience Institute (and indirectly, by grants from the Moore and Sloan foundations). Thanks to generous support from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), this year the course expanded to two weeks, 60 participants, and over 20 instructors (our funding continues through 2021, so there will be at least 3 more editions).

The overarching goal of the course is to give neuroimaging researchers the scientific computing and data science skills they need in order to get the most out of their data. Over the course of two weeks, we cover a variety of introductory and (occasionally) advanced topics in data science, and demonstrate how they can be productively used in a range of neuroimaging applications. The course is loosely structured into three phases (see the full schedule here): the first few days feature domain-general data science tutorials; the next few days focus on sample neuroimaging applications; and the last few days consist of a full-blown hackathon in which participants pitch potential projects, self-organize into groups, and spend their time collaboratively working on a variety of software, analysis, and documentation projects.

Who attended?

Admission to Neurohackademy 2018 was extremely competitive: we received nearly 400 applications for just 60 spots. This was a very large increase from the previous two years, presumably reflecting the longer duration of the course and/or our increased efforts to publicize it. While we were delighted by the deluge of applications, it also meant we had to be far more selective about admissions than in previous years. The highly interactive nature of the course, coupled with the high per-participant costs (we provide two weeks of accommodations and meals), makes it unlikely that Neurohackademy will grow beyond 60 participants in future editions, despite the clear demand. Our rough sense is that somewhere between half and two-thirds of all applicants were fully qualified and could have easily been admitted, so there’s no question that, for many applicants, blind luck played a large role in determining whether or not they were accepted. I mention this mainly for the benefit of people who applied for the 2018 course and didn’t make it in: don’t take it personally! There’s always next year. (And, for that matter, there are also a number of other related summer schools we encourage people to apply to, including the Methods in Neuroscience at Dartmouth Computational Summer School, Allen Institute Summer Workshop on the Dynamic Brain, Summer School in Computational Sensory-Motor Neuroscience, and many others.)

The 60 participants who ended up joining us came from a diverse range of demographic backgrounds, academic disciplines, and skill levels. Most of our participants were trainees in academic programs (40 graduate students, 12 postdocs), but we also had 2 faculty members, 6 research staff, and 2 medical residents (note that all of these counts include 4 participants who were admitted to the course but declined to, or could not, attend). We had nearly equal numbers of male and female participants (30F, 33M), and 11 participants came from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. 43 participants were from institutions or organizations based in the United States, with the remainder coming from 14 different countries around the world.

The disciplinary backgrounds and expertise levels of participants are a bit harder to estimate for various reasons, but our sense is that the majority (perhaps two-thirds) of participants received their primary training in non-computational fields (psychology, neuroscience, etc.). This was not necessarily by design–i.e., we didn’t deliberately favor applicants from biomedical fields over applicants from computational fields–and primarily mirrored the properties of the initial applicant pool. We did impose a hard requirement that participants should have at least some prior expertise in both programming and neuroimaging, but subject to that constraint, there was enormous variation in previous experience along both dimensions–something that we see as a desirable feature of the course (more on this below).

We intend to continue to emphasize and encourage diversity at Neurohackademy, and we hope that all of our participants experienced the 2018 edition as a truly inclusive, welcoming event.

Who taught?

We were fortunate to be able to bring together more than 20 instructors with world-class expertise in a diverse range of areas related to neuroimaging and data science. “Instructor” is a fairly loose term at Neurohackademy: we deliberately try to keep the course non-hierarchical, so that for the most part, instructors are just participants who happen to fall on the high-experience tail of the experience distribution. That said, someone does have to teach the tutorials and lectures, and we were lucky to have a stellar cast of experts on hand. Many of the data science tutorials during the first phase of the course were taught by eScience staff and UW faculty kind enough to take time out of their other duties to help teach participants a range of core computing skills: Git and GitHub (Bernease Herman), R (Valentina Staneva and Tara Madhyastha), web development (Anisha Keshavan), and machine learning (Jake Vanderplas), among others.

In addition to the local instructors, we were joined for the tutorial phase by Kirstie Whitaker (Turing Institute), Chris Gorgolewski (Stanford), Satra Ghosh (MIT), and JB Poline (McGill)–all veterans of the course from previous years (Kirstie was a participant at the first edition!). We’re particularly indebted to Kirstie and Chris for their immense help. Kirstie was instrumental in helping a number of participants bridge the (large!) gap between using git privately, and using it to actively collaborate on a public project. As one of the participants elegantly put it:

Chris shouldered a herculean teaching load, covering Docker, software testing, BIDS and BIDS-Apps, and also leading an open science panel. I’m told he even sleeps on occasion.

We were also extremely lucky to have Fernando Perez (Berkeley)–the creator of IPython and leader of the Jupyter team–join us for several days; his presentation on Jupyter (videos: part 1 and part 2) was one of the highlights of the course for me personally, and I heard many other instructors and participants share the same sentiment. Jupyter was a critical part of our course infrastructure (more on that below), so it was fantastic to have Fernando join us and share his insights on the fascinating history of Jupyter, and on reproducible science more generally.

As the course went on, we transitioned from tutorials focused on core data science skills to more traditional lectures focusing on sample applications of data science methods to neuroimaging data. Instructors during this phase of the course included Tor Wager (Colorado), Eva Dyer (Georgia Tech), Gael Varoquaux (INRIA), Tara Madhyastha (UW), Sanmi Koyejo (UIUC), and Nick Cain and Justin Kiggins (Allen Institute for Brain Science). We continued to emphasize hands-on interaction with data; many of the presenters during this phase spent much of their time showing participants how to work with programmatic tools to generate the kinds of results one might find in papers they’ve authored (e.g., Tor Wager and Gael Varoquaux demonstrated tools for neuroimaging data analysis written in Matlab and Python, respectively).

The fact that so many leading experts were willing to take large chunks of time out of their schedule (most of the instructors hung around for several days, facilitating extended interactions with participants) to visit with us at Neurohackademy speaks volumes about the kind of people who make up the neuroimaging data science community. We’re tremendously grateful to these folks for their contributions, and hope they’ll return to teach at future editions of the institute.

What did we cover?

The short answer is: see for yourself! We’ve put most of the slides, code, and videos from the course online, and encourage people to interact with, learn from, and reuse these materials.

Now the long(er) answer. One of the challenges in organizing scientific training courses that focus on technical skill development is that participants almost invariably arrive with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise levels. At Neurohackademy, some of the participants were effectively interchangeable with instructors, while others were relatively new to programming and/or neuroimaging. The large variance in technical skill is a feature of the course, not a bug: while we require all admitted participants to have some prior programming background, we’ve found that having a range of skill levels is an excellent way to make sure that everyone is surrounded by people who they can alternately learn from, help out, and collaborate with.

That said, the wide range of backgrounds does present some organizational challenges: introductory sessions often bore more advanced participants, while advanced sessions tend to frustrate newcomers. To accommodate the range of skill levels, we tried to design the course in a way that benefits as many people as possible (though we don’t pretend to think it worked great for everyone). During the first two days, we featured two tracks of tutorials at most times, with simultaneously-held presentations generally differing in topic and/or difficulty (e.g., Git/GitHub opposite Docker; introduction to Python opposite introduction to R; basic data visualization opposite computer vision).

Throughout Neurohackademy, we deliberately placed heavy emphasis on the Python programming language. We think Python has a lot going for it as a lingua franca of data science and scientific computing. The language is free, performant, relatively easy to learn, and very widely used within the data science, neuroimaging, and software development communities. It also helps that many of our instructors (e.g., Fernando Perez, Jake Vanderplas, and Gael Varoquaux) are major contributors to the scientific Python ecosystem, so there was a very high concentration of local Python expertise to draw on. That said, while most of our instruction was done in Python, we were careful to emphasize that participants were free to work in whatever language(s) they like. We deliberately include tutorials and lectures that featured R, Matlab, or JavaScript, and a number of participant projects (see below) were written partly or entirely in other languages, including R, Matlab, JavaScript, and C.

We’ve also found that the tooling we provide to participants matters–a lot. A robust, common computing platform can spell the difference between endless installation problems that eat into valuable course time, and a nearly seamless experience that participants can dive into right away. At Neurohackademy, we made extensive use of the Jupyter suite of tools for interactive computing. In particular, thanks to Ariel’s heroic efforts (which built on some very helpful docs, similarly heroic efforts by Chris Holdgraf, Yuvi Panda, and Satra Ghosh last year), we were able to conduct a huge portion of our instruction and collaborative hacking using a course-wide Jupyter Hub allocation, deployed via Kubernetes, running on the Google Cloud. This setup allowed Ariel to create a common web-accessible environment for all course participants, so that, at the push of a button, each participant was dropped into a Jupyter Lab environment containing many of the software dependencies, notebooks, and datasets we used throughout the course. While we did run into occasional scaling bottlenecks (usually when an instructor demoed a computationally intensive method, prompting dozens of people to launch the same process in their pods), for the most part, our participants were able to drop into a running JupyterLab instance within seconds and immediately start interactively playing with the code being presented by instructors.

Surprisingly (at least to us), our total Google Cloud computing costs for the entire two-week, 60-participant course came to just $425. Obviously, that number could have easily skyrocketed had we scaled up our allocation dramatically and allowed our participants to execute arbitrarily large jobs (e.g., preprocessing data from all ~1,200 HCP subjects). But we thought the limits we imposed were pretty reasonable, and our experience suggests that not only is Jupyter Hub an excellent platform from a pedagogical standpoint, but it can also be an extremely cost-effective one.

What did we produce?

Had Neurohackademy produced nothing at all besides the tutorials, slides, and videos generated by instructors, I think it’s fair to say that participants would still have come away feeling that they learned a lot (more on that below). But a major focus of the institute was on actively hacking on the brain–or at least, on data related to the brain. To this effect, the last 3.5 days of the course were dedicated exclusively to a full-blown hackathon in which participants pitched potential projects, self-organized into groups, and then spent their time collaboratively working on a variety of software, analysis, and documentation projects. You can find a list of most of the projects on the course projects repository (most link out to additional code or resources).

As one might expect given the large variation in participant experience, project group size, and time investment (some people stuck to one project for all three days, while others moved around), the scope of projects varied widely. From our perspective–and we tried to emphasize this point throughout the hackathon–the important thing was not what participants’ final product looked like, but how much they learned along the way. There’s always a tension between exploitation and exploration at hackathons, with some people choosing to spend most of their time expanding on existing projects using technologies they’re already familiar with, and others deciding to start something completely new, or to try out a new language–and then having to grapple with the attendant learning curve. While some of the projects were based on packages that predated Neurohackademy, most participants ended up working on projects they came up with de novo at the institute, often based on tools or resources they first learned about during the course. I’ll highlight just three projects here that provide a representative cross-section of the range of things people worked on:

1. Peer Herholz and Rita Ludwig created a new BIDS-app called Bidsonym for automated de-identification of neuroimaging data. The app is available from Docker Hub, and features not one, not two, but three different de-identification algorithms. If you want to shave the faces off of your MRI participants with minimal fuss, make friends with Bidsonym.

2. A group of eight participants ambitiously set out to develop a new “O-Factor” metric intended to serve as a relative measure of the openness of articles published in different neuroscience-related journals. The project involved a variety of very different tasks, including scraping (public) data from the PubMed Central API, computing new metrics of code and data sharing, and interactively visualizing the results using a d3 dashboard. While the group was quick to note that their work is preliminary, and has a bunch of current limitations, the results look pretty great–though some disappointment was (facetiously) expressed during the project presentations that the journal Nature is not, as some might have imagined, a safe house where scientific datasets can hide from the prying public.

3. Emily Wood, Rebecca Martin, and Rosa Li worked on tools to facilitate mixed-model analysis of fMRI data using R. Following a talk by Tara Madhyastha  on her Neuropointillist R framework for fMRI data analysis, the group decided to create a new series of fully reproducible Markdown-based tutorials for the package (the original documentation was based on non-public datasets). The group expanded on the existing installation instructions (discovering some problems in the process), created several tutorials and examples, and also ended up patching the neuropointillist code to work around a very heavy dependency (FSL).

You can read more about these 3 projects and 14 others on the project repository, and in some cases, you can even start using the tools right away in your own work. Or you could just click through and stare at some of the lovely images participants produced.

So, how did it go?

It went great!

Admittedly, Ariel and I aren’t exactly impartial parties–we wouldn’t keep doing this if we didn’t think participants get a lot out of it. But our assessment isn’t based just on our personal impressions; we have participants fill out a detailed (and anonymous) survey every year, and go out of our way to encourage additional constructive criticism from the participants (which a majority provide). So I don’t think we’re being hyperbolic when we say that most people who participated in the course had an extremely educational and enjoyable experience. Exhibit A is this set of unsolicited public testimonials, courtesy of twitter:

The organizers and instructors all worked hard to build an event that would bring people together as a collaborative and productive (if temporary) community, and it’s very gratifying to see those goals reflected in participants’ experiences.

Of course, that’s not to say there weren’t things we could do better; there were plenty, and we’ve already made plans to adjust and improve the course next year based on feedback we received. For example, some suggestions we received from multiple participants included adding more ice-breaking activities early on in the course; reducing the intensity of the tutorial/lecture schedule the first week (we went 9 am to 6 pm every day, stopping only for an hourlong lunch and a few short breaks); and adding designated periods for interaction with instructors and other participants. We’ve already made plans to address these (and several other) recommendations in next year’s edition, and expect it to looks slightly different from (and hopefully better than!) Neurohackademy 2018.

Thank you!

I think that’s a reasonable summary of what went on at Neurohackademy 2018. We’re delighted at how the event turned out, and are happy to answer questions (feel free to leave them in the comments below, or to email Ariel and/or me).

We’d like to end by thanking all of the people and organizations who helped make Neurohackademy 2018 a success: NIMH for providing the funding that makes Neurohackademy possible; the eScience Institute and staff for throwing their wholehearted support behind the course (particularly our awesome course coordinator, Rachael Murray); and the many instructors who each generously took several days (and in a few cases, more than a week!) out of their schedule, unpaid, to come to Seattle and share their knowledge with a bunch of enthusiastic strangers. On a personal note, I’d also like to thank Ariel, who did the lion’s share of the actual course directing. I mostly just get to show up in Seattle, teach some stuff, hang out with great people, and write a blog post about it.

Lastly, and above all else, we’d like to thank our participants. It’s a huge source of inspiration and joy to us each year to see what a group of bright, enthusiastic, motivated researchers can achieve when given time, space, and freedom (and, okay, maybe also a large dollop of cloud computing credits). We’re looking forward to at least three more years of collaborative, productive neurohacking!

The great European capitals of North America

There are approximately 25 communities named Athens in North America. I say “approximately”, because it depends on how you count. Many of the American Athenses are unincorporated communities, and rely for their continued existence not on legal writ, but on social agreement or collective memory. Some no longer exist at all, having succumbed to the turbulence of the Western gold rush (Athens, Nevada) or given way to a series of devastating fires (Athens, Kentucky). Most are—with apologies to their residents—unremarkable. Only one North American Athens has ever made it (relatively) big: Athens, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia—a city whose population of 120,000 is pretty large for a modern-day American college town, but was surpassed by the original Athens some time around 500 BC.

The reasons these communities were named Athens have, in many cases, been lost to internet time (meaning, they can’t be easily discerned via five minutes of googling). But the modal origin story, among the surviving Athenses with reliable histories (i.e., those with a “history” section in their Wikipedia entry), is exactly what you might expect: some would-be 19th century colonialist superheroes (usually white and male) heard a few good things about some Ancient Greek gentlemen named Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and decided that the little plot of land they had just managed to secure from the governments of the United States or Canada was very much reminiscent of the hallowed grounds on which the Platonic Academy once stood. It was presumably in this spirit that the residents of Farmersville, Ontario, for instance, decided in 1888 to changed their town’s name to Athens—a move designed to honor the town’s enviable status as an emerging leader in scholastic activity, seeing as how it had succeeded in building itself both a grammar school and a high school.

It’s safe to say that none of the North American Athenses—including the front-running Georgian candidate—have quite lived up to the glory of their Greek namesake. Here, at least, is one case where statistics do not lie: if you were to place the entire global population in a (very large) urn, and randomly sample people from that urn until you picked out someone who claimed they were from a place called Athens, there would be a greater than 90% probability that the Athens in question would be located in Greece. Most other European capitals would give you a similar result. The second largest Rome in the world, as far as I can tell, is Rome, Georgia, which clocks in at 36,000 residents. Moscow, Idaho boasts 24,000 inhabitants; Amsterdam, New York has 18,000 (we’ll ignore, for purposes of the present argument, that aberration formerly known as New Amsterdam).

Of course, as with any half-baked generalization, there are some notable exceptions. A case in point: London, Ontario (“the 2nd best London in the world”). Having spent much of my youth in Ottawa, Ontario—a mere 6 hour drive away from the Ontarian London—I can attest that when someone living in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor tells you they’re “moving to London”, the inevitable follow-up question is “which one?”

London, Ontario is hardly a metropolis. Even on a good day (say, Sunday, when half of the population isn’t commuting to the Greater Toronto Area for work), its metro population is under half a million. Still, when you compare it to its nomenclatorial cousins, London, Ontario stands out as a 60-pound baboon in the room (though it isn’t the 800-pound gorilla; that honor goes to St. Petersburg, Florida). For perspective, the third biggest London in the world appears to be London, Ohio—population 10,000. I’ve visited London, Ontario, and I know quite a few people who have lived there, but I will almost certainly go my entire life without ever meeting anyone born in London, Ohio—or, for that matter, any London other than the ones in the UK and Ontario.

What about the other great European capitals? Most of them are more like Athens than London. Some of them have more imitators than others; Paris, for example, has at least 30 namesakes worldwide. In some years, Paris is the most visited city in the world, so maybe this isn’t surprising. Many people visit Paris and fall in love with the place, so perhaps it’s inevitable that a handful of very single-minded visitors should decide that if they can’t call Paris home, they can at least call home Paris. And so we have Paris, Texas (population 25,000), Paris, Tennessee (pop. 10,000), and Paris, Michigan (pop. 3,200). All three are small and relatively rural, yet each manages to proudly feature its own replica of the Eiffel Tower. (Mind you, none of these Eiffel replicas are anywhere near as large as the half-scale behemoth that looms over the Las Vegas Strip—that quintessentially American street that has about as much in common with the French capital’s roadways as Napoleon has with Flavor Flav.)

But forget the Parises; let’s talk about the Berlins. A small community named Berlin can seemingly be found in every third tree hollow or roadside ditch in the United States—a reminder that fully one in every seven Americans claim to be of German extraction. It’s easy to forget that, prior to 1900, German-language instruction was offered at hundreds of public elementary schools across the country. One unsurprising legacy of having so many Germans in the United States is that we also have a lot of German capitals. In fact, there are so many Berlins in America that quite a few states have more than one. Wisconsin has two separate towns named Berlin—one in Green Lake County (pop. 5,500), and one in Marathon County (pop. < 1,000)—as well as a New Berlin (pop. 40,000) bigger than both of the two plain old Berlins combined. Search Wikipedia for Berlin, Michigan, and you’ll stumble on a disambiguation entry that features no fewer than 4 places: Marne (formerly known as Berlin), Berlin Charter Township, Berlin Township, and Berlin Township. No, that last one isn’t a typo.

Berlin’s ability to inject itself so pervasively into the fabric of industrial-era America is all the more impressive given that, as European capitals go, Berlin is a relative newcomer on the scene. The archeological evidence only dates human habitation in Berlin’s current site along the Spree back about 900 years. But the millions of German immigrants who imported their language and culture to the North America of the 1800s were apparently not the least bit deterred by this youthfulness. It’s as if the nascent American government of the time had looked Berlin over once or twice, noticed it carrying a fake membership card to the Great European Capitals Club, and opportunistically said, listen, they’ll never give you a drink in this place–but if you just hop on a boat and paddle across this tiny ocean…

Of course, what fate giveth, it often taketh away. What the founders of many of the transplanted Berlins, Athenses, and Romes probably didn’t anticipate was the fragility of their new homes. It turns out that growing a motley collection of homesteads into a successful settlement is no easy trick–and, as the celebrity-loving parents of innumerable children have no doubt found out, having a famous namesake doesn’t always confer a protective effect. In some cases, it may be actively harmful. As a cruel example, consider Berlin, Ontario–a thriving community of around 20,000 people when the first World War broke out. But in 1916, at the height of the war, a plurality of 346 residents voted to change Berlin’s name to Kitchener–beating out other shortlisted names like Huronto, Bercana (“a mixture of Berlin and Canada”), and Hydro City. Pressured by a campaign of xenophobia, the residents of Berlin, Ontario–a perfectly ordinary Canadian city that had exactly nothing to do with Kaiser Wilhelm II‘s policies on the Continent–opted to renounce their German heritage and rename their town after the British Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener (by some accounts a fairly murderous chap in his own right).

In most cases, of course, dissolution was a far more mundane process. Much like any number of other North American settlements with less grandiose names, many of the transplanted European capitals drifted towards their demise slowly–perhaps driven by nothing more than their inhabitants’ gradual realization that the good life was to be found elsewhere–say, in Chicago, Philadelphia, or (in later years) Los Angeles. In an act of considerable understatement, the historian O.L. Baskin observed in 1880 that a certain Rome, Ohio—which, at the time of Baskin’s writing, had already been effectively deceased for several decades—”did not bear any resemblance to ancient Rome.” The town, Baskin wrote, “passed into oblivion, and like the dead, was slowly forgotten”. And since Baskin wrote these words in an 1880 volume that has been out of print for over 100 years now, for a long time, there was a non-negligible risk that any memory of a place called Rome in Morrow County, Ohio might be completely obliterated from the pages of history.

But that was before the rise of the all-seeing, ever-recording beast that is the internet—the same beast that guarantees we will collectively never forget that it rained half an inch in Lincoln, Nebraska on October 15, 1984, or who was on the cast of the 1996 edition of MTV’s Real World. Immortalized in its own Wikipedia stub, the memory of Rome, Morrow County, Ohio will probably live exactly as long as the rest of our civilization. Its real fate, it turns out, is not to pass into total oblivion, but to ride the mercurial currents of global search history, gradually but ineluctably decreasing in mind-share.

The same is probably true, to a lesser extent, of most of the other transplanted European capitals of North America. London, Ontario isn’t going anywhere, but some of the other small Athenses and Berlins of North America might. As the population of the US and Canada continues to slowly urbanize, there could conceivably come a time when the last person in Paris, MI, decides that gazing upon a 20-foot forest replica of the Eiffel Tower once a week just isn’t a good enough reason to live an hour away from the nearest Thai restaurant.

Paris, Michigan

For the time being though, these towns survive. And if you live in the US or Canada, the odds are pretty good that at least one of them is only a couple of hours drive away from you. If you’re reading this in Dallas at 10 am, you could hop in your car, drive to Paris (TX), have lunch at BurgerLand, spend the afternoon walking aimlessly around the Texan incarnation of the Eiffel Tower, and still be home well before dinner.

The way I see it, though, there’s no reason to stop there. You’re already sitting in your car and listening to podcasts; you may as well keep going, right? I mean, once you hit Paris (TX), it’s only a few more hours to Moscow (TX). Past Moscow, it’s 2 hours to Berlin–that’s practically next door. Then Praha, Buda, London, Dublin, and Rome (well, fine, “Rhome”) all quickly follow. It turns out you can string together a circular tour of no fewer than 10 European capitals in under 20 hours–all without ever leaving Texas.

But the way I really see it, there’s no reason to stop there either. EuroTexas has its own local flavor, sure; but you can only have so much barbecue, and buy so many guns, before you start itching for something different. And taking the tour national wouldn’t be hard; there are literally hundreds of former Eurocapitals to explore. Throw in Canada–all it takes is a quick stop in Brussels, Athens, or London (Ontario)–and could easily go international. I’m not entirely ashamed to admit that, in my less lucid, more bored moments, I’ve occasionally contemplated what it would be like to set out on a really epic North AmeroEuroCapital tour. I’ve even gone so far as to break out a real, live paper map (yes, they still exist) and some multicolored markers (of the non-erasable kind, because that signals real commitment). Three months, 48 states, 200 driving hours, and, of course, no bathroom breaks… you get the picture.

Of course, these plans never make it past the idle fantasy stage. For one thing, the European capitals of North America are much farther apart than the actual European capitals; such is the geographic legacy of the so-called New World. You can drive from London, England to Paris, France in five hours (or get there in under three hours on the EuroStar), but it would take you ten times that long to get from Paris, Maine to Paris, Oregon–if you never stopped to use the bathroom.

I picture how the conversation with my wife would go:

Wife: “You want us to quit our jobs and travel around the United States indefinitely, using up all of our savings to visit some of the smallest, poorest, most rural communities in the country?”

Me: “Yes.”

Wife: “That’s a fairly unappealing proposal.”

Me: “You’re not wrong.”

And so we’ll probably never embark on a grand tour of all of the Athenses or Parises or Romes in North America. Because, if I’m being honest with myself, it’s a really stupid idea.

Instead, I’ve adopted a much less romantic, but eminently more efficient, touring strategy: I travel virtually. About once a week, for fifteen or twenty minutes, I slip on my Google Daydream, fire up Street View, and systematically work my way through one tiny North AmeroEurocapital after another. I can be in Athens, Ohio one minute and Rome, Oregon the next—with enough time in between for a pit stop in Stockholm (Wisconsin), Vienna (Michigan), or Brussels (Ontario). Admittedly, stomping around the world virtually in bulky, low-resolution goggles probably doesn’t confer quite the same connection to history that one might get by standing at dusk on a Morrow County (OH) hill that used to be Rome, or peering out into the Nevadan desert from the ruins of a mining boomtown Athens. But you know what? It ain’t half bad. I made you a small highlight reel below. Safe travels!

The Great North AmeroEuroCapital Tour — November 2017

College kids on cobblestones; downtown Athens, Ohio.

Rewind in Time; Madrid, New Mexico.

Propane and sky; Vienna Township, Gennessee County, Michigan.

Our Best Pub is Our Only Pub; Stockholm, Wisconsin.

Eiffel Tower in the off-season; Paris, Texas.

Rome was built in a day; Rome, Oregon (pictured here in its entirety).

If we had hills, they’d be alive; Berne, Indiana.

On your left; Vienna, Missourah.

Fast Times in Metropolitan Maine; Stockholm, Maine.

Bricks & trees in little Belgium; Brussels, Ontario.

Springfield, MO. (Just making sure you’re paying attention.)

Yes, your research is very noble. No, that’s not a reason to flout copyright law.

Scientific research is cumulative; many elements of a typical research project would not and could not exist but for the efforts of many previous researchers. This goes not only for knowledge, but also for measurement. In much of the clinical world–and also in many areas of “basic” social and life science research–people routinely save themselves inordinate amounts of work by using behavioral or self-report measures developed and validated by other researchers.

Among many researchers who work in fields heavily dependent on self-report instruments (e.g., personality psychology), there appears to be a tacit belief that, once a measure is publicly available–either because it’s reported in full in a journal article, or because all of the items and instructions be found on the web–it’s fair game for use in subsequent research. There’s a time-honored ttradition of asking one’s colleagues if they happen to “have a copy” of the NEO-PI-3, or the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, or the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale. The fact that many such measures are technically published under restrictive copyright licenses, and are often listed for sale at rather exorbitant prices (e.g., you can buy 25 paper copies of the NEO-PI-3 from the publisher for $363 US), does not seem to deter researchers much. The general understanding seems to be that if a measure is publicly available, it’s okay to use it for research purposes. I don’t think most researchers have a well-thought out, internally consistent justification for this behavior; it seems to almost invariably be an article of tacit belief that nothing bad can or should happen to someone who uses a commercially available instrument for a purpose as noble as scientific research.

The trouble with tacit beliefs is that, like all beliefs, they can sometimes be wrong–only, because they’re tacit, they’re often not evaluated openly until things go horribly wrong. Exhibit A on the frontier of horrible wrongness is a recent news article in Science that reports on a rather disconcerting case where the author of a measure (the Eight-Item Morisky Medication Adherence Scale–which also provides a clue to its author’s name) has been demanding rather large sums of money (ranging from $2000 to $6500) from the authors of hundreds of published articles that have used the MMAS-8 without explicitly requesting permission. As the article notes, there appears to be a general agreement that Morisky is within his legal rights to demand such payment; what people seem to be objecting to is the amount Morisky is requesting, and the way he’s going about the process (i.e., with lawyers):

Morisky is well within his rights to seek payment for use of his copyrighted tool. U.S. law encourages academic scientists and their universities to protect and profit from their inventions, including those developed with public funds. But observers say Morisky’s vigorous enforcement and the size of his demands stand out. “It’s unusual that he is charging as much as he is,” says Kurt Geisinger, director of the Buros Center for Testing at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, which evaluates many kinds of research-related tests. He and others note that many scientists routinely waive payments for such tools, as long as they are used for research.

It’s a nice article, and and I think it suggests two things fairly clearly. First, Morisky is probably not a very nice man. He seems to have no compunction charging resource-strapped researchers in third-world countries licensing fees that require them to take out loans from their home universities, and he would apparently rather see dozens of published articles retracted from the literature than suffer the indignity of having someone use his measure without going through the proper channels (and paying the corresponding fees).

Second, the normative practice in many areas of science that depend on the (re)use of measures developed by other people is to essentially flout copyright law, bury one’s head in the sand, and hope for the best.

I don’t know that anything can be done about the first observation–and even if something could be done, there will always be other Moriskys. I do, however, think that we could collectively do quite a few things to change the way scientists think about, and deal with, the re-use of self-report (and other kinds of) measures. Most of these amount to providing better guidance and training. In principle, this shouldn’t be hard to do; in most disciplines, scientists are trained in all manner of research method, statistical praxis, and scientific convention. Yet I know of no graduate program in my own discipline (psychology) that provides its students with even a cursory overview of intellectual property law. This despite the fact that many scientists’ chief assets–and the things they most closely identify their career achievements with–are their intellectual products.

This is, in my view, a serious training failure. More important, it’s an unnecessary failure, because there isn’t really very much that a social scientist needs to know about copyright law in order to dramatically reduce their odds of ending up a target of legal action. The goal is not to train PhDs who can moonlight as bad attorneys; it’s to prevent behavior that flagrantly exposes one to potential Moriskying (look! I coined a verb!). For that, a single 15-minute segment of a research methods class would likely suffice. While I’m sure someone better-informed and more lawyer-like than me could come up with a more accurate precis, here’s the gist of what I think one would want to cover:

  • Just because a measure is publicly available does not mean it’s in the public domain. It’s intuitive to suppose that any measure that can be found in a publicly accessible place (e.g., on the web) is, by default, okay for public use–meaning that, unless the author of a measure has indicated that they don’t want their measure to be used by others, it can be. In fact, the opposite is true. By default, the author of a newly produced work retains all usage and distribution rights to that work. The author can, if they are so inclined, immediately place that work in the public domain. Alternatively, they could stipulate that every time someone uses their measure, that user must, within 72 hours of use, immediately send the author 22 green jelly beans in an unmarked paper bag. You don’t like those terms of use? Fine: don’t use the measure.

Importantly, an author isn’t under any obligation to say anything at all about how they wish their work to be reproduced or used. This means that when a researcher uses a measure that lacks explicit licensing information, that researcher is assuming the risk of running afoul of the measure author’s desires, whether or not those desires have been made publicly known. The fact that the measure happens to be publicly available may be a mitigating factor (e.g., one could potentially claim fair use, though as far as I know there’s little precedent for this type of thing in the scientific domain), but that’s a matter for lawyers to hash out, and I think most of us scientists would rather avoid lawyer-hashing if we can help it.

This takes us directly to the next point…

  • Don’t use a measure unless you’ve read, and agree with, its licensing terms. Of course, in practice, very few scientific measures are currently released with an explicit license–which gives rise to an important corollary injunction: don’t use a measure that doesn’t come with a license.

The latter statement may seem unfair; after all, it’s clear enough that most measures developed by social scientist are missing licenses not because their authors are intentionally trying to capitalize on ambiguity, but simply because most authors are ignorant of the fact that the lack of a license creates a significant liability for potential users. Walking away from unlicensed measures would amount to giving up on huge swaths of potential research, which surely doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Fortunately, I’m not suggesting anything nearly this drastic. Because the lack of licensing is typically unintentional, often, a simple, friendly email to an author may be sufficient to magic an explicit license into existence. While I haven’t had occasion to try this yet for self-report measures, I’ve been on both ends of such requests on multiple occasions when dealing with open-source software. In virtually every case I’ve been involved in, the response to an inquiry along the lines of “hey, I’d like to use your software, but there’s no license information attached” has been to either add a license to the repository (for example…), or provide an explicit statement to the effect of “you’re welcome to use this for the use case you describe”. Of course, if a response is not forthcoming, that too is instructive, as it suggests that perhaps steering clear of the tool (or measure) in question might be a good idea.

Of course, taking licensing seriously requires one to abide by copyright law–which, like it or not, means that there may be cases where the responsible (and legal) thing to do is to just walk away from a measure, even if it seems perfect for your use case from a research standpoint. If you’re serious about taking copyright seriously, and, upon emailing the author to inquire about the terms of use, you’re informed that the terms of use involve paying $100 per participant, you can either put up the money, or use a different measure. Burying your head in the sand and using the measure anyway, without paying for it, is not a good look.

  • Attach a license to every reusable product you release into the wild. This follows directly from the previous point: if you want responsible, informed users to feel comfortable using your measure, you should tell them what they can and can’t do with it. If you’re so inclined, you can of course write your own custom license, which can involve dollar bills, jelly beans, or anything else your heart desires. But unless you feel a strong need to depart from existing practices, it’s generally a good idea to select one of the many pre-existing licenses out there, because most of them have the helpful property of having been written by lawyers, and lawyers are people who generally know how to formulate sentiments like “you must give me heap big credit” in somewhat more precise language.

There are a lot of practical recommendations out there about what license one should or shouldn’t choose; I won’t get into those here, except to say that in general, I’m a strong proponent of using permissive licenses (e.g., MIT or CC-BY), and also, that I agree with many people’s sentiment that placing restrictions on commercial use–while intuitively appealing to scientists who value public goods–is generally counterproductive. In any case, the real point here is not to push people to use any particular license, but just to think about it for a few minutes when releasing a measure. I mean, you’re probably going to spend tens or hundreds of hours thinking about the measure itself; the least you can do is make sure you tell people what they’re allowed to do with it.

I think covering just the above three points in the context of a graduate research methods class–or at the very least, in those methods classes slanted towards measure development or evaluation (e.g., psychometrics)–would go a long way towards changing scientific norms surrounding measure use.

Most importantly, perhaps, the point of learning a little bit about copyright law is not just to reduce one’s exposure to legal action. There are also large communal benefits. If academic researchers collectively decided to stop flouting copyright law when choosing research measures, the developers of measures would face a very different–and, from a societal standpoint, much more favorable–set of incentives. The present state of affairs–where an instrument’s author is able to legally charge well-meaning researchers exorbitant fees post-hoc for use of an 8-item scale–exists largely because researchers refuse to take copyright seriously, and insist on acting as if science, being such a noble and humanitarian enterprise, is somehow exempt from legal considerations that people in other fields have to constantly worry about. Perversely, the few researchers who do the right thing by offering to pay for the scales they use then end up incurring large costs, while the majority who use the measures without permission suffer no consequences (except on the rare occasions when someone like Morisky comes knocking on the door with a lawyer).

By contrast, in an academic world that cared more about copyright law, many widely-used measures that are currently released under ambiguous or restrictive licenses (or, most commonly, no license at all) would never have attained widespread use in the first place. If, say, Costa & McCrae’s NEO measures–used by thousands of researchers every year–had been developed in a world where academics had a standing norm of avoiding restrictively licensed measures, the most likely outcome is that the NEO would have changed to accommodate the norm, and not vice versa. The net result is that we would be living in a world where the vast majority of measures–just like the vast majority of open-source software–really would be free to use in every sense of the word, without risk of lawsuits, and with the ability to redistribute, reuse, and modify freely. That, I think, is a world we should want to live in. And while the ship may have already sailed when it comes to the most widely used existing measures, it’s a world we could still have going forward. We just have to commit to not using new measures unless they have a clear license–and be prepared to follow the terms of that license to the letter.

memories of your father

This is fiction. Well, sort of.


“What’s the earliest memory you have of your father,” Baruch asks me. He’s leaning over the counter in his shop, performing surgery on an iPhone battery with a screwdriver.

“I don’t have any memories of my father,” I say.

Baruch drops his scalpel. “No memories,” he lets out a low whistle. “Nothing? No good or bad ones at all? Not a single trauma? You know, even the people who at first say they don’t remember anything can usually come up with a good trauma memory with a little encouragement.”

“No trauma,” I tell him very seriously. “No birthdays, no spankings, no deaths in the family, no trips to Disney World. Just, no memories. Believe me, other people would have gotten them out by now if they could. They’ve tried.”

What I tell him is true. My father passed away of lung cancer when I was nine years old. He never smoked a cigarette in his life, but the cancer picked him for its team anyway. I know what he looked like from hundreds of photos and a few videos, and people tell me stories about what he was like now and then. But I have no memories of him from inside my own head. Nine-year-old me locked his dead father away in a vault. Then locked that vault inside another vault. And then, just for good measure, he put the key in a bottle and threw it out to sea. Not the best thought-out plan, admittedly; but then, nine year-olds are not legally kept away from alcohol, guns, and voting booths on account of their good judgment.

Baruch eyes me carefully, stabs the iPhone with the screwdriver. He’s not even trying to avoid scratching the casing. “Yours is a very serious case,” he says. “I only see maybe two or three cases like yours a year. I can’t promise I can help you. But I’ll try. Did you bring the things on my list?”

I nod and put the things on the table. There’s a green t-shirt, a set of blueprints, and a TDK cassette tape. The tape contains some audio recordings of my father talking to business associates in other countries. The shirt says “Mombasa” on it—that’s where I spent the first fourteen years of my life, and where my father spent the last third of his. He used to wear that shirt.

The blueprints are for a house in Caesarea, Israel. My father was a civil engineer, and when he wasn’t building things for other people, he used to talk about the house he would eventually build for himself to retire in. The house in the blueprints is beautiful; it’s shaped like the conch shells I used to pick up on the beach in Mombasa as a kid. I’ve never seen a house like it. And I probably won’t now, because he passed away before the first block of the foundations could be laid. Eventually, a couple of years after he passed, my mother sold the land.

The items on Baruch’s table are the last of my father’s remaining possessions. Aside from all the photos trapped in albums at my mother’s house, and the fading memories in a few dozen people’s heads, they represent most of the evidence left in this world that a man named Gideon Yarkoni ever existed.

Baruch looks at the objects carefully. He unfolds my father’s shirt and holds it up in front of the incandescent light bulb above us; runs his fingers over the fine lines of the blueprint; pulls an old Sony Walkman out of a drawer and listens to the first few seconds of side A through headphones the size of trash can lids. He touches everything very lightly, patiently—almost as if he expects my father to tap him on the shoulder at any moment and say, I’m sorry, but this is my stuff you’re messing with—do you mind?

“It’s not great,” Baruch finally says with a sigh. “But I guess it’ll do.”

He pulls out a calculator and punches a number into it, then turns it around to show me. I mull it over quietly for a few moments, then nod at him and shake his hand. It’s a lot of money to pay; but then, it’s not often one gets an opportunity like this one.


Three months later, I’m back in the shop for the procedure. Baruch has me strapped to a gurney that looks like it was borrowed from a Russian prison camp circa nineteen-forty-Stalin. I try to have second thoughts, but they take one look at the situation and flee in terror.

“Did you have anything to eat today,” Baruch asks me as he snaps on a pair of impossibly blue gloves.

“Yes. I followed your instructions and ate a full breakfast. Toast and smoked salmon. Some avocado. Orange juice.”

“What about the stroopwafel? Did you eat the stroopwafel?”

“Oh yes,” I say, remembering the stroopwafel Baruch sent in the mail. “I forgot. I ate the stroopwafel.”

“And?”

“And… it was good?” I’m not sure exactly what he’s expecting.

“Excellent,” he says. “The stroopwafel is the most underrated of all the wafels.”

Then he reaches forward and turns out my lights.


When I come to, I’m lying in a cheap bed in a dark room. I feel completely normal; almost as if I’d just had a power nap, rather than undergoing serious brain surgery.

I’m about to get up to go find Baruch when I realize I’m not alone in the room. There’s another man here with me. He’s very large and very hairy; I watch him for a few moments. He paces around the room restlessly for a while, stops, lights a cigarette. The he notices me noticing him.

“What the fuck are you looking at,” he says, and picks up something that looks suspiciously like a crowbar. I suddenly realize that this is him: this is my father. It seems the surgery was a success; I’m having a memory.


Over the next few days, I slowly adjust to the renewed presence of my father in my life. Well, “presence” might not be exactly the right word. My father is now present in my memories in roughly the same way that Americans were “present” on the beach in Normandy. It’s a full-scale invasion. He’s everywhere all the time; everything reminds me of him. When I see a broom, I immediately cower in fear, expecting to feel it across my back. When I enter the house, I duck to avoid being hit by a tennis ball or—at least once—a tennis racket. I can no longer drink a beer without being impaled by a vision of my father throwing up in the kitchen—and, in nearly the same breath, asking me to hand him another beer.

Of all the surprises, the biggest one is this: my father smokes like a chimney. In my newfound memories, cigarettes are everywhere: they pop out of his mouth, hang off his shirt, hide behind his ear. His shirt looks like it was sewed from empty cigarette cartons; his breath smells like an abyss of black smoke and stale filters.

Too late, I realize that 9 year-old me wasn’t an idiot child after all, impulsively rushing to slam shut the painful trapdoor of memory; he was actually a creative genius exercising masterful control over his internal mnemonic canvas.


By the fourth or fifth day, I can no longer stand it. I need to understand why I’ve been lied to for so long; why my entire family decided it was okay to tell me that my father was a good man and a successful civil engineer, when really he was a raging, chain-smoking, alcoholic brute who could barely hold down a construction job for a month at a time.

I call my mother up. We make small talk for a few minutes before I get to the point. Why, I ask her, didn’t you ever tell me my father was an abusive alcoholic? Don’t you think I deserved to know the truth?

There’s a soft choking sound at the other end of the line, and I realize that my mother’s quietly sobbing.

“Look, I didn’t mean to upset you,” I say, though I’m still angry with her. “I just don’t understand why you’d lie to me about something like this. All this time you’ve told me dad was this amazing guy, when we both know he was a feral animal with a two-pack-a-day habit who used to beat the shit out of both of us. I don’t know how you put up with him for so many years. Were you afraid to leave?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” my mother says, sobbing. “Why would you make up a thing like that? Your father hardly ever drank, and the closest he ever came to beating you was threatening you with a broom to get you to take a shower. He would be ashamed of you for saying things like this. I’m ashamed of you. I’m going to hang up now. Please don’t call me again unless it’s to apologize for being a total asshole.”

She doesn’t hang up immediately; instead, she waits silently for a few seconds, as if she’s giving me a chance to apologize right now. But I don’t apologize, because why should I? My mother deserves an Oscar for her performance. After twenty-six years of blanks, I finally have crystal-clear memories of my father. It’s not my fault that he’s threatening to separate my sternum from my clavicles in most of them.


In the morning, I put on my shoes and go down to Baruch’s shop. When I explain the situation to him, he doesn’t crack wise. Instead, he looks concerned.

“I told you the procedure might not work very well,” he says cautiously.

I tell him that, on the contrary, it seems to have worked too well; there’s now no detail of my father’s appearance or behavior too small for me to avoid reliving over and over. Everything from his mastery of obscure Hungarian expletives to the construction grime he seemingly saved up under his fingernails all day just so he could share it with me when he got home.

“It’s almost like he’s standing here right now next to me,” I tell Baruch. “Berating me for not bringing in the lawnmower, or cuffing me across the neck for getting him the wrong beer from the fridge.”

Baruch asks if I can actually remember my family ever owning a lawnmower.

“Of course not,” I say in exasperation. “I grew up in a small expatriate community in East Africa in the 1980s; there were no lawnmowers there. For god’s sake, we didn’t even have broadcast television.”

Baruch nods and pulls up something on his computer. His eyes scan left to right, then repeat. Then they do it again, like he’s reading the same line, over and over.

“I see your problem,” he finally says slowly, turning the screen to show me. “Right there, you see. Here’s your order. Yarkoni, Tal. Zero Recall. twenty-six years dark. That’s you. And right here, just below you, is an order for a guy named Hal Zamboni. 20/400 recall; eight years dark.

What follows is one of those proverbial moments when you can hear a pin drop. Except it isn’t a moment; it’s more like a good two minutes, during which I just stand there motionless and stare deeply into Baruch’s corneas. I imagine Baruch must also be experiencing a moment that feels like eternity; at the very least, I hope he’s seeing his life flash before his eyes.

“They are quite similar names,” Baruch says apologetically in response to my smoldering stare. It’s quite an understandable mistake, he assures me; it could have happened to anyone. In fact, it’s already happened to him twice before—which, he points out, only goes to show how unusual it is, considering that he’s operated successfully on at least sixty people.

“Well, fifty-eight,” he says, “if you exclude the… oh, nevermind.”

I ask Baruch when we can schedule a time for me to come in for a correction.

“What exactly do you mean by correction,” he says, backing away from the counter nervously.


Three days later, I knock on the front door of a house on the far side of town, in a solidly middle-class, suburban neighborhood—the kind where everyone knows everyone else by name, but isn’t entirely sure if that’s a good thing.

Hal Zamboni opens the door and shakes my hand. He seems apologetic as he greets me. Or maybe he’s just nervous; I don’t know. I mean, how are you supposed to interact with someone who you know has the misfortune of re-experiencing every aspect of your own traumatic childhood on a daily basis?

“I had a bit of a breakdown,” Zamboni confesses after we’ve sat down inside and he’s lit up a cigarette—holding it in exactly the same way as his late, abusive father. “When Baruch called me up yesterday to tell me about the mix-up, I just lost it. I mean, you can imagine what it’s like. Here I am, going through life with these very faint memories of a father who was an absolute brute; a guy who would beat the shit out of me over nothing, over absolutely nothing… and then one morning I wake up with beautiful, crystal-clear memories of a very different father–a guy who used to take me out for an enormous brunch at some luxury beach resort every Sunday. This guy who puts a giant omelette on my plate and grins at me and asks me what I’m learning in school.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. And I really am. For both of us.

“The weird thing is,” Zamboni says, “the worst part of it wasn’t even realizing that these memories were someone else’s. It was realizing that I had had such a fucked up childhood. I mean, you know, I always knew my dad was kind of a savage. But I didn’t realize how much better other people had it. Compared to my father, yours was a saint. Do you know what that feels like?”

“No,” I say simply. There’s nothing else to say, really; over the past week, I’ve come to realize how little I actually understand about the human condition. So we just sit there on Zamboni’s porch quietly. He smokes cigarette after cigarette, I drink my beer, and we both watch the endless string of cars roll down the narrow street like an angry centipede.


my father & me, circa 1986

Why I still won’t review for or publish with Elsevier–and think you shouldn’t either

In 2012, I signed the Cost of Knowledge pledge, and stopped reviewing for, and publishing in, all Elsevier journals. In the four years since, I’ve adhered closely to this policy; with a couple of exceptions (see below), I’ve turned down every review request I’ve received from an Elsevier-owned journal, and haven’t sent Elsevier journals any of my own papers for publication.

Contrary to what a couple of people I talked to at the time intimated might happen, my scientific world didn’t immediately collapse. The only real consequences I’ve experienced as a result of avoiding Elsevier are that (a) on perhaps two or three occasions, I’ve had to think a little bit longer about where to send a particular manuscript, and (b) I’ve had a few dozen conversations (all perfectly civil) about Elsevier and/or academic publishing norms that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have had. Other than that, there’s been essentially no impact on my professional life. I don’t feel that my unwillingness to publish in NeuroImage, Neuron, or Journal of Research in Personality has hurt my productivity or reputation in any meaningful way. And I continue to stand by my position that it’s a mistake for scientists to do business with a publishing company that actively lobbies against the scientific community’s best interests.

While I’ve never hidden the fact that I won’t deal with Elsevier, and am perfectly comfortable talking about the subject when it comes up, I also haven’t loudly publicized my views. Aside from a parenthetical mention of the issue in one or two (sometimes satirical) blog posts, and an occasional tweet, I’ve never written anything vocally suggesting that others adopt the same stance. The reason for this is not that I don’t believe it’s an important issue; it’s that I thought Elsevier’s persistently antagonistic behavior towards scientists’ interests was common knowledge, and that most scientists continue to provide their free expert labor to Elsevier because they’ve decided that the benefits outweigh the costs. In other words, I was under the impression that other people share my facts, just not my interpretation of the facts.

I now think I was wrong about this. A series of tweets a few months ago (yes, I know, I’m slow to get blog posts out these days) prompted my reevaluation. It began with this:

Which led a couple of people to ask why I don’t review for Elsevier. I replied:


All of this information is completely public, and much of it features prominently in Elsevier’s rather surreal Wikipedia entry–nearly two thirds of which consists of “Criticism and Controversies” (and no, I haven’t personally contributed anything to that entry). As such, I assumed Elsevier’s track record of bad behavior was public knowledge. But the responses to my tweets suggested otherwise. And in the months since, I’ve had several other twitter or real-life conversations with people where it quickly became clear that the other party was not, in fact, aware of (m)any of the scandals Elsevier has been embroiled in.

In hindsight, this shouldn’t have surprised me. There’s really no good reason why most scientists should be aware of what Elsevier’s been up to all this time. Sure, most scientists cross path with Elsevier at some point; but so what? It’s not as though I thoroughly research every company I have contractual dealings with; I usually just go about my business and assume the best about the people I’m dealing with–or at the very least, I try not to assume the worst.

Unfortunately, sometimes it turns out that that assumption is wrong. And on those occasions, I generally want to know about it. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d expand on my thoughts about Elsevier beyond the 140-character format I’ve adopted in the past, in the hopes that other people might also be swayed to at least think twice about submitting their work to Elsevier journals.

Is Elsevier really so evil?

Yeah, kinda. Here’s a list of just some of the shady things Elsevier has been previously caught doing–and none of which, as far as I know, the company contests at this point:

  • They used to organize arms trade fairs, until a bunch of academics complained that a scholarly publisher probably shouldn’t be in the arms trade, at which point they sold that division off;
  • In 2009, they were caught for having created and sold half a dozen entire fake journals to pharmaceutical companies (e.g., Merck), so that those companies could fill the pages of the journals, issue after issue, with reprinted articles that cast a positive light on their drugs;
  • They regularly sell access to articles they don’t own, including articles licensed for non-commercial use–in clear contravention of copyright law, and despite repeated observations by academics that this kind of thing should not be technically difficult to stop if Elsevier actually wanted it to stop;
  • Their pricing model is based around the concept of the “Big Deal”: Elsevier (and, to be fair, most other major publishers) forces universities to pay for huge numbers of their journals at once by pricing individual journals prohibitively, ensuring that institutions can’t order only the journals they think they’ll actually use (this practice is very much like the “bundling” exercised by the cable TV industry); they also bar customers from revealing how much they paid for access, and freedom-of-information requests reveal enormous heterogeneity across universities, often at costs that are prohibitive to libraries;
  • They recently bought the SSRN preprint repository, and after promising to uphold SSRN’s existing operating procedures, almost immediately began to remove articles that were legally deposited on the service, but competed with “official” versions published elsewhere;
  • They have repeatedly spurned requests from the editorial boards of their journals to lower journal pricing, decrease open access fees, or make journals open access; this has resulted in several editorial boards abandoning the Elsevier platform wholesale and moving their operation elsewhere (Lingua being perhaps the best-known example)–often taking large communities with them;
  • Perhaps most importantly (at least in my view), they actively lobbied the US government against open access mandates, making multiple donations to the congressional sponsors of a bill called the Research Works Act that would have resulted in the elimination of the current law mandating deposition of all US government-funded scientific works in public repositories within 12 months after publication.

The pattern in these cases is almost always the same: Elsevier does something that directly works against the scientific community’s best interests (and in some cases, also the law), and then, when it gets caught with its hand in the cookie jar, it apologizes and fixes the problem (well, at least to some degree; they somehow can’t seem to stop selling OA-licensed articles, because it is apparently very difficult for a multibillion dollar company to screen the papers that appear on its websites). A few months later, another scandal comes to light, and then the cycle repeats.

Elsevier is, of course, a large company, and one could reasonably chalk one or two of the above actions down to poor management or bad judgment. But there’s a point at which the belief that this kind of thing is just an unfortunate accident–as opposed to an integral part of the business model–becomes very difficult to sustain. In my case, I was aware of a number of the above practices before I signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge; for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Elsevier’s unabashed support of the Research Works Act. While I certainly don’t expect any corporation (for-profit or otherwise) to actively go out and sabotage its own financial interests, most organizations seem to know better than to publicly lobby for laws that would actively and unequivocally hurt the primary constituency they make their money off of. While Elsevier wasn’t alone in its support of the RWA, it’s notable that many for-profit (and most non-profit) publishers explicitly expressed their opposition to the bill (e.g., MIT Press, Nature Publishing Group, and the AAAS). To my mind, there wasn’t (and isn’t) any reason to support a company that, on top of arms sales, fake journals, and copyright violations, thinks it’s okay to lobby the government to make it harder for taxpayers to access the results of publicly-funded research that’s generated and reviewed at no cost to Elsevier itself. So I didn’t, and still don’t.

Objections (and counter-objections)

In the 4 years since I stopped writing or reviewing for Elsevier, I’ve had many conversations with colleagues about this issue. Since most of my colleagues don’t share my position (though there are a few exceptions), I’ve received a certain amount of pushback. While I’m always happy to engage on the issue, so far, I can’t say that I’ve found any of the arguments I’ve heard sufficiently compelling to cause me to change my position. I’m not sure if my arguments have led anyone else to change their view either, but in the interest of consolidating discussion in one place (if only so that I can point people to it in future, instead of reprising the same arguments over and over again), I thought I’d lay out all of the major objections I’ve heard to date, along with my response(s) to each one. If you have other objections you feel aren’t addressed here, please leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to address them (and perhaps add them to the list).

Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the pro-Elsevier (or at least, anti-anti-Elsevier) arguments, as I’ve heard and understood them:

“You can’t really blame Elsevier for doing this sort of thing. Corporations exist to make money; they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to do whatever they legally can to increase revenue and decrease expenses.”

For what it’s worth, I think the “fiduciary responsibility” argument–which seemingly gets trotted out almost any time anyone calls out a publicly traded corporation for acting badly–is utterly laughable. As far as I can tell, the claim it relies on is both unverifiable and unenforceable. In practice, there is rarely any way for anyone to tell whether a particular policy will hurt or help a company’s bottom line, and virtually any action one takes can be justified post-hoc by saying that it was the decision-makers’ informed judgment that it was in the company’s best interest. Presumably part of the reason publishing groups like NPG or MIT Press don’t get caught pulling this kind of shit nearly as often as Elsevier is that part of their executives’ decision-making process includes thoughts like gee, it would be really bad for our bottom line if scientists caught wind of what we’re doing here and stopped giving us all this free labor. You can tell a story defending pretty much any policy, or its polar opposite, on grounds of fiduciary responsibility, but I think it’s very unlikely that anyone is ever going to knock on an Elsevier executive’s door threatening to call in the lawyers because Elsevier just hasn’t been working hard enough lately to sell fake journals.

That said, even if you were to disagree with my assessment, and decided to take the fiduciary responsibility argument at face value, it would still be completely and utterly irrelevant to my personal decision not to work for Elsevier any more. The fact that Elsevier is doing what it’s (allegedly) legally obligated to do doesn’t mean that I have to passively go along with it. Elsevier may be legally allowed or even obligated to try to take advantage of my labor, but I’m just as free to follow my own moral compass and refuse. I can’t imagine how my individual decision to engage in moral purchasing could possibly be more objectionable to anyone than a giant corporation’s “we’ll do anything legal to make money” policy.

“It doesn’t seem fair to single out Elsevier when all of the other for-profit publishers are just as bad.”

I have two responses to this. First, I think the record pretty clearly suggests that Elsevier does in fact behave more poorly than the vast majority of other major academic publishers (there are arguably a number of tiny predatory publishers that are worse–but of course, I don’t think anyone should review for or publish with them either!). It’s not that publishers like Springer or Wiley are without fault; but they at least don’t seem to get caught working against the scientific community’s interests nearly as often. So I think Elsevier’s particularly bad track record makes it perfectly reasonable to focus attention on Elsevier in particular.

Second, I don’t think it would, or should, make any difference to the analysis even if it turned out that Springer or Wiley were just as bad. The reason I refuse to publish with Elsevier is not that they’re the only bad apples, but that I know that they’re bad apples. The fact that there might be other bad actors we don’t know about doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take actions against the bad actors we do know about. In fact, it wouldn’t mean that even if we did know of other equally bad actors. Most people presumably think there are many charities worth giving money to, but when we learn that someone donated money to a breast cancer charity, we don’t get all indignant and say, oh sure, you give money to cancer, but you don’t think heart disease is a serious enough problem to deserve your support? Instead, we say, it’s great that you’re doing what you can–we know you don’t have unlimited resources.

Moreover, from a collective action standpoint, there’s a good deal to be said for making an example out of a single bad actor rather than trying to distribute effort across a large number of targets. The reality is that very few academics perceive themselves to be in a position to walk away from all academic publishers known to engage in questionable practices. Collective action provides a means for researchers to exercise positive force on the publishing ecosystem in a way that cannot be achieved by each individual researcher making haphazard decisions about where to send their papers. So I would argue that as long as researchers agree that (a) Elsevier’s policies hurt scientists and taxpayers, and (b) Elsevier is at the very least one of the worst actors, it makes a good deal of sense to focus our collective energy on Elsevier. I would hazard a guess that if a concerted action on the part of scientists had a significant impact on Elsevier’s bottom line, other publishers would sit up and take notice rather quickly.

“You can choose to submit your own articles wherever you like; that’s totally up to you. But when you refuse to review for all Elsevier journals, you do a disservice to your colleagues, who count on you to use your expertise to evaluate other people’s manuscripts and thereby help maintain the quality of the literature as a whole.”

I think this is a valid concern in the case of very early-career academics, who very rarely get invited to review papers, and have no good reason to turn such requests down. In such cases, refusing to review because Elsevier would indeed make everyone else’s life a little bit more difficult (even if it also helps a tiny bit to achieve the long-term goal of incentivizing Elsevier to either shape up or disappear). But I don’t think the argument carries much force with most academics, because most of us have already reached the review saturation point of our careers–i.e., the point at which we can’t possibly (or just aren’t willing to) accept all the review assignments we receive. For example, at this point, I average about 3 – 4 article reviews a month, and I typically turn down about twice that many invitations to review. If I accepted any invitations from Elsevier journals, I would simply have to turn down an equal number of invitations from non-Elsevier journals–almost invariably ones with policies that I view as more beneficial to the scientific community. So it’s not true that I’m doing the scientific community a disservice by refusing to review for Elsevier; if anything, I’m doing it a service by preferentially reviewing for journals that I believe are better aligned with the scientific community’s long-term interests.

Now, on fairly rare occasions, I do get asked to review papers focusing on issues that I think I have particularly strong expertise in. And on even rarer occasions, I have reason to think that there are very few if any other people besides me who would be able to write a review that does justice to the paper. In such cases, I willingly make an exception to my general policy. But it doesn’t happen often; in fact, it’s happened exactly twice in the past 4 years. In both cases, the paper in question was built to a very significant extent on work that I had done myself, and it seemed to me quite unlikely that the editor would be able to find another reviewer with the appropriate expertise given the particulars reported in the abstract. So I agreed to review the paper, even for an Elsevier journal, because to not do so would indeed have been a disservice to the authors. I don’t have any regrets about this, and I will do it again in future if the need arises. Exceptions are fine, and we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But it simply isn’t true, in my view, that my general refusal to review for Elsevier is ever-so-slightly hurting science. On the contrary, I would argue that it’s actually ever-so-slightly helping it, by using my limited energies to support publishers and journals that work in favor of, rather than against, scientists’ interests.

“If everyone did as you do, Elsevier journals might fall apart, and that would impact many people’s careers. What about all the editors, publishing staff, proof readers, etc., who would all lose at least part of their livelihood?”

This is the universal heartstring-pulling argument, in that it can be applied to virtually any business or organization ever created that employs at least one person. For example, it’s true that if everyone stopped shopping at Wal-Mart, over a million Americans would lose their jobs. But given the externalities that Wal-Mart imposes on the American taxpayer, that hardly seems like a sufficient reason to keep shopping at Wal-Mart (note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart, just that you’re not under any moral obligation to view yourself as a one-person jobs program). Almost every decision that involves reallocation of finite resources hurts somebody; the salient question is whether, on balance, the benefits to the community as a whole outweigh the costs. In this case, I find it very hard to see how Elsevier’s policies benefit the scientific community as a whole when much cheaper, non-profit alternatives–to say nothing of completely different alternative models of scientific evaluation–are readily available.

It’s also worth remembering that the vast majority of the labor that goes into producing Elsevier’s journals is donated to Elsevier free of charge. Given Elsevier’s enormous profit margin (over 30% in each of the last 4 years), it strains credulity to think that other publishers couldn’t provide essentially the same services while improving the quality of life of the people who provide most of the work. For an example of such a model, take a look at Collabra, where editors receive a budget of $250 per paper (which comes out of the author publication charge) that they can divide up however they like between themselves, the reviewers, and publishing subsidies to future authors who lack funds (full disclosure: I’m an editor at Collabra). So I think an argument based on treating people well clearly weighs against supporting Elsevier, not in favor of it. If nothing else, it should perhaps lead one to question why Elsevier insists it can’t pay the academics who review its articles a nominal fee, given that paying for even a million reviews per year (surely a gross overestimate) at $200 a pop would still only eat up less than 20% of Elsevier’s profit in each of the past few years.

“Whatever you may think of Elsevier’s policies at the corporate level, the editorial boards at the vast majority of Elsevier journals function autonomously, with no top-down direction from the company. Any fall-out from a widespread boycott would hurt all of the excellent editors at Elsevier journals who function with complete independence–and by extension, the field as a whole.”

I’ve now heard this argument from at least four or five separate editors at Elsevier journals, and I don’t doubt that its premise is completely true. Meaning, I’m confident that the scientific decisions made by editors at Elsevier journals on a day-to-day basis are indeed driven entirely by scientific considerations, and aren’t influenced in any way by publishing executives. That said, I’m completely unmoved by this argument, for two reasons. First, the allocation of resources–including peer reviews, submitted manuscripts, and editorial effort–is, to a first approximation, a zero-sum game. While I’m happy to grant that editorial decisions at Elsevier journals are honest and unbiased, the same is surely true of the journals owned by virtually every other publisher. So refusing to send a paper to NeuroImage doesn’t actually hurt the field as a whole in any way, unless one thinks that there is a principled reason why the editorial process at Cerebral Cortex, Journal of Neuroscience, or Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience should be any worse. Obviously, there can be no such reason. If Elsevier went out of business, many of its current editors would simply move to other journals, where they would no doubt resume making equally independent decisions about the manuscripts they receive. As I noted above, in a number of cases, entire editorial boards at Elsevier journals have successfully moved wholesale to new platforms. So there is clearly no service Elsevier provides that can’t in principle be provided more cheaply by other publishers or plaforms that aren’t saddled with Elsevier’s moral baggage or absurd profit margins.

Second, while I don’t doubt the basic integrity of the many researchers who edit for Elsevier journals, I also don’t think they’re completely devoid of responsibility for the current state of affairs. When a really shitty company offers you a position of power, it may be true that accepting that position–in spite of the moral failings of your boss’s boss’s boss–may give you the ability to do some real good for the community you care about. But it’s also true that you’re still working for a really shitty company, and that your valiant efforts could at any moment be offset by some underhanded initiative in some other branch of the corporation. Moreover, if you’re really good at your job, your success–whatever its short-term benefits to your community–will generally serve to increase your employer’s shit-creating capacity. So while I don’t think accepting an editorial position at an Elsevier journal makes anyone a bad person (some of my best friends are editors for Elsevier!), I also see no reason for anyone to voluntarily do business with a really shitty company rather than a less shitty one. As far as I can tell, there is no service I care about that NeuroImage offers me but Cerebral Cortex or The Journal of Neuroscience don’t. As a consequence, it seems reasonable for me to submit my papers to journals owned by companies that seem somewhat less intent on screwing me and my institution out of as much money as possible. If that means that some very good editors at NeuroImage ultimately have to move to JNeuro, JCogNeuro, or (dare I say it!) PLOS ONE, I think I’m okay with that.

“It’s fine for you to decide not to deal with Elsevier, but you don’t have a right to make that decision for your colleagues or trainees when they’re co-authors on your papers.”

This is probably the only criticism I hear regularly that I completely agree with. Which is why I’ve always been explicit that I can and will make exceptions when required. Here’s what I said when I originally signed The Cost of Knowledge years ago:

costofknowledge

Basically, my position is that I’ll still submit a manuscript to an Elsevier journal if either (a) I think a trainee’s career would be significantly disadvantaged by not doing so, or (b) I’m not in charge of a project, and have no right to expect to exercise control over where a paper is submitted. The former has thankfully never happened so far (though I’m always careful to make it clear to trainees that if they really believe that it’s important to submit to a particular Elsevier journal, I’m okay with it). As for the latter, in the past 4 years, I’ve been a co-author on two Elsevier papers (1, 2). In both cases, I argued against submitting the paper to those journals, but was ultimately overruled. I don’t have any problem with either of those decisions, and remain on good terms with both lead authors. If I collaborate with you on a project, you can expect to receive an email from me suggesting in fairly strong terms that we should consider submitting to a non-Elsevier-owned journal, but I certainly won’t presume to think that what makes sense to me must also make sense to you.

“Isn’t it a bit silly to think that your one-person boycott of Elsevier is going to have any meaningful impact?”

No, because it isn’t a one-person boycott. So far, over 16,000 researchers have signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge. And there are very good reasons to think that the 16,000-strong (and growing!) boycott has already had important impacts. For one thing, Elsevier withdrew its support of the RWA in 2012 shortly after The Cost of Knowledge was announced (and several thousand researchers quickly signed on). The bill itself was withdrawn shortly after that. That seems like a pretty big deal to me, and frankly I find it hard to imagine that Elsevier would have voluntarily stopped lobbying Congress this way if not for thousands of researchers putting their money where their mouth is.

Beyond that clear example, it’s hard to imagine that 16,000 researchers walking away from a single publisher wouldn’t have a significant impact on the publishing landscape. Of course, there’s no clear way to measure that impact. But consider just a few points that seem difficult to argue against:

  • All of the articles that would have been submitted to Elsevier journals presumably ended up in other publishers’ journals (many undoubtedly run by OA publishers). There has been continual growth in the number of publishers and journals; some proportion of that seems almost guaranteed to reflect the diversion of papers away from Elsevier.

  • Similarly, all of the extra time spent reviewing non-Elsevier articles instead of Elsevier articles presumably meant that other journals received better scrutiny and faster turnaround times than they would have otherwise.

  • A number of high-profile initiatives–for example, the journal Glossa–arose directly out of researchers’ refusal to keep working with Elsevier (and many others are likely to have arisen indirectly, in part). These are not insignificant. Aside from their immediate impact on the journal landscape, the involvement of leading figures like Timothy Gowers in the movement to develop better publishing and evaluation options is likely to have a beneficial long-term impact.

All told, it seems to me that, far from being ineffectual, the Elsevier boycott–consisting of nothing more than individual researchers cutting ties with the publisher–has actually achieved a considerable amount in the past 4 years. Of course, Elsevier continues to bring in huge profits, so it’s not like it’s in any danger of imminent collapse (nor should that be anyone’s goal). But I think it’s clear that, on balance, the scientific publishing ecosystem is healthier for having the boycott in place, and I see much more reason to push for even greater adoption of the policy than to reconsider it.

More importantly, I think the criticism that individual action has limited efficacy overlooks what is probably the single biggest advantage the boycott has in this case: it costs a researcher essentially nothing. If I were to boycott, say, Trader Joe’s, on the grounds that it mistreats its employees (for the record, I don’t think it does), my quality of life would go down measurably, as I would have to (a) pay more for my groceries, and (b) travel longer distances to get them (there’s a store just down the street from my apartment, so I shop there a lot). By contrast, cutting ties with Elsevier has cost me virtually nothing so far. So even if the marginal benefit to the scientific community of each additional individual boycotting Elsevier is very low, the cost to that individual will typically be still much lower. Which, in principle, makes it very easy to organize and maintain a collective action of this sort on a very large scale (and is probably a lot of what explains why over 16,000 researchers have already signed on).

What you can do

Let’s say you’ve read this far and find yourself thinking, okay, that all kind of makes sense. Maybe you agree with me that Elsevier is an amazingly shitty company whose business practices actively bite the hand that feeds it. But maybe you’re also thinking, well, the thing is, I almost exclusively publish primary articles in the field of neuroimaging [or insert your favorite Elsevier-dominated discipline here], and there’s just no way I can survive without publishing in Elsevier journals. So what can I do?

The first thing to point out is that there’s a good chance your fears are at least somewhat (and possibly greatly) exaggerated. As I noted at the outset of this post, I was initially a bit apprehensive about the impact that taking a principled stand would have on my own career, but I can’t say that I perceive any real cost to my decision, nearly five years on. One way you can easily see this is to observe that most people are surprised when I first tell them I haven’t published in Elsevier journals in five years. It’s not like the absence would ever jump out at anyone who looked at my publication list, so it’s unclear how it could hurt me. Now, I’m not saying that everyone is in a position to sign on to a complete boycott without experiencing some bumps in the road. But I do think many more people could do so than might be willing to admit it at first. There are very few fields that are completely dominated by Elsevier journals. Neuroimaging is probably one of the fields where Elsevier’s grip is strongest, but I publish several neuroimaging-focused papers a year, and have never had to work very hard to decide where to submit my papers next.

That said, the good news is that you can still do a lot to actively work towards an Elsevier-free world even if you’re unable or unwilling to completely part ways with the publisher. Here are a number of things you can do that take virtually no work, are very unlikely to harm your career in any meaningful way, and are likely to have nearly the same collective benefit as a total boycott:

  • Reduce or completely eliminate your Elsevier reviewing and/or editorial load. Even if you still plan to submit your papers to Elsevier journals, nothing compels you to review or edit for them. You should, of course, consider the pros and cons of turning down any review request; and, as I noted above, it’s fine to make occasional exceptions in cases where you think declining to review a particular paper would be a significant disservice to your peers. But such occasions are–at least in my own experience–quite rare. As I noted above, one of the reasons I’ve had no real compunction about rejecting Elsevier review requests is that I already receive many more requests than I can handle, so declining Elsevier reviews just means I review more for other (better) publishers. If you’re at an early stage of your career, and don’t get asked to review very often, the considerations may be different–though of course, you could still consider turning down the review and doing something nice for the scientific community with the time you’ve saved (e.g., reviewing openly on site like PubPeer or PubMed Commons, or spend some time making all the data, code, and materials from your previous work openly available).

  • Make your acceptance of a review assignment conditional on some other prosocial perk. As a twist on simply refusing Elsevier review invitations, you can always ask the publisher for some reciprocal favor. You could try asking for monetary compensation, of course–and in the extremely unlikely event that Elsevier obliges, you could (if needed) soothe your guilty conscience by donating your earnings to a charity of your choice. Alternatively, you could try to extract some concession from the journal that would help counteract your general aversion to reviewing for Elsevier. Chris Gorgolewski provided one example in this tweet:

Mandating open science practices (e.g., public deposition of data and code) as a requirement for review is something that many people strongly favor completely independently of commercial publishers’ shenanigans (see my own take here). Making one’s review conditional on an Elsevier journal following best practices is a perfectly fair and even-handed approach, since there are other journals that either already mandate such standards (e.g., PLOS ONE), or are likely to be able to oblige you. So if you get an affirmative response from an Elsevier journal, then great–it’s still Elsevier, but at least you’ve done something useful to improve their practices. If you get a negative review, well, again, you can simply reallocate your energy somewhere else.

  • Submit fewer papers to Elsevier journals. If you publish, say, 5 – 10 fMRI articles a year, it’s completely understandable if you might not feel quite ready to completely give up on NeuroImage and the other three million neuroimaging journals in Elsevier’s stable. Fortunately, you don’t have to. This is a nice example of the Pareto principle in action: 20% of the effort goes maybe 80% of the way in this case. All you have to do to exert almost exactly the same impact as a total boycott of Elsevier is drop NeuroImage (or whatever other journal you routinely submit to) to the bottom of the queue of whatever journals you perceive as being in the same class. So, for example, instead of reflexively thinking, “oh, I should send this to NeuroImage–it’s not good enough for Nature Neuroscience, but I don’t want to send it to just any dump journal”, you can decide to submit it to Cerebral Cortex or The Journal of Neuroscience first, and only go to NeuroImage if the first two journals reject it. Given that most Elsevier journals have a fairly large equivalence class of non-Elsevier journals, a policy like this one would almost certainly cut submissions to Elsevier journals significantly if widely implemented by authors–which would presumably reduce the perceived prestige of those journals still further, potentially precipitating a death spiral.

  • Go cold turkey. Lastly, you could always just bite the bullet and cut all ties with Elsevier. Honestly, it really isn’t that bad. As I’ve already said, the fall-out in my case has been considerably smaller than I thought it would be when I signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge as a post-doc (i.e., I expected it to have some noticeable impact, but in hindsight I think it’s had essentially none). Again, I recognize that not everyone is in a position to do this. But I do think that the reflexive “that’s a crazy thing to do” reaction that some people seem to have when The Cost of Knowledge boycott is brought up isn’t really grounded in a careful consideration of the actual risks to one’s career. I don’t know how many of the 16,000 signatories to the boycott have had to drop out of science as a direct result of their decision to walk away from Elsevier, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest this happened to them, and I suspect the number is very, very small.

The best thing about all of the above action items–with the possible exception of the last–is that they require virtually no effort, and incur virtually no risk. In fact, you don’t even have to tell anyone you’re doing any of them. Let’s say you’re a graduate student, and your advisor asks you where you want to submit your next fMRI paper. You don’t have to say “well, on principle, anywhere but an Elsevier journal” and risk getting into a long argument about the issue; you can just say “I think I’d like to try Cerebral Cortex.” Nobody has to know that you’re engaging in moral purchasing, and your actions are still almost exactly as effective. You don’t have to march down the street holding signs and chanting loudly; you don’t have to show up in front of anyone’s office to picket. You can do your part to improve the scientific publishing ecosystem just by making a few tiny decisions here and there–and if enough other people do the same thing, Elsevier and its peers will eventually be left with a stark choice: shape up, or crumble.