Friday, November 27, 2020
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A shot in the arm for social sciences

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THERE is no doubt that the teaching of history in schools and at university has become drearily Left-wing, whether in its uncritical portrayals of communism, its demonisation of the West, or a personal favourite, the fixation on ‘herstory’. There is a serious lack of dissenting voices within academia to call out its agenda-driven, narrow-minded smugness. Journalist and author Douglas Murray said quite poignantly that ‘it is one curiosity of academia in recent decades that it has found almost nothing it does not wish to deconstruct, apart from itself’.

A study by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has reported that one fifth of social scientists in the United States describe themselves as Marxists, compared with only about 5 per cent who identify as conservative. The one diversity quota box that is always left unticked is the only one that really matters: diversity of opinion. For an academic article to be published, it must withstand the scrutiny of peer review. If the particular field of study is dominated by Left-wingers, it is easy to see how dissenting voices can be weeded out before publication.

Peer review is held up as sacrosanct by the academic community, despite it being a highly subjective process that is prone to confirmation bias and corruption. If there is a ‘negative’ study that contradicts the postmodernist orthodoxy, you can bet it will not reach publication. After all, why would a journal seek to publish an article that serves to undermine its integrity? It is my view that the current peer review system in the social sciences should be vigorously restructured, or done away with completely.

With the unprecedented outbreak of Covid-19, the way we engage with academic research could be about to change completely. The urgent need for medical research in response to the pandemic has fuelled the demand for a different form of publishing, favouring ‘open science’ on online forums called preprint servers. This is where academics and those outside the scientific field are able to engage with scientific literature that would normally be concealed behind a paywall. The conventional, bureaucratic model of peer review is incapable of coping in times of crisis as the usual form of publishing can take months or even years.

‘It’s a great way to get preliminary results out and shared with the wider community, which can encourage collaboration and speed up the science,’ says Russ Altman, Professor of Bioengineering and former chairman of the Bioengineering Department at Stanford University. ‘Of course, the negative is that it’s not peer reviewed, so people have to remember that what they’re reading might actually be slightly – or totally – wrong.’ But rather than creating a hazard, the introduction of open science has proved to be a great opportunity. A great benefit of open science is that it allows other researchers to comment and scrutinise works on online forums, increasing transparency. The general public can to tune in to cutting-edge scientific debate unfolding in real time which would normally not be accessible. Using traditional methods, this research might never reach publication, even if it is deemed to be correct.

After this pandemic has subsided, it remains to be seen whether scientific research will revert to the traditional methods of publication. But preprint servers have proved to be a net success in times of crisis. This open method of publication has the potential to be a game-changer if applied the same way in the social sciences. Ideas will become more accessible and can be challenged by not just a small number of academics, but the wider community. Peer review, in its current form, is a sacred cow that needs slaughtering.

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Tom Stephens
Tom Stephens is reading history at Cardiff University.

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