The Scientist's Dilemma

April 19, 2010

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to learn about something when you have a name for it? Take the simple question of why scientists continue to publish in traditional print journals.

While trying to understand why Chempedia Lab hasn't been used to anywhere near its full potential, I ran across a 2002 study that discusses the continued and nearly exclusive use of traditional print media to communicate research results. The answer, which is as relevant today as it was eight years ago:

The incentive seems to be mainly the prestige attached to them [traditional print journals]. They [authors] have no incentive to dismantle the current system since to submit papers to such journals cost them nothing and it also costs them nothing to have their library buy the journals or buy access to the journals. This has to do with the budgeting and financial structure of the university faculties and the university libraries, and until the system is modified and costs of library subscriptions is made clear to faculty members the trend will probably not change.

Although this analysis is interesting and states a testable hypothesis, it doesn't exactly open up a world of possible new lines of discovery. Nor does it offer a conceptual model for understanding what's happening, easily discussing it with others, or changing the situation.

(As an aside, the "prestige" the authors of the paper refer to is really just one component of a sophisticated "game mechanics" system, applied in this case to science, yet another example of how knowing the name for something helps understand it.)

However, after continued research, I found what I was looking for: a name for the phenomenon described in the quote above. It's called "The Prisoners's Dilemma":

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

... ... The unique equilibrium for this game is a Pareto-suboptimal solution, that is, rational choice leads the two players to both play defect, even though each player's individual reward would be greater if they both played cooperatively.

The Prisoner's Dilemma has many variations, and a few of them have been tested experimentally.

Change the names of the characters and the situation slightly, and you have something that we could call the "Scientists Dilemma":

Two scientists are hired at a large research university. The review board knows it will have insufficient evidence for a tenure decision, and, having hired both, offers each the same deal. The scientist who publishes the most research results in High Impact™ journals will have a better chance a being granted tenure. If one does as the board asks and the other experiments with non-traditional publication media, the traditionalist gets tenure and the experimenter receives a 10-year sentence at a community college. If both experiment with non-traditional publication, they'll each be judged on factors other than publication record. If both go along with the review board and publish to the same extent in High Impact™ journals, they'll each be judged on factors other than publication record, and the scientific community receives a ninety-five year paywall embargo for all the published work. Each scientist must choose how they will publish. How should the scientists act?

This is, of course, a gross oversimplification. But it offers a way to think about the problem of how scientific communication will adapt to economic and technological changes that have already taken place. It also offers some potentially useful insights into how to effect positive change on the system. The same kind of dynamic applies whether we're talking about a tenure decision, a postdoc hiring decision, a grant application, or a promotion decision in industry.

The Scientist's Dilemma also differs from the original Prisoner's Dilemma in some important ways. For example, both scientists know from the start what the other will be doing. Each can try to influence the other, and the review board. The scientific community may become involved in the tenure review process through any number of channels. Further, at first glance, there's much less motivation for traditionalist to begin experimenting with non-traditional publication. After all, sourcing the scientific literature is the library's problem.

Maybe this model is helpful, maybe it isn't. But at the very least, with a name in hand we have a common language to discuss what's happening.