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Stings, furloughs and women in physics

The National Institute of Standards and Technology website is on furlough this week

The National Institute of Standards and Technology website is on furlough this week.

By Hamish Johnston

This week the magazine and journal Science published an article called “Who’s afraid of peer review?“. It describes a remarkable “sting” operation by the journalist John Bohannon, who submitted a spoof scientific paper to 300 or so open-access scientific journals. The  paper claimed to offer evidence for the anti-cancer properties of a naturally occurring compound. It contained several fundamental errors that should have been caught by the peer-review process, not to mention made-up authors working at fictitious institutes.  Instead of being rejected by all the journals, more than half of the submissions (157 in total) were accepted for publication.

Bohannon’s efforts have received mixed reviews from bloggers. Writing on Retraction Watch, medical doctor and journalist Ivan Oransky says that Bohannon “demonstrates an appalling lack of peer review and quality control at the journals he spoofed”. However, Oransky also suggests that the study is flawed because submissions weren’t also made to traditional subscription journals. This point is also made by the biologist Michael Eisen in his blog it is NOT junk and another very good discussion of Bohannon’s sting can be found at The Conversation.

Also this week, thousands of people who work for the US government were sent home thanks to an impasse between the US House of Representatives and President Obama. Many physicists are now on furlough, including Tom Swanson of the US Naval Observatory. Normally an enthusiastic blogger at Swans on Tea, on Wednesday Swanson wrote: “The pointlessness and selfishness of this government shutdown has absolutely killed my enthusiasm.” Fortunately, he was back on form on Thursday with a link to the blog of NASA’s Les Dawson who has been told that he can’t volunteer to work for the space agency while on furlough.

Why are there still so few women in science” is the title of a fascinating New York Times article by Eileen Pollack that has got people talking. Pollack graduated from Yale University in 1978 but didn’t pursue a career in physics. 35 years on, she finds that some things have changed for women, but others things have not.

The article is of epic length and if you don’t have the time to read all of it, Peter Woit has a  summary on his Not Even Wrong blog. The comments and Peter’s attempts at directing the discussion are also worth reading.

One person quoted extensively in the article is Yale astronomer Meg Urry, who has been chosen by Physics World as one of our “Five people who are changing how we do physics” for her work on encouraging more women to pursue careers in science. You can read about Urry, our other four choices and much more in the October issue of Physics World, which marks the 25th anniversary of the magazine.

All members of the IOP can access the entire new issue right now via the digital version of the magazine or by downloading the free Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the App Store and Google Play, respectively.

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