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Thread: Astronomy as a science - how do ideas get communicated?

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    Astronomy as a science - how do ideas get communicated?

    This thread is the first (I hope!) of several on the nature of astronomy and space science (and astrophysics, and cosmology) as sciences. This post in an About BAUT thread is the background:
    Several posts in this thread touch on a related topic: what is the nature of astronomy and space science (and astrophysics, and cosmology) as sciences?

    BAUT has quite a few threads on this, and related, topics; some date from before the BABB/UT merger, some are in the ATM section, some in the Q&A section, and some in other explicitly science-based sections. There are also quite a few sub-threads, in these sections.

    At least some part of the concerns expressed in the OP are likely due to quite different perspectives on what 'astronomy as a science' is; for example, in many posts by at least one BAUT member, there is (to me) clear inconsistency sufficient to make the main point of the post essentially illogical*.

    This is, I think, quite serious ... not much different from the apparent absurdity of an ATM claim of a comprehensive failure of Special Relativity posted in this forum!^

    Perhaps we should devote several, hopefully quite long, threads to examining just what accepting 'astronomical observations' actually entails (other than 'here's the readout from {insert instrument here}')? In these threads we may look, hard, at just how much modern physics is threaded through the chain leading to a reported result, perhaps by looking at the relatively boring Section 2's of many published papers (these are, often, the parts of the papers which describe how the data were obtained, data which later are analysed, and from which conclusions are drawn).

    *To give one (grossly?) oversimplified example: a result obtained by VLBI used to suggest that GR has serious problems, without acknowledging that if the problems (with GR) were so severe then the methods used (VBLI) to produce the results would render them untenable!
    ^Crudely, how does your PC+internet 'work', in the sense of you successfully posting here, if SR is such a comprehensive failure?
    In this thread I'd like to explore how astronomers communicate ideas, among themselves.

    Specifically, what the role of conferences, of preprints, papers in peer-reviewed journals, press releases, textbooks, formal courses, popular books, etc, etc, etc is. And how these differ from one another. And which forms are core parts of astronomy as a science (and which not). And so on.

    To start, how about papers published in (a relevant) peer-reviewed journal? I expect that regular BAUT members know that this is pretty much the pinnacle, especially if the paper is in one of the few journals widely regarded as 'leading' (ApJ, MNRAS, etc).

    Why is this the pinnacle? And why does having such a paper 'cited' hundreds (or thousands!) of times give it particular respectability/acceptability/etc (to astronomers)? And how can you find published papers, the papers they cite, and the papers which in turn cite them?

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    Actually it's a fairly roughsod, haphazard hodgepodge of message boarding like you find here on Baut...

    Seriously, if it's anything like the line of work I'm in, it's probably steeped in all kinds of both official, highly structured channels as well as impromptu channels which, strangely enough, actually manage to connect most of the right people together most of the time.

    Sort of like an e-mail which might say, "Hey, Phil - I just completed my latest research and I'd like you to look it over" while a short time later it's published for peer review by other interested astronomers.

    I, too, am interested in the means/mechanisms by which papers are published for peer review, commentary, etc. In various forms of research, I've come across a number of websites holding such papers, but they usually require membership, and come with some interesting price tags (like $124.63 a year... - who came up with that figure?). I assume it's paid for by the university or corporation for whom the astronomer works.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid View Post
    To start, how about papers published in (a relevant) peer-reviewed journal? I expect that regular BAUT members know that this is pretty much the pinnacle, especially if the paper is in one of the few journals widely regarded as 'leading' (ApJ, MNRAS, etc).

    Why is this the pinnacle? And why does having such a paper 'cited' hundreds (or thousands!) of times give it particular respectability/acceptability/etc (to astronomers)?
    Several reasons. First, perhaps most important, is the weight which search committees place give to publications in the major journals. One of the main criteria used in the hiring process for academic positions in the US is the publication record. Some universities consider not only the list of papers in these journals, but also their rate of citation by other published work.

    Second, each astronomer has only a small amount of time to read papers in the literature. We can't read every issue of every journal. So, we typically pick a few journals and scan them quickly during our free time. That means that if a paper is published in an "obscure" journal, it is less likely to be seen by the majority of astronomers. If we want our work to be read by as many of our colleagues as possible, then we must publish it in the major journals.

    Why not just publish on astro-ph, and not in a journal at all? Lack of peer review, lack of weight in job searches, lack of paper copies for the indefinite future when all computers crash.

    And how can you find published papers, the papers they cite, and the papers which in turn cite them?
    Easy. Astronomers have a wonderful and freely accessible tool: the Astrophysics Data Service, run by NASA. It allows one to search for words in abstracts, titles and even in the body of a paper, or by names, or by objects, through the great majority of the published literature over the past few hundred years. Go to

    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abstract_service.html

    to see for yourself.

    As for the citing statistics ... hmmm, I don't know about those, myself. I know that people who are involved frequently in job searches _do_ have a place to go to find these statistics -- perhaps another person can tell us exactly where.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid View Post
    Perhaps we should devote several, hopefully quite long, threads to examining just what accepting 'astronomical observations' actually entails (other than 'here's the readout from {insert instrument here}')?
    Ah, more philosophy! My favorite subject!

    This thread is the first (I hope!) of several on the nature of astronomy and space science (and astrophysics, and cosmology) as sciences. This post in an About BAUT thread is the background:In this thread I'd like to explore how astronomers communicate ideas, among themselves.

    Specifically, what the role of conferences, of preprints, papers in peer-reviewed journals, press releases, textbooks, formal courses, popular books, etc, etc, etc is. And how these differ from one another. And which forms are core parts of astronomy as a science (and which not). And so on.
    Probably, most of the posters on BAUT are not professional astronomers. Yet I gather from oblique references in others' posts that you in fact earn a paycheck in a job somehow related to astronomy--but it's hard to tell for sure because there is zero information in your profile. So, Nereid, please tell us how it's done--and how astronomers communicate differently than, say, ecologists or even philosophers. Don't worry: I won't criticize you for answering your own question in the Q&A section, nor will I accuse you of having some sort of hidden agenda rather than a sincere, ingenuous interest in the topic.

    To start, how about papers published in (a relevant) peer-reviewed journal? I expect that regular BAUT members know that this is pretty much the pinnacle, especially if the paper is in one of the few journals widely regarded as 'leading' (ApJ, MNRAS, etc).

    Why is this the pinnacle? And why does having such a paper 'cited' hundreds (or thousands!) of times give it particular respectability/acceptability/etc (to astronomers)?
    I can't speak to pinnacles. What I'm worried about is this: What is the astronomical rock bottom? Specifically, I'm wondering if you're wondering whether the BAUT forum itself is rock bottom (well, I guess there's always the "Coast to Coast" am radio show--but then again Michio Kaku regularly appears there, but never here). That would explain the agonizing over non-"mainstream" content (whatever that is) in BAUT as well as the rampant anonymity of self-proclaimed experts (I say "self-proclaimed" not because they are not in fact experts, but because they have nothing regarding their credentials in their profile--well, I suppose if someone has been here long enough and has read enough, they should be able to just tell. . . .).

    Is there a fear that one could easily commit academic suicide (not get into a top graduate program, or not get that first position, or not get tenure) by posting an inadvertant, irredactably unorthodox idea on BAUT? Or is it that being seen on BAUT at all is as bad as publically admitting that one is a republican? I'm just wondering because I can't say for sure that there is even one single astronomy professor that posts here, although I gather there's at least one or two (anonymous) physics professors.

    And how can you find published papers, the papers they cite, and the papers which in turn cite them?
    Um, just go to any average, university library? But that's probably not the type of answer you're looking for.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Warren Platts View Post
    Is there a fear that one could easily commit academic suicide (not get into a top graduate program, or not get that first position, or not get tenure) by posting an inadvertant, irredactably unorthodox idea on BAUT? Or is it that being seen on BAUT at all is as bad as publically admitting that one is a republican? I'm just wondering because I can't say for sure that there is even one single astronomy professor that posts here, although I gather there's at least one or two (anonymous) physics professors.
    I'm an astronomy professor. I would not think less of a grad student or colleague if I saw his posts on BAUT, and I would guess that many of my colleagues share my feelings.

    On the other hand, if a grad student is applying for a job, what will look better on his resume: 150 posts on the BAUT forum, or a single publication in Astrophysical Journal? The answer is the paper in ApJ. So, from a grad student's point of view, it is a waste of valuable time to post on BAUT (or read BAUT -- or read any web site :-). Perhaps the simple lack of free time might explain the paucity of grad students.

    Many of my colleagues are individuals who are strongly motivated to do what they love and/or to move ahead in the academic game. I suspect that trying to explain for the eighteenth time why the sky is blue or why quasars aren't ejected from AGN does not count in either category.

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    Also, outreach activities (of any kind, not just vapid forum posts...) are often viewed as a waste of time by the academic community. There has been an increase in funding for outreach activities and education lately, but it is still a tiny part of the pot, and if you want to get hired for a tenure track position at a big university, your teaching/outreach portfolio won't always count for much. On the other hand, it might count for a lot at a small teaching college.

    As to how information gets out: I get my cutting edge stuff via the astro-ph daily mailings, but I'll probably eventually use myADS. I never open hardcopies of journals, nor do I do searches via the journals webpages; all my searching is done through NASA ADS, as linked above. The peer review system is starting to look a little frayed around the edges: astro-ph is definitely more commonly used than all the physical journals combined, I'd say. That's not to say we should reject peer review, just that it may need to evolve a bit.

    For forward literature searches, arxiv is linked into the citebase system which works ok. The ADS pages for papers have a citation link that works internal to ADS, and seems pretty accurate (assuming the cited papers are in ADS, which is most of them).

    And with regards to: "...lack of paper copies for the indefinite future when all computers crash," I think recovering our astronomical heritage would be the least of our worries at that point!

    Disclaimer: I'm an astro grad student, with a big interest in outreach. And I have absolutely no time to post here... That's why I am!

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    Quote Originally Posted by StupendousMan View Post
    I'm an astronomy professor. I would not think less of a grad student or colleague if I saw his posts on BAUT, and I would guess that many of my colleagues share my feelings.
    But you don't have tenure yet, so you have to remain anonymous in the meantime.

    On the other hand, if a grad student is applying for a job, what will look better on his resume: 150 posts on the BAUT forum, or a single publication in Astrophysical Journal? The answer is the paper in ApJ.
    Let me put it this way: You have three grad students applying for a job. Which one are you going to take (they each have one, equally cited paper in ApJ, and all other relevant considerations are equal--"it depends" doesn't count as an answer)?: (1) the nerd who actively promoted an ATM idea or two on BAUT; (2) the geek who actively promoted only mainstream ideas; or (3) the obviously serious student who apparently never had time to do either?

    So, from a grad student's point of view, it is a waste of valuable time to post on BAUT (or read BAUT -- or read any web site :-). Perhaps the simple lack of free time might explain the paucity of grad students.
    I respectfully disagree sir! Posting on BAUT gives a person a chance to vet and refine original ideas before having to defend them.

    Many of my colleagues are individuals who are strongly motivated to do what they love and/or to move ahead in the academic game. I suspect that trying to explain for the eighteenth time why the sky is blue or why quasars aren't ejected from AGN does not count in either category.
    OK, then let's talk about your latest research! Unless of course it's proprietary, and you're reserving it to ensure proper credit. . . .

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    Cool Science Citation Index

    Science Citation Index will tell a rookie or a pro, what papers have been most cited in any topic, or for any author. Of course if you cite yourself frequently in published papers, it improves your score....once frowned upon, now common.Pete

    see:http://scientific.thomson.com/products/sci/


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    Quote Originally Posted by Warren Platts View Post
    But you don't have tenure yet...
    And you know this how?

    Quote Originally Posted by Warren Platts View Post
    Let me put it this way: You have three grad students applying for a job. Which one are you going to take (they each have one, equally cited paper in ApJ, and all other relevant considerations are equal--"it depends" doesn't count as an answer)?: (1) the nerd who actively promoted an ATM idea or two on BAUT; (2) the geek who actively promoted only mainstream ideas; or (3) the obviously serious student who apparently never had time to do either?
    I am not a professor - assistant, associate, full, or otherwise. Still, I don't imagine any of those three listed things would be taken into consideration. It is patently unrealistic to posit that "all other relevant considerations are equal."

    Quote Originally Posted by Warren
    Quote Originally Posted by StupendousMan
    So, from a grad student's point of view, it is a waste of valuable time to post on BAUT (or read BAUT -- or read any web site...
    I respectfully disagree sir! Posting on BAUT gives a person a chance to vet and refine original ideas before having to defend them.
    I've been a participant in these forums for a while. I don't recall seeing any graduate level students "vetting original ideas" in all the time I've been here. The grad students (and few professors) who do participate here are usually the ones pointing out the problems in the "original ideas" that are put forward mostly by unstudied amateurs.
    Last edited by Cougar; 2007-Sep-19 at 02:54 AM. Reason: Mis-attributed quotes.
    Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

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    StupendousMan didn't mention astro-ph, which is a pre-print server (for unpublished, but written and [usually] submitted papers). This is a good way to get your paper out early and not get scooped, and they have daily listing of papers submitted. I know profs who go look at the latest astro-ph submissions every day. If an articles piques their interest, they'll read more than the posted abstract, pretty much like Stupes' reading of journals.

    I don't know what Stupes' research interests are, but if it's astronomy, not astrophysics, then he may not use astro-ph very much, and so he didn't think to mention it. ADS is a great resource, but astro-ph is almost the "bleeding edge" of published work.

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    Just a little note on how I work, my area being space physics, specially magnetospheric physics. I work on the Cluster data with a nice group here in Graz, we talk to eachother and everyone has his/her own interests. I am more interested in looking detailed at special events, while others are more interested in statistics, but that is besides the point.

    I talk to my colleagues here about what I intend to do and get feedback. That is the first "internal" check. If anyone says that what I try to look at is not interesting (gotta have good arguments here) or is wrong, I stop there.

    Now, we only have the magnetometer data here as PI, so for other data, plasma or electron, I need to contact other institutes to get the data and get help interpreting them. There you have the next "external" check.

    Next to that there are all kinds of collaborations, one e.g. in Bern at ISSI (International Space Science Institute) where I meet with colleagues and work on (in my case) the Cluster and Double Star projects. There we show ideas and try to explain our interpretation. Last time I had to admit at the end of my presentation that what I thought was going on was not going on, and together we came to a (what we think is) correct interpretation of all the data.

    So there are various checkpoints in the track, and then there are the conferences, where you first present your ideas, and then you submit it to a journal.

    Now, peer reviewed journals are good (I know the whole discussion about problems with peer reviewing, but we will let that go for the moment), however they are not infallible. To give a personal example, I am co-author on a paper in 1997 that I will never EVER quote, because it is garbage. Unfortunately that sometimes happens. I was too "young" (in academic years) then to do the correct thing, I should have taken my name from that paper.

    For the rest, as sources for information and literature I mainly use ADS. Not being in astro/nomy/physics anymore I do not look at astro-ph, nor do I look at arXiv.

    Well, that's just my 2 euro cents (which by now adds up to about $3 I think)
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    And what about conferences?

    What role do conferences play, for astronomers?

    At least some conference proceedings find their way into ADS, and it seems at least some authors of conference papers get them up on astro-ph.

    Are conference papers (peer) reviewed? In terms of acceptability, to professionals, how do they compare with papers published in peer-reviewed journals?

    Are conference proceedings published?

    And what are posters?

    To what extent do conference organisers take the trouble to make agendas, posters, papers, etc available on the internet?

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    In my area of astrophysics (space physcis) there are a lot of conferences one can go to. There are, however, few that produce conference proceedings. It takes a lot of time and effort to put those together.

    Nowadays, journals are willing to make special issues with respect to some experiments or conferences. These, like most conference proceedings that I submitted to, are peer reviewed.

    Posters are a nice way to quickly communicate some work, AND one should keep in mind that speaker time is very limited on conferences, so that a poster does not mean some kind of second rate presentation. Often you can have more and better contact with colleagues when you are standing at your poster.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid
    Are conference papers (peer) reviewed? In terms of acceptability, to professionals, how do they compare with papers published in peer-reviewed journals?
    In general, no. Conference proceedings are where you put your new, cutting edge research. Things that might not pass peer review, but you want to get it out there anyway. That's not always true, but something to keep in mind.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid
    Are conference proceedings published?
    Yes, in that they are often turned into books or single-run magazines formats. These are often a bear to get a hold of, if you are looking for a given paper, though. Universities often don't have access to conference proceedings online from all publishers. Although, one can often get a copy of a paper from the authors themselves.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid
    And what are posters?
    Things like this! (warning, before you click that link: that's a 4 meg, ~48x50 inch pdf, which might cause your PDF reader some pain! You've been warned). Basically, a way to present what you are working on, get some constructive criticism and maybe find new collaborators. Since there isn't enough time in one day for everyone who wants to give a talk about their research, posters are a way to parallelize the presentations. A big room, with dividers that the posters are tacked to, and you can wander around and look at whatever suits your fancy. (I can dig up some pictures from the 2007 AAS meeting, if you like).

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    On a related note, colloquia are also a way that scientists can communicate, especially with someone outside of their field or subfield. Research presented in colloquia isn't always new, but often it is, and the talk can be more in-depth than a poster and often can reach a wider audience.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid View Post
    What role do conferences play, for astronomers?
    I ttook me a long time to work out how important they can be. Before astro-ph, this was how the "players" shared what they were working on and exchanged thoughts in the most immediate way. This latter aspect remains crucial - and much of the key exchange takes place not in the formal sessions, but over coffee or other potable substances outside of the program

    These are key venues for finding out who's working in areas relevant to one's own research, and meeting the increasing number of younger astronomers that one hasn't heard of but should have... and the incubators for many collaborative projects or these very reasons.

    At least some conference proceedings find their way into ADS, and it seems at least some authors of conference papers get them up on astro-ph.

    Are conference papers (peer) reviewed? In terms of acceptability, to professionals, how do they compare with papers published in peer-reviewed journals?

    Are conference proceedings published?

    And what are posters?

    To what extent do conference organisers take the trouble to make agendas, posters, papers, etc available on the internet?
    There is a whole range. Some published proceedings are comprised of whatever the attendees can be goaded into submitting. Others are formally peer-reviewed, sometimes before the meeting so they can be published quickly. Most conference papers are of only ephemeral value, but there are occasional key papers that don't appear anywhere else (and by the way - whoever has my copy of the Yale 1977 galaxy-evolution conference book with the Toomre paper in it, if you're reading this - amnesty, no questions asked, just leave it at the door in a wicker basket with a nice blanket).

    Likewise there is a whole range of electronic availability. STScI took the lead in making whole sets of proceedings available on the web (and now webcasts them as they happen). Some proceedings volumes exist only in print, some eventually reach the ADS in full-text form and others don't.

    With regard to prestige and its more quantitative cousin citation count, being nonrefereed makes a paper in a meeting volume generally less well regarded than one in a refereed journal. Here again, though, there will be occasional review papers from meetings which never show up in any other form and rack up quite respectable numbers of citations. Some, done in a particularly conscientious way, are starting points for students entering a field.

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