Paperpile: a reference manager that works

If you’re anything like me, you spend a fair chunk of your time finding and organising journal articles. And perhaps even reading a few. It’s often seen as a way to feel like you’re being productive when you’re not. Actually, I think it helps maintain a good awareness of the literature and developments in your field. But anyway, whether or not you think it’s a good way to spend time you probably can’t avoid doing it. So you’ll want a good reference manager.

I used to use Mendeley, but their app was so clunky and always falling over that I probably spent as much time complaining on their forum as I did actually using it. I tried Zotero and ReadCube, but wasn’t satisfied. Then I discovered Paperpile.

Why is it so good?

For me, a good reference manager is one that doesn’t encourage too much maintenance effort. I want a simple interface. I want to be able to add items really quickly, and for these to be automatically organised and easy to retrieve. I want the reference manager to behave as if the Internet actually exists. Paperpile satisfies all of my needs.

I won’t be able to do it justice in this blog post, but it totally takes the pain out of reference management for me. Papers can be added in 2 clicks using their Chrome extension. The automatic updating of citation information is the best I’ve seen, and isn’t totally dependent on DOI or PubMed identifiers. The web app is fast and stable. Items link out to the DOI and PubMed and even show you articles that have cited it in Google Scholar. Your PDFs are stored in Google Drive, so you can access them anywhere and there’s no need to pay for extra storage. There are plenty more features that you can read about on the Paperpile website. And there’s more to come. Soon they’ll be rolling out a native PDF annotator that does everything you might hope (I have been beta testing).

Who is Paperpile for?

If your online universe is Google, Paperpile is the best reference manager for you. If it isn’t, then perhaps not. You need to sign in with a Google account and you need to use Chrome.

Paperpile’s citation manager doesn’t work in Microsoft Word. That’s good – Word is a problem. If you use LaTeX, it’s very easy to export citations or entire folders in BibTeX. If you do still enjoy WYSIWYG word processing then Paperpile can format your citations in Google Docs very effectively.

My favourite thing about Paperpile is the Forum, and the presence of the Paperpile staff. They are very quick to react, and even some of my own feature requests have been followed-up. This is possible because you actually have to pay for Paperpile! This is what really sets it apart from its competitors, and is a key strength. There’s a 30 day free trial and if you use the coupon code CHRIS_25 you can get 25% off – forever!

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Peer-reviewing peer-review: Publons edition

On this blog and elsewhere I have discussed some of the problems with academic publishing; whether it be determining what actually counts as an academic publication or thinking about an alternative model. I will be continuing to prod at our decaying system of scholarly publishing in my new role as a Publons Advisor. As my first act I would like to advise all of you academic types to join Publons!

What is it?

Publons is a website where you can record and share your peer-review activity. Each time you review a paper – whether it be pre-publication or post-publication – you should tell Publons about it. Publons also provides a place for you, as an expert, to discuss published literature. If you want more detail about Publons and the ideas behind it, you can read a paper published by the founders.

Why do we need it?

Peer-review is in crisis. There is no evidence that – in its current form – it actually does any good. As such we need better approaches to the assessment of the quality of scholarly output. Peer-review still has an important role to play; it’s vital that experts in any given field assess the quality of reports on research findings. Furthermore, the quality of these assessments should also be assessed. Yet in the vast majority of cases, peer-review continues to be a secretive affair. Rarely do we know how good the peer-review process actually was. Publons can solve this problem by linking a paper with its reviews, and ideally these reviews will be free for anybody to evaluate.

Why should I sign up?

Academics spend a lot of their time contributing to the public good; doing things for which they receive little or no personal benefit. Peer-review is the prime example of such unrecognised labour. Publons makes it possible to get credit for your peer-review activity. Your Publons profile provides proof of your activity as a reviewer and even the quality of the reviews you share. In the age of metrics, Publons gives you a score indicative of the quantity and quality of your review work. You can take a look at my stats page to get an idea of the kind of supporting information that Publons can provide.

I hope you’re convinced. Adding a review to Publons takes less time than it took you to read this blog post. You can get the credit you deserve and improve scientific discourse at the same time. Visit the Publons website to sign-up, and if you have any questions please leave me a comment below.

Economics: the death of a discipline

John Kay recently wrote an article titled “Economists: there is no such thing as the ‘economic approach’“. If Kay is right, and there is no ‘economic approach’, then to what extent is there a discipline of economics? To what extent is there economics at all? Here are my thoughts on the issue*.

In my field, a distinction has been made between economics as a ‘topic’ and economics as a ‘discipline’ (e.g. here and here). While the latter is (if it ever existed) doomed, the former might be salvageable.

The discipline

Most of us will agree that although there are overlaps between economics and other disciplines, the lines of analytical demarkation are sufficiently clear for us not to be in much doubt about the differences between the disciplines.

Culyer (1981)

While this may have just about held true 30 years ago, I do not believe it to be true today. For me, the economics of suicide (to which Kay refers) represents the suicide of economics. Gary Becker’s The Economic Approach to Human Behavior was an important milestone. One can look at Becker’s 1992 Nobel Memorial Prize as something of a watershed; though he is preceded largely by ‘proper’ economists studying explicitly market-based phenomena, he is succeeded by individuals who have achieved breakthroughs in mathematics, statistics, psychology, moral philosophy and history.

Do not get me wrong, this is a very good thing. It represents the success of interdisciplinary research and in particular the application of the scientific method to all aspects of life, and we are all the better for it. Outside economics, this conflation of science and social science is leading to painful lessons about the impossibility of quantification in certain aspects of human nature and social interaction (here is one recent example), but economics is the most vulnerable.

The discipline of economics is in a strange state of simultaneous ascendency and yielding. It is ascendant in its influence over any policy analysis and its application to all aspects of life. The reason for this occurring is clear; every action – human, animal, governmental, societal – relates in some way to the allocation of scarce resources. Wiktionary definition of economics reads: “(social sciences) The study of resource allocation, distribution and consumption; of capital and investment; and of management of the factors of production.” And herein lies the problem; as we approach the lowest common denominators of knowledge, these issues are increasingly explained by other better-defined and time-tested disciplines. I am left wondering, over what does the discipline of economics have a monopoly?

The topic

Economics could survive in our lexicon as a topic. This topic is macro. The topic of microeconomics, it seems to me, can be entirely subsumed by other topics. Microeconomics is largely about agents. Humans are agents. The behaviour of these agents is primarily studied by psychologists, sociologists, ethicists, anthropologists, geographers and others, depending on scale. Firms are also agents. Firm-specific topics can reside in the realm of business studies – a far more modest subject than economics. Though an economist’s toolkit is undoubtedly of value to each of these disciplines, it is unclear which tools are exclusively those of the economist.

Inflation, unemployment, trade, growth. Economics may be saved by these topics – they will at least remain under the economics banner until its final day. But they are not safe. Each can be explained by their microfoundations in some combination with political science, philosophy and meteorology. Furthermore, marketisation and the spread of free markets means that society and the economy are now one in the same. One cannot be a quantitative social scientist without straying into the topic of economics. As such, it becomes unclear which topics are exclusively those of economics.

The choice

In my opinion, the primary value of economics today is its multidisciplinarity. But we already have a word for that. The inability of economics to restrain and contain itself is what will lead to its demise. Through its application to everything it will come to mean nothing. To my mind, economics has a choice. Either it can continue to expand itself into obscurity, or it can choose to restrict itself to the study of the economy and engage in the difficult task of differentiating (pun intended) the economy from society more generally.

No matter what, I suspect that economics has much the same destiny as natural philosophy. How long will it be before Economics degrees evaporate and we instead read Social Science? To be what was once termed an economist, one need simply sign-up for the BSc stream.

* This blog post is intentionally provocative, in the hope that people might engage with its content!

doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1101354

Priorities in academic publishing: quality vs quantity

A recent Twitter exchange got me thinking about academic publishing again. It seems to me that much of the current debate about peer review, publication bias and open access boils down to a conflict between quantity and quality, and I have a favourite: quantity.

Quality (the problem)

This is why we have peer review, to ensure that only the good stuff gets published. Clearly this doesn’t work, but I do still feel there is a place for peer review; not in the selection of the ‘best’ papers, but in the filtering-out of erroneous work. In the UK, the REF, and by extension universities, encourage quality over quantity. I have often heard school heads and research group leads trumpet the need for fewer, higher-quality papers. No wonder, if that’s what brings in the money.

Quality is important, for sure (even if our ways of defining quality are weak). However, in my opinion, these incentives are totally unnecessary for ensuring quality. The reason an economist might give half their right thumb to publish in American Economic Review over any other journal is not simply because of quantifiable career benefits and employability. No doubt the prestige gained (or the envy induced) is a sufficient incentive.

Quantity (the solution)

Isn’t this what current campaigns are striving for? We want to reduce publication bias through the publication of uninteresting or negative results. We want datasets and detailed methodologies made available. Yet academics are encouraged not to waste their time on these things and instead strive for that publication in AER/Science/Nature/NEJM. We want academics to stop prioritising prestigious journals with unscalable paywalls, yet this is exactly what they are currently incentivised to do.

Incentives for quantity should be appended to my previous suggested solution to the problems of academic publishing. The REF should reward quantity instead of quality, for example. Some research suggests that academics face a quality/quantity trade-off, while others suggest that the two may go hand-in-hand; no doubt this depends on the field of research. Nevertheless, a re-alignment of incentives towards quantity and away from (self-sustaining, immeasurable) quality would surely be better for academia as a whole.

doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1138635

Reddit for academics

I’ve finally figured out reddit, and it’s a great tool for academics. You should really give it a try.

Over the past few years I’ve dabbled in reddit, failing to really ‘get it’. I thought it was just a place for silly GIFs and celebrity AMAs (Ask Me Anything), but I was wrong. It’s a place to share links to interesting internet stuff, but more importantly it’s a place where these links can be discussed. So if like me you’ve tried it before and failed to grasp it, or if you fancy giving it a go, here’s my suggested route in.

  1. Read this.
  2. Sign-up. Choose a username. You can remain anonymous if you wish.
  3. Go to reddit.com/subreddits and unsubscribe from any stupid subreddits to which you’ve been automatically subscribed.
  4. Go and find some subreddits to join. For academics I suggest academicpublishing, DepthHub and Scholar. And if you’re a fellow health economist, try academiceconomics, Economics, healthcare and HealthEconomics.
  5. Have a look at your homepage. By this stage it should be full of articles that interest you. Follow the links. Vote-up the ones you like. Join the discussion by commenting on them.
  6. Take a look at your preferences. They can alter the experience somewhat.
  7. Head over to metareddit.com to find more subreddits you might like.
  8. If you use Chrome, download the reddit companion.
  9. Start submitting your own links and comments to subreddits and watch the discussion unfold. You can submit links to academic papers, blogs, silly pictures… whatever you like!

A word of warning. DO NOT use reddit exclusively as a means of self-promotion. You will be Shadow Banned, as I have been. Stick to the rule of thumb of no more than 1 in 10 of your link submissions being some way self-promotional. The number of links you can submit is, in some secretive way, defined by your ‘karma’. You get karma by posting links and comments that other people like. Just be helpful and nice and you won’t fall foul of the reddiquette police.