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Costly signalling in scholarly communications

7 July 2015 2 Comments
Male Blue Peacock in Melbourne Zoo, Australia.

Male Blue Peacock in Melbourne Zoo, Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a long time it was difficult for evolutionary biology to make sense of a (male) peacock’s tail. Clearly it is involved in courtship but the investment in growing it, and the disdvantage of carrying it around, would seem to be a disadvantage over all. The burden of the tail might be worth it for a single male if female preferences are fixed

Fisher found a solution to this problem by noting that the genes for large tails in male peacocks would tend to be carried along with the genes for a preference for males with large tails expressed in females. In combination these two traits can cause a run away selection process which could explain the extravagant display in many animals.

Zahavi proposed another solution in which the display is a form of “costly signalling”. The ability to invest in the production of a large tail demonstrates the health or fitness of the animal. For this to work the signalling must be costly and it must be difficult to fake. Coloured plumage in the presence of stalking predators implies speed and agility, large horns (or simply size) a sufficient ability to obtain food.

Hartley and Potts in their book Cultural Science (chapter 3) apply the idea of costly signalling to question of cultural evolution. They suggest that cultures will adopt forms of costly signalling to create within-group trust and cohesion. In turn cultural norms of truth-telling and even traditions of narrative (the assumption of sympathy for the ‘white hat’, the presentation of compromises as ‘necessary’, that even bad acts reveal the underlying goodness of the hero) build community and in extremis send members of that community out to die for it in battle. This is not a facile claim about “group evolution” or how genetic evolution might drive culture but part of a program to understand how culture itself evolves.

One of the challenges of understanding peer review in the scientific community is why we do it at all. It is a part of our culture but it is very hard to demonstrate how and where it contributes value. The humanistic approach to the empirical challenge to value is to respond that it is a cultural norm that defines the scholarly community. Even if peer review achieved nothing it would have value as a means of defining a community, the community that has a cultural dedication to peer review. The “we”, the culture that valuesand engaged with peer review, is defined in terms of its different from the “they” who do not. This form of identification reinforces the analogy both with Fisher (we select those who share culture) and Zahavi (the costly signalling of engaging in peer review is part of the creation of our scholarly culture).

So perhaps another way to look at engaging with peer review is as costly signalling. The purpose of submitting work to peer review is to signal that the underlying content is “honest” in some sense. In the mating dance between researchers and funders or researchers and institutions the peer review process is intended to make the pure signalling of publication and to make it harder to fake. Taking Fisher’s view of mutual selection, authors on one side, funders and instiutions on the other, we can see, at least as analogy, a reason for the run away selection for publishing in prestigious journals. A runaway process where the signalling bares a tenous relationship with the underlying qualities being sought, in the same way as the size of the peacock’s tail has a tenous link with its health and fitness.

But as Martin Eve has argued (Open Access in the Humanities, Chapter 2), we need such signals. The labour of detailed assessment of all research for the full range of desirable qualities is unaffordable. Summaries and signals are needed. The question, perhaps, is whether this costly signalling is as honest as it could be. Is it creating a sustainable culture and community with a solid base? The apparent rise in fraud in retractions, particularly amongst those high prestige publications, suggests that this is a question that should be seriously addressed. To stretch the biological analogy, has a gene for faked tails emerged? Such fake display is not uncommon in biology.

Addressing that question means asking questions about what the underlying qualities we desire are. That’s an important question which I’ve raised elsewhere but I don’t want to go down that route here. I want to explore a different possibility. One that arises from asking whether a different form of signalling might be possible.

Communicating research in a reproducible (or replicable, or generalizable, the semantics are also an issue for another time) fashion is hard work. Many of us have argued that to enable greater reproducibility we need to provide better tools to reduce that cost. But what if the opposite were true? What if the value actually lies precise in the fact that communicating reproducibility is costly but is also potentially a more honest representation of what a community values than publication in a high profile journal.

If you buy that argument then we have a problem. The sexual selection run away is hard to break out of, at least in the case of biological evolution. At some point survivability prevents tails or horns growing so big they overbalance the animal, but by that stage a huge and unnecessary investment has been made. However in the case made by Potts and Hartley the thing that is evolving is more malleable. Perhaps, by creating a story of how the needs of funders and institutions are better served by focussing on a different form of signalling it will be possible to shift.

Of course this does happen in nature as well. When a sub-population develops a different form of display and co-selection kicks off then populations diverge, sometimes to occupy different niches, sometimes to compete, and ultimately displace the original population. It’s one way that new species form.



  • Tim Vines

    It looks like you’re conflating the manuscript improvement aspect of peer review with the signalling/filtering role of journals. Academics consistently say that the former process is important and worthwhile, while enthusiasm for the latter (particularly the need to publish in the highest profile journals) is mixed.

    Your analogy works well when applied to the latter, as competition for scarce resources (i.e. grant money and jobs) ‘selects for’ ever more showy publication records.

  • So two answers, neither of which you may find satisfying…

    Firstly it’s not either/or. A sexual display characteristic can be advantageous in some settings/senses. I believe for instance that a case for this is made in terms of some antlers. They are both a display ornament but are under direct selection for utility in some form of fighting. I don’t think its necessarily the case that there being some adaptive value removes the effect of sexual selection?

    But I can make a stronger case, if we say this isn’t an analogy. That there is a culture/shared practice under selection. In this case I could make the point that “academics consistently say” is exactly what you’d expect, regardless of whether it is true, because the cultural equivalent of co-selection in both sexes is exactly that buy in. Now I’m probably mangling Hartley and Potts’ argument and its likely a hard sell for a biologist (or for someone with a background in evolutionary molecular biology like me for that matter) but I think the argument is worth pursuing.

    One of the things I find frustrating about discussions of peer review is how little real data we actually have. We know that “academics say…” lots of things about what works and what doesn’t but we have little external evidence beyond those opinions. I would love to see real data that showed that articles were or were not improved. I know I’m a sceptic but I can point to at least two of my articles made substantially worse by peer reviewers.