14 December 2015

Bad design used to make a good point

Michael Eisen recently took all the journal titles off descriptions of his papers on his lab website. This upset some people, which Eisen chalked it up to “the cult of the journal title.”

Alternate hypothesis: maybe it upset people because it was a bad design decision.

I’ve explored design a lot over at the Better Posters blog, and one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned has been that good design is about empathy. Good designers empathize with their users, anticipate their needs, and fulfill their needs.

One of the things a person going to a lab publication list wants to do is to be able to find articles that interest them. Removing journal titles makes it harder for users to find articles. And while many (but, importantly, not all) articles have DOIs and links, they are not necessarily things that people relate to as much as a journal title. If you need to scribble a reference on a piece of paper, a journal, volume, and first page number is easier than a DOI link.

The argument that you don’t need journal titles because everything is on the Internet overlooks that the Internet doesn’t need journal articles. People do. People have to work with imperfect memories (some of us more than others) before starting a search on Google Scholar or PubMed. There are many papers that I look at, and I will never commit the DOI or link to memory. I remember the journal that papers were published in quite regularly, though. I don’t remember journals because of their Impact Factors, but because of the content of the journal, the layout and formatting, and other features. A PLOS ONE paper looks different than a PeerJ paper.

By removing a piece of information that users expect and want, Eisen is not meeting the user’s needs. Quite the opposite, he’s explicitly criticizing users who want this information. But good design is not about the designer. It’s about the experience of the end user.

That said, running in the opposite direction is no better:

This was a joke from Yoav Gilad (archived by Claus Wilke; it doesn’t look like that now). But for the sake of argument, let’s analyze it anyway. Here, the changes in text size for the journals (related to Impact Factor) is, for those outside of academia, pointless, and therefore confusing. For those in academia, it looks like an ego trip. (“Oooh, look at the fancy journal I published in!”)

Again: design is not about you.

Now, there is more to life than good design. Removing journal titles from a publication list is a successful act of advocacy against evaluation by “prestige,” which is a much-needed discussion to have. But it may be that users are upset not (only?) because of a cultish belief that journal titles are important signifiers of quality, but because they realize that the design effectively gives them the finger by leaving out something they want.

Update, 15 December 2015: Expanded the post with Gilad’s joke and more discussion.

External links

What’s in a journal name?
Picture from here.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

I hope Mike will comment here himself, but here is my read: by putting journal-names in our publication lists, we're acting as enablers to prestige addicts. Doing that is not in their long-term best interests (nor that of academia in general).

My guess is, Mike thinks the long-term gain of not enabling prestige addiction outweighs the short-term pain of violating expectations.