17 December 2015

Using bad design to make a good point

Crossposted, with slight edits, from NeuroDojo because I am way behind on grading!

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.

In exploring design on this blog, 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 – which you often have to do at a conference – a journal name, volume, and first page number is easier than a DOI link. Change one digit in a DOI and it doesn’t work at all. A journal based citation has more forgiveness for error.

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. And people don’t always have great access to the Internet, like, say, at a poster session in a conference where there is not always WiFi. People 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.

External links

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

1 comment:

Mark Gurwell said...

Have to agree with you, he is missing one of the points about a publication list, in that you might actually want to find it some day. As you say, if you only provide a DOI weblink, it's sort of impossible to find unless you actually get the DOI correct. Unlike 'hmm, it was author "x" in "journal of yy", maybe in 2014...' which allows you to narrow it down if you need to find it later. Especially if you remember some keyword and the journal, rather than an author.

In fact, much of this exercise about excluding the journal title, appears to me to be more of a show off 'Look at what I'm doing!!!' spectacle rather than really trying to help out. As somebody pointed out tongue in cheek, perhaps removing the author names would be an even more useful tool, since many people associate certain authors with quality that may or may not be accurate for a given paper.