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Bjoern Brembs:

Today’s system of scientific journals started as a way to effectively use a scarce resource, printed paper. Soon thereafter, the publishers realized there were big bucks to be made and increased the number of journals to today’s approx. 24,000. Today, there is no technical reason any more why you couldn’t have all the 2.5 million papers science puts out every year in a single database.


Precurser to this publishing reform was access reform: scientific papers are the result of publicly funded research and should be publicly accessible. This reform appears now to be well underway and will probably conclude in 2-3 years. Both reform movements have their base in the more general open science movement. The goal of this reform movement is to have full public access not only to the published papers, but also to the raw data, ideas and reagents for sharing among scientists. There are still plenty of problems which have to be worked out before open science can become a reality, if it is even feasible. One of the more easy to solve problems (one that is shared with publishing reform) is that of how to attribute credit. If we all publish in the same database and share ideas online, how can two scientists competing for the same position or grant be assessed objectively?


Different universities/employers will focus on different aspects of a researcher and value some of his/her contributions more than others. I don’t think there can be too many measures to capture the complexity of scientific output. I’d like to see an aggregating service, maybe based on services like OpenID, where a flexible portfolio can be organized such that employers can easily search for the traits they are looking for and find or compare the people who maximize their efforts on these traits.


I think most researchers would gladly pay for a service which has a track record of picking the most interesting, groundbreaking and well-done papers from the 2.5 million every year. Today’s professional editors would be a great pool from which such services could recruit employees.


  1. #1 PhysioProf
    July 20, 2008

    In the case of the biomedical sciences, this all remains a pipe dream so long as hiring, promotion, and tenure committees, as well as grant peer-review panels, continue to consider the imapact factor of the journals a scientist publishes in as a key metric of productivity.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    July 20, 2008

    In which case, the biomedical sciences will be the last to join the new world, as I have predicted a long time ago. The biomedical world is so competitive, secretive and nasty, they will only switch once they see that everyone else has, and see how well it works for ecologist, animal behaviorists, palaeontologists, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, chemists, geologists, physicists, astronomers, mathematicians….

  3. #3 Bjoern Brembs
    July 21, 2008

    @PP: That’s why everybody using the word “impact factor” needs to be told “The impact factor’s dead, baby, the impact factor’s dead!

    Thomson’s IF is by now thoroughly discredited and whoever doesn’t yet know that should be embarrassed – or at least be made to feel embarrassed.

  4. #4 Bjoern Brembs
    July 21, 2008

    Hmm, link doesn’t work:

  5. #6 greensmile
    July 21, 2008

    Brembs says:

    The goal of this reform movement is to have full public access not only to the published papers, but also to the raw data, ideas and reagents for sharing among scientists.

    That is all good and a step toward the utopian world of transparent, complete and instant communication of advances that should help accelerate humanities climb up all the steep learning curves with which nature hems us in. But one flavor of communication is missing. My son is now a grad student in molecular biology and on his way to solving various puzzles about the jobs RNA does in C. Elegans, he finds his efforts repeat not the successes of others [of which he could read and which turn up easily in data searches] but their mistakes and dead ends…NEGATIVE RESULTS ARE SELDOM PUBLISHED. I understand that a researcher who is convinced that his job prospects rest partly on a history of making and publishing improvements to the state of the art would be reluctant to have his time wasting missteps on the record. But surely we all see how much time and research funding that would save every one else. Science moves forward as much by analyzed failures as it does by replicated successes, maybe even more.

    The electronic galactic permanent chalk board and lab notebook we seem to be dreaming of should have plenty of pages for what did not work, place for commentary as to why it did not work and, if egos and reputations demand it, a way to anonomize the authorship of negative results. If the guy who’s honesty can keep others from wasting weeks on what seems a promising idea is only known by name to those who have the diligence and are qualified by research interest to look him or her up to confirm and discuss the failure, I think that guy’s esteem in the community will increase. And to those who have no stake in that specialty, his name does not casually acquire the stigma of a loser.

    I imagine that a scenario like “darn! I wish there was somewhere I could have read that that reagent just screws up the protocol!” plays out daily in the laboratories of universities and pharama companies.

    Failures in science are productive opportunities for the community. It is in politics that failure is only an opportunity for the other side.

  6. #7 PhysioProf
    July 21, 2008

    Failures in science are productive opportunities for the community. It is in politics that failure is only an opportunity for the other side.

    The scientific enterprise is, in large part, a competition for limited resources. I benefit to the extent that my competitors waste their time chasing dead ends. You may not like this, but it is a fact about how science currently functions.

  7. #8 greensmile
    July 22, 2008

    PhysioProf; You can probably guess that I do not have to write grant proposals to make my living. So yes, perhaps I talk of a more idealized world than the one most senior members of scientific enterprises find themselves in. But I still hold that the cut-throat view you put forth is not how science functions but how scientists and bureaucracies function…that is a significant difference because it suggests a cure.

    The view that “there is not enough to go around therefore there will have to be some losers” may not be a fair paraphrase of your description but to the extent that it is, I fear it describes a very conservative mindset. If the enterprise is essentially economic and relates to the distribution of things of value which cost money to reproduce and distribute then that view has appeal to many. That is a misfortune of human nature IMO. But an idea or some knowledge that explains a failure should only cost humanity in its initial discovery…ideas cost nothing to propagate, facts cost virtually nothing to share. You only maximize the well being of a subset of individuals with that survival of the best competitor outlook.

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