Mike the Mad Biologist

The Problem with Publication-Driven Science

Now, I realize with this title, lots of people are thinking that I’m trying to do away with scientific articles. Far from it. But the use of published articles as ‘scientific currency’ can retard the adoption of new breakthroughs. A recent personal experience is in order.

I recently heard an invited speaker give a talk about a new way of handling DNA sequence data*. After the talk, in a private meeting, I asked the speaker if this software was available for implementation, and said speaker looked horrified. “We haven’t submitted for publication yet.” It turns out that no one will have access to this method for a year or so.

Now, I’m not a political novice, so I moved on**. But a year in my field (and many others, of course) might as well be the 22nd century. Keep in mind that this method is the result of federally-funded research. Yet this existing, functional breakthrough will be unilaterally embargoed to meet the demands of publication.

I don’t blame said speaker: the academic career system uses ‘pubs’ as primary currency. But there is a serious problem when breakthroughs are delayed in being tested in the ultimate crucible of science–which is not journal peer review–but use by and utility to other scientists.

Within the current constraints of our scientific system, I don’t know how we improve this. This is one more reason why I find various white papers put together by prestigious panels of academic scientists who shockingly discover that the current model of independent academic lab scientists is… the bestest model EVAH!! to be incredibly frustrating. There are other models, which, of course, have their own problems, but we seem to be far too sanguine about the current problems.

*I’m keeping the science vague for my own nefarious purposes.

**With the advances in data generation, sending small pieces of data to this person really isn’t an option.

Comments

  1. #1 drdrA
    December 8, 2008

    Can a collaboration be worked out where sharing can be done in advance of publication. I do this all the time- it doesn’t fix the larger problem- but … I don’t see a way to fix the larger problem…

  2. #2 The Science Pundit
    December 8, 2008

    drdrA,

    There will always be some larger problem since every solution creates new problems. Personally, I’ll take the problems of publication driven science over the problems of profit driven science. Perhaps the best solution is to have a mixed system where science is being driven on several fronts.

  3. #3 oyun
    December 8, 2008

    Can a collaboration be worked out where sharing can be done in advance of publication. I do this all the time- it doesn’t fix the larger problem- but … I don’t see a way to fix the larger problem…

  4. #4 Mike the Mad Biologist
    December 8, 2008

    SciencePundit,

    Just for the record, I don’t work in industry, but for a non-profit institute. I do agree that other models need to be adopted that don’t resemble academic departments.

  5. #5 Coturnix
    December 8, 2008

    oyun is spam

  6. #6 Mokele
    December 8, 2008

    Honestly, people can simply forget the pubs – People in my field have done it. Ty Hedrick developed a widely used digitizing tool and simply turned it loose to the world, which made his name. One of the faculty in my department is working on a high-speed 3-D x-ray system, specifically with the intent on making it free for all (equipment cost aside).

    I’ve actually been considering another problem – the publication of crap. Everyone wants a pub, especially after investing the time and effort, even if it’s crap. If they get turned down and told the experimental is fundamentally flawed, they’ll just submit to other journals with lower standards, over and over until it *finally* gets out. So a pub count is a poor metric, even with impact factors.

  7. #7 estetik
    December 9, 2008

    Personally, I’ll take the problems of publication driven science over the problems of profit driven science.

  8. #8 TomJoe
    December 9, 2008

    Honestly, people can simply forget the pubs …

    LOL. Yah, sure. Sorry, in my job I’m literally evaluated on how many pubs I put out a year. I need — at a minimum — 2. Anything lower than that magic number and my job is placed in jeopardy.

  9. #9 nm
    January 15, 2009

    Publication being of course the worst system ever devised, except for all of the others…

    At least under this system there is an incentive to get important things published quickly. The alternative is hard money or gentlemen scientists putting the manuscript in a draw for a few decades ala Darwin.

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