Mike the Mad Biologist

On Avalanches and Publishing

Others have commented on this ridiculous Chronicle of Higher Education article about the “avalanche” of publishing (seriously, how hard is it to use Web of Science or PubMed?), but I wanted to address the authors’ three suggestions. First:

First, limit the number of papers to the best three, four, or five that a job or promotion candidate can submit. That would encourage more comprehensive and focused publishing.

This completely ignores the reality that publications have purposes other than tenure, namely grants. To get research funding, one typically has to show that one has done some work in the area, that previous data (ideally, yours) suggest the proposed work will be fruitful, and that one has been a productive researcher. This, for better and for worse, is assessed by publications.

Moving on to their second suggestion:

Second, make more use of citation and journal “impact factors,” from Thomson ISI. The scores measure the citation visibility of established journals and of researchers who publish in them. By that index, Nature and Science score about 30. Most major disciplinary journals, though, score 1 to 2, the vast majority score below 1, and some are hardly visible at all. If we add those scores to a researcher’s publication record, the publications on a CV might look considerably different than a mere list does.

There are two problems here. First, the impact factor has many problems (the most obvious of which is that it was never designed to be used with individual articles). It’s not clear that it’s the best way to assess the actual impact of an article–there are better ways to do that. But the fundamental flaw is that lots of results need to communicated to a small target audience–but these results are still worth publishing. Some results are pertinent to many different fields, others might only appeal to a sub-discipline (or even sub-sub-discipline), but publishing is how we record things for posterity (don’t talk to me about blogs–links ‘die’ all the time).

And the piece de resistance:

Third, change the length of papers published in print: Limit manuscripts to five to six journal-length pages, as Nature and Science do, and put a longer version up on a journal’s Web site. The two versions would work as a package. That approach could be enhanced if university and other research libraries formed buying consortia, which would pressure publishers of journals more quickly and aggressively to pursue this third route. Some are already beginning to do so, but a nationally coordinated effort is needed.

Sweet Baby Intelligent Designer, no! The glamour magz format screws up science enough as it is. We sure as hell don’t need to enshrine this.

I’m also confused as to why they think article publication makes it difficult to find grant reviewers. The reason it’s hard to find grant reviewers is that there are so many damn proposals.

While they are right that there are serious structural problems in science, such as the overproduction of PhDs, this isn’t due to publishing, but funding structures.

Of all the problems science faces, this isn’t one of them.

Comments

  1. #1 drdrA
    June 22, 2010

    ‘Sweet Baby Intelligent Designer, no! ‘

    ROTFLOL.

    That is possibly the funniest statement I’ve heard all day.

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