Over at Cosmic Variance, Julianne is annoyed at Nature‘s embargo policy. It seems that somebody or another posted a paper to the arxiv while submitting it to Nature, and included a note on the arxiv submission asking people to abide by Nature‘s embargo.
So, instead of blogging about the Incredibly Exciting Discovery (which I’d loooove to talk about), I’m writing about what a ridiculous fiction the authors are asking us all to participate in, for the sake of the authors’ potentially getting a publication accepted to Nature. The authors advertised a paper to thousands of interesting, engaged scientists, who are then supposed to keep their mouths shut so that the authors can get a paper into a particular journal — one that is not noticeably more influential in astrophysics (i.e. the difference between Nature and non-Nature is not nearly as big a deal as it is in biology).
The commenters are similarly down on Nature and the whole idea of submitting to Nature (conveniently ignoring the comment from an actual Nature editor saying that the authors have misunderstood the policy, and the embargo does not mean what they think it means).
What’s really interesting here, though, is not what people are upset by, but what they aren’t questioning, namely, the race to the arxiv. Everybody agrees that Nature‘s policy is bad because it seems to restrict publication and discussion on the arxiv, but nobody questions whether it’s good to have scientists racing to be the first to post their preprints like idiot commenters playing “firsties.”
While I think the embargo rules at Science and Nature are a little silly (though less silly than they used to be), I’m not convinced that they’re the bad guys, here. Or, rather, I’m not convinced that they’re bad in an absolute sense– their rules may be worse than the arxiv-race culture, but I don’t think either is good.
There’s an obsession in science with the order of publication that I don’t think is really healthy, and I think it’s only gotten worse. At the Science21 meeting last fall, Paul Ginsparg talked about how there’s a huge spike in arxiv submissions just after 4pm, because the daily update email puts papers in the order in which they were submitted, starting at 4pm. He said they can see scripts hitting the server to check the time, and then dumping papers in just as soon as the clock has ticked over. Apparently, the position of a paper in that email has a fairly significant effect on the number of views and citations that paper receives in the future.
That’s just crazy, but it’s a logical consequence of the race-to-publication culture that we have in academic science these days. Which is, itself, pretty crazy.
Science is not a short-term project. The real goal of science is the advancement of the sum total of human knowledge. The world is not likely to end in the few weeks between a paper being finished and the time it appears in Nature. There’s no good reason for the sense of urgency you see in the comments on Julianne’s article– especially not for a paper on astronomy. It took millions of years for the light to reach your spectrograph– you can wait a couple of weeks to talk about the results. I’m not even convinced that being first with some result actually does anybody all that much good– I can think of several examples within my own field of AMO physics of people who weren’t the first to publish on some topic, but are the ones who dominate the field, because of the quality of their science, not the timeliness of their publication.
But then, that’s the culture of academia these days. People have a sense that if they’re not first to the arxiv, or if they aren’t discussing something the instant it first appears, they might as well not be doing science at all.
At some point, it would be great if everybody could take a step back, and a deep breath, and ask whether the academic science culture we have is actually healthy. That might cause somebody’s preprint to be a few minutes late, though, so I won’t be holding my breath.