Via I-no-longer-remember-who (the tab’s been open for several days), there’s a list of What You Might Not Know About Scientific Journals, outlining some of the facts about scientific publication. There’s some good stuff, but as you can tell from my title, a lot of it is fairly specific to biomedical journals, and doesn’t really apply in my usual context of physics. For example:

The most popular articles in a journal are reviews, editorials, letters, etc. and not research papers. Consequently, journals contain more narrative reviews than genuine research. It’s what keeps them in business.

The Physical Review journals do occasionally publish letters and editorials and so on, but it’s pretty rare, and nowhere near a majority of the journal. This might be true of Science and Nature, but there are only a handful of physics papers published in those journals, so it’s not all that relevant.

There’s also a lot of highly slanted pro-open-access material, starting with:

When you submit a paper to a journal for consideration, you immediately transfer whole and sole copyrights to it. You are not permitted to share that paper outside of the research team without prior permission from the editors. Transfer of copyright to journals is pretty common and there are only a minority of fledgling journals out there that give you the luxury of retaining copyrights.

For one thing, work done by employees of the US government (say, a lab at NIST) is not subject to copyright– some older papers have this explicitly marked in the journal, though most still carry the “copyright {Publisher}” label. This also radically overstates the practical limitations on sharing the paper, at least in my experience. If this were actually true, the arxiv never would’ve gotten off the ground.

This may be the general practice in biomedical fields, which might explain why there isn’t a biomedical equivalent of the arxiv, but it’s not how things actually work in physics.

It’s worth a look, because some of the points are good, but keep in mind that this reflects a very specific point of view about publishing. Also, I found the “list of expert reviewers” stuff sort of amusing, as I was on that list when I was a lowly graduate student…


  1. #1 thomas
    August 17, 2009

    Most of it isn’t really true for biomedical journals either. Not that “biomedical” is really an ideal classification — lab biology journals are quite different from clinical journals.

    The major journals do prohibit sharing papers before publication, but the copyright assignment usually allows you to send people copies (and is usually ignored if it doesn’t). You often can’t put the paper up on an open server, but thanks to the recent NIH interventions on public access, even this is becoming more widely allowed.

    Clinical journals such as JAMA do have quite a bit of news, editorial commentaries about the main research papers they publish, and educational review material. That’s because their target is supposed to be practicing doctors, not just researchers. They also have reviews that are genuine research.

    Letters are an ambiguous case. They aren’t new research (except sometimes, when they are), but they are part of the discussion of the research. In disciplines where everyone goes to conferences this can be done more efficiently at conferences, but in the clinical world that isn’t feasible.

  2. #2 Alex
    August 17, 2009

    One big difference between biology and physics is that biologists (or at least the ones working in NIH-funded disciplines) talk non-stop about impact factor. Yes, we physicists are well aware of journal hierarchy, and certainly we’ll say good stuff about getting into a better journal, but I don’t hear as much discussion of Impact Factor as I hear from biologists.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 17, 2009

    IANAL (I Am Not A Lawyer). TINLA (This Is Not Legal Advice). My son is in 3rd year USC Law School, specializing in Intellectual Property. I served on steering committee of National Writers Union, and in touch with SFWA, MWA, Writers Guild experts on Copyright. Short answer: almost NOBODY understands copyright law as it is now, inconsistent from country to country, depending on which block of years are in question. Hence SFWA’s nuanced comment about proposed Google scanning of books. Many science journals DO ask that the author surrender copyright. But, on request from author, they almost always allow you any given reprint permission.

  4. #4 JohnV
    August 17, 2009

    I don’t know that biologists actually care about impact factor. The committees that deal with our tenure and promotions do, which can drag the rest of us in to it. And it’s not really the actual impact factor, (if you know what it means, who cares if it is 3.5 or 5.5 or 10) as much as using it as a proxy for the quality of work published in the journal.

    I know the professors who were up for tenure where I got my phd had to include the number of citations their work generated. But I can say from personal experience that reasonable work that advances the field will get cited with some frequency even if it’s not in nature/science/pnas.

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    August 17, 2009

    For one thing, work done by employees of the US government (say, a lab at NIST) is not subject to copyright

    The publisher of the leading journals acknowledges this fact; you sometimes see papers marked “This paper is not subject to U. S. copyright. Published [year] by [publisher].” However, it only applies if all co-authors are US government employees; if any co-author is not a government employee, normal copyright rules apply.

    In British Commonwealth countries there is a similar provision called Crown copyright, in which (as I understand it; IANAL and have never lived in any such country) copyright vests with the government and cannot be transferred. The above mentioned publisher also acknowledges Crown copyright.

  6. #6 WotWot
    August 17, 2009

    Narrative reviews.

    Bah, humbug. Waste of precious journal pages. Usually little more than PR puff pieces for a particular pet theory. Of no real value to working researchers and clinicians.

    Would ban them if I could. Only read them if I absolutely have to.

    I’ll stick to hard empirical data, and systematic quantitative reviews.


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