Banner
    Are There Not Enough Places For Science To Be Published?
    By Hank Campbell | October 7th 2008 04:00 AM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    There's no love lost between open access PLoS (Public Library of Science) and print journals. Nature doesn't think much of PLoS, for example, and PLoS says they created the company to make science less insular so it isn't any surprise that that a new PLoS essay by Neal Young, John Ioannidis and Omar Al-Ubaydli claims that the current system of publishing medical and scientific research provides "a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic."

    They apply shade-tree-mechanic economics principles to support their idea of the distortion. There is an "extreme imbalance," they say, between the abundance of supply (science laboratories and clinical investigations) and the limited venues for publication (journals with sufficiently high impact to be valuable to the authors - let's come back to that part later). Scientific information, they say, is an economic commodity and the 'consumers' are other scientists, patients, funding agencies, etc.

    The result of the imbalance, they note accurately, is that only a small proportion of all research studies are chosen for publication in the best journals, and these results are unrepresentative of scientists' overall work.

    They're interested primarily in biomedical research but they broaden it out and use the general term 'science' and so shall I. They argue that there is a 'moral imperative' to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated.


    Unclear on why any business has a 'moral imperative' to sell its product in a way all people like? Me either, else the cigarette business has a brilliant new marketing campaign. And what do moral imperatives have to do with science? Well, not much, but it's an essay ... in PLoS ... so scientific scrutiny is not mandated here. But it will get attention because AAAS Eurekalert will seemingly print anything PLoS throws into a press release, which may mean that science press release distribution needs fixed just as much as publishing in journals.

    They make a good point, despite the fellow traveller appeal to moral imperatives and being published as much as they want - namely that while published articles have risen in quantity, they have not kept pace with the sheer amount of data produced. This does not mean all studies are great; a few times per month we make fun of the more ridiculous peer-reviewed studies here. But journals, they say, have the luxury of only publishing true impact studies and a lot of other research gets less attention. I'll come back to that too.

    The error they seem to be making is one of methodology. They say that 'consumers' (other scientists) are somehow hurt if studies are not published in the very best journals. Since they seek to use an economic justification, I will also. It's like saying customers are hurt if they can't buy Cheerios at Niemann-Marcus, though they can buy them at Wal-Mart just fine. If studies are good, yet they don't get cited because they're not in the best journals, then it's the fault of the other researchers (the 'consumers' supposedly being hurt by not having everything in impact journals) for being elitist and shallow, not the fault of the journals.

    In true economics, a preponderance of quality research going into other journals would make the other journals the new place to be read. The market would adapt. Seattle once had good music but then Omaha had good stuff instead. The authors of this essay seem to be arguing that distribution should be nationalized so output will increase - and they think quality will not go down.

    Indeed, with so much quality research not getting published in the high impact journals, true economics says more journals will come into existence. Any time there is high demand and high supply but poor distribution a new distributor will appear. And if their economic model is true, journals are simply that - a distributor. This isn't the diamond industry, where one supplier can constrict supply artificially to keep demand high, the supply is already there.

    PLoS came into existence because they wanted to make science open access and because of the volume they publish they had a lower threshold for peer review, but two of their publications became quite well respected and the bar is now higher to get published there. Unlike Nature or other print journals, though, they have no print costs so they can literally publish everything that researchers willing to spend $2500 will send them. That isn't so easy when there is paper and ink involved.

    It also has to be considered that there is an agenda in their essay. 'Artificial scarcity' that can be solved by an online competitor to print journals is an obvious answer (PLoS) though they seem to be striving to remain neutral on other ground.

    Heck, they are so middle of the road they even manage to cover both the science and religion segments of society when they write; "Some may accept the current publication system as the ideal culmination of an evolutionary process. However, this order is hardly divinely inspired;"

    That's middle of the road, folks.

    So what say you? Is more competition for a few spots making better scientists get the best rewards? The NBA and baseball and all sports tend to think that way. Being the 26th player on a baseball team makes you really good, just not good enough to get a baseball card.

    Or are journals selling the sizzle and not the steak by just choosing the studies that get publicity and generate profitable reprint sales?

    If they are, I don't see why someone doesn't start a new journal. Scientific Blogging is doing quite nicely though no one said two years ago there was any huge demand for another science publication. So I see no reason why a new print journal publisher can't come into existence. I see no reason why it can't be us.

    Citation: Young NS, Ioannidis JPA, Al-Ubaydli O (2008) Why current publication practices may distort science. PLoS Med 5(10): e201. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050201


    Comments

    jcbradley
    Publication is certainly becoming more complicated as new options arise. Researchers can now use different tools depending on the purpose and audience. You would use a different vehicle to add a paper to your resume vs. just communicating some science quickly. I think it is important to continue the open dialogue and your article certainly does that.
    adaptivecomplexity
    Or are journals selling the sizzle and not the steak by just choosing the studies that get publicity and generate profitable reprint sales?

    You're getting to the heart of the matter here.

    I've recently polled a few faculty members who sit on hiring committees (a job search is looming in my future) on how important they think it is to publish in a high-impact factor journal. Without exception (although my sample is not random), they all said that if it's not Science or Nature, or maybe Cell, it doesn't matter to them - a paper published in Genetics, which publishes solid but not necessarily flashy stuff, is just as good (if not better) than a paper on PLoS Genetics.

    Nature and Science obviously make a trade-off - they pick stuff that seems hot, and they're willing to take a risk that something hot won't pan out. There is a place for journals like this, but only a limited place. By the time you get down to PLoS Genetics, if you're still picking for "sizzle" then you're likely to get burned more often.

    There is no shortage of good journals to publish in, but there is a glut of Science wannabees.

    In my field, there is a huge number of journals to publish in, which makes for way too many papers to follow. Go browse the table of contents of journals like Genes & Development, Molecular Cell, RNA, Nucleic Acids Research, Biochemistry, The Journal of Molecular Biology, The Journal of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology of the Cell, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Eukaryotic Cell, Genome Research, The EMBO Journal, Molecular Systems Biology, Nature Genetics, Nature Biotechnology, The Journal of Cell Biology, Current Biology, The Journal of Biology, Genome Biology, Oncogene, Bioinformatics, The Journal of the American Chemical Society, The American Journal of Human Genetics, and dozens upon dozens of more specialized journals like Cell Cycle, and you can see the volume of stuff that does get published.

    If you do good research, there is no shortage of places to publish technical papers.

    But as both you Hank and JC Bradley point out, with the web "Researchers can now use different tools depending on the purpose and audience." There is a need for that kind of thing, for communicating science to audiences other than those who read Genes & Development.

    Mike

    Mike
    jcbradley
    Mike that is a good point about how scientists think about where to publish. When I started as a faculty member I had a list of the top 10 journals in materials chemistry ranked by impact factor posted on my wall. Even there Nature and Science were in a league all their own as top 1 and 2. I would try to get into the other 8 but after that it made no difference at all. There was no talk of Open Access or blogs back then - quite a different world compared to now.
    Hatice Cullingford
    A new journal?? Yes, a new journal -- especially with a motto like "Concern for Society" -- would be revolutionary not just evolutionary. You said in the article: "So I see no reason why a new print journal publisher can't come into existence. I see no reason why it can't be us." I agree with that assessment. Just do it. You said it. Just do it.
    "PLoS came into existence because they wanted to make science open access and because of the volume they publish they had a lower threshold for peer review, but two of their publications became quite well respected and the bar is now higher to get published there".
    That's not really true. PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine have both been highly selective since they launched. Only latterly has PLoS launched an unselective volume journal, PLoS ONE. Your description better fits the BMC-series from BioMed Central (which I edit for), which has become steadily more selective over time and has launched two high-interest journals, BMC Biology and BMC Medicine. (Btw, when you talk about thresholds, the threshold should be for interest, not peer review - peer review should always be rigorous).

    "I don't see why someone doesn't start a new journal".
    But... what would this new journal actually do, besides being shiny and new?

    Hank
    But... what would this new journal actually do, besides being shiny and new?
    Well, that's a marketplace issue.     If you think about it in that light, PLoS had no reason to exist either, since BioMed Central had already existed for years and was clearly successful enough that a big publisher acquired it.

    There are multiple car companies yet all of their products have an engine, wheels and go from place to place - this does not mean a new company that arises can't be successful if their cars are better.

    Heck, every scientist should write on Blogger if only the first platform matters, but a million people a month think we are different (and maybe better) than other places.   :)
    "There are multiple car companies yet all of their products have an engine, wheels and go from place to place - this does not mean a new company that arises can't be successful if their cars are better".

    Of course new publishers launch; they launch all the time. PLoS started their journals in 2003 when the business model of BMC was not yet proven, so there was ample room for another pioneer, but the existence of PLoS and BMC doesn't preclude the entry of new OA publishers into the market. See Hindawi, for example.

    But if the sole motivation is "me too", that seems a bit empty. What are you going to call it: Yet Another Journal? And why print? Print is soooo last millennium.

    Hank
    Right, but we can't take one part of a sentence in a capsule and extrapolate it out to being bigger than it is (well, we could, but then we would be political pundits!) - my point was if lots of quality material was being left out because of space considerations then publishers are just cherry picking.    In that environment, they never have to compete for good research which means they can get it free or even charge a printing fee.    This is in defiance of the rest of media, where you have to pay people to write.   

    At the time this started, there was only one science blogging site in existence, Scienceblogs,  and that probably seemed like enough to writers there (and certainly to their parent print magazine), but in just under 2 years we have a large readership and almost no overlap in audience and no overlap in writers.  The  market was bigger than believed.  Now Nature does it, AAAS does it, everyone does it.    Are they 'me too'?  Sure, in a way, but in a better way they're creating a larger audience for our kind of writing as well.    Baseball wouldn't be popular if the Yankees were the only team.
      
    So if there is a glut of good material, as some claim, it would make sense that a group with an entrepreneurial nature and a ton of enthusiasm (like Michael Eisen and friends at PLoS) will fill that need.   

    Imagine a world where publications have to compete with each other for the best research?    That would be a great thing for researchers who might gravitate toward the names they already know at first but over time researchers would help new names rise to the top as well.
    Hatice Cullingford
    Imagine a world where publications have to compete with each other for the best research?    That would be a great thing for researchers who might gravitate toward the names they already know at first but over time researchers would help new names rise to the top as well.
    Fabulous! That seems to be happening with the Nobel Prize winners, e..g. citations. It is a trend that will expand and grow.
    adaptivecomplexity
    Yet Another Journal? And why print? Print is soooo last millennium.
    You're right; there is no reason to start another print journal. IMO, the only print journals with any justification are ones that personal subscribers are likely to read lying down on the couch - like Nature, Science, the Trends in ... journals - something that you might want to read almost cover to cover. Nobody wants to read something like the Journal of Biological Chemistry cover to cover.
    Mike
    "Imagine a world where publications have to compete with each other for the best research? That would be a great thing for researchers who might gravitate toward the names they already know at first but over time researchers would help new names rise to the top as well".
    Journals already fight each other tooth-and-nail for research papers. There are a limited number of exceptional articles out there, and establishing a new very high-impact journal isn't a walk in the park. Journal of Biology, published by BioMed Central, publishes very high impact work, but attracting suitable submissions takes a lot of work. PLoS did a fantastic job getting their high-impact journals established, in part due to a great brand (having started as an advocacy organisation) and lots of philanthropic grants and advertising, and they were helped by plenty of goodwill among researchers in the wake of the proposed Cell boycott.

    Certainly print establishes artificial constraints upon publishing: it forces articles to be too short (some Nature articles are frankly a bit of a joke); it forces authors to cut references; it forces editors to leave out articles if they don't physically fit into the issue. Shedding print liberates research publishing - editors can then decide on an interest threshold and other editorial policies independent of publishing cycles and space limitations.

    Another pressure other than print is the Impact Factor, which acts as a tyrannical power over editors and authors - authors need to publish in high-impact journals to keep their funders and departments happy, and so journals need to maintain selectivity to keep their IF up. It is due to this pressure that some work will go unpublished. PLoS ONE is one answer to this (they deliberately eschew the IF), and another is BMC Research Notes, which we launched this time last year to provide a home for short publications, case series, incremental updates to previous work, results of individual experiments and similar material that might not otherwise get published in a peer-reviewed journal. It has proven to be quite popular - by volume of articles published it is 16th out of our 199 journals over the last 12 months.

    "they never have to compete for good research which means they can get it free or even charge a printing fee".
    A difference between science publishing and 'the media' is that scientists have the imperative to 'Publish or Perish'. They do not write articles to make money directly - they need to publish to get their next grant. Their motivation is not the same as a journalist or author.