Once upon a time, science journals were run by scientific societies and their editors were active scientists. Very few of these remain today. Instead, nowadays most journals are own by private, usually very large, publishing companies and their editors are “professional”. That is, their only job is to be journal editors, they are not active scientists. Most of them were active scientists earlier in their career, but left academia to become “professional” editors, usually, shortly after their postdoctoral studies. Because of this, most professional editors are much younger (no problem there) and considerably more inexperienced (hmmm… ) than the principal investigators from whom they receive manuscripts for consideration. Typically, these “youngish” editors can get advice and (one would hope) guidance from more senior editors within the same journal or publishing organization, but they are pretty much in charge of the main decisions of the manuscripts assigned to them.
I do not live in a bubble, so, in a disappointing way, I was not surprised. But it was difficult for me to keep myself from venting a remark of frustration, “O., you tell me where you are publishing your work, but you don’t tell me what the work was about, what you have discovered! Isn’t that the important thing?” Well, I did not actually make that last rhetorical question, but I should have.
Here is O.A., one of my former students, one of the promising ones, explaining his research in terms of the journals in which it is getting published, as if that were the only thing that matters in his science. Yes, he may have been trying to make an impression on his former mentor. But… where did the science go? Isn’t that what really counts? The “Journal Syndrome” has advanced to such point that the title of the journal in which the research is published becomes more important than the research itself and hence the preferred short-hand description for science output.
How did we get to this situation and can this trend be reversed? Without doubt, this is a direct product of the current addiction to Impact Factors, the mother of most curses in modern science. However, while making Impact Factors disappear would appear very difficult at this time, avoiding the Journal Syndrome should be relatively simpler. When someone asks about your research, pretend he or she is a distant relative with no inside knowledge and simply tell them what you found in as few and simple words as possible. Journal Syndrome manifests most commonly when the other person is also a scientist. In this case, you can allow yourself a bit more jargon and specifics, but the key point is always to keep the focus on your new findings. Try this next time. And if you are at the other end, as I was with my student O.A., don’t let them get away with the journal babble. Force them to tell you what they found. Hopefully, they’ll know…
“Go to PubMed and find something interesting to work on”, says the Professor.
Astonished, the newly recruited lab member becomes silent and after a few awkward minutes leaves the room, in shock.
“Go to PubMed and find something interesting to work on”. Now, we should point out that PubMed is the public repository of all scientific literature in the life sciences and biomedicine of the entire planet since the beginning of time. There are literary millions of papers in the repository. How does one find “something interesting to work on” there? Is this the best advice, the best guidance that this so-called senior scientist has to offer to his newly recruited lab member?
I could not believe when I first heard this, but it is a true story. It happened at the National University of Singapore, but the characters shall remain anonymous. There are likely people like that in most universities around the world. Group leaders out there that have no clue whatsoever of what science is about, or what is to be an inspiring mentor. How their reputations survive is a total mystery.
I have been around long enough to remember the time when there were no impact factors. (Don’t know what an impact factor is? Read HERE). We all knew that, say, Nature, was more prestigious (or sexy, hot, trendy, impactful, whatever you want…) than, say, JBC. And that JBC was better journal than many (actually many!) other (ie lower) journals. We did not need any impact factors to realise that. And of course this “intuitive” information was used to evaluate job candidates and assess tenure. A paper in Nature was very important, we all knew that, and did not need any impact factors. The problem now is that impact factors put a hard number on what earlier was an intuitive, soft process. So, now we know that not only is Nature “better” than JBC, it is actually 10.12 times “better”. And PNAS is 2.23 times “better”. That is what has generated so many problems and distortions. The temptation to use those numbers is just too high, irresistible. For the journals, for the papers in them, and for individual scientists. And the numbers change every year. When applied to individual papers this gets totally crazy. Imagine. The “value” of a given paper can be higher (or lower) this year than, say, 3 years ago when it was published. The same paper, the same data. And let’s not get started with what the impact factor has done to innovaiton and creativity. (For a good view on this, read Sydney Brenner’s interview HERE
Kirschner debunks the notion of research “impact” as the likelihood that the proposed work will have a “sustained and powerful influence”. He writes that: “Especially in fundamental research, which historically underlies the greatest innovation, the people doing the work often cannot themselves anticipate the ways in which it may bring human benefit. Thus, under the guise of an objective assessment of impact, such requirements invite exaggerated claims of the importance of the predictable outcomes—which are unlikely to be the most important ones. This is both misleading and dangerous“.
Importantly, he says that “One may be able to recognize good science as it happens, but significant science can only be viewed in the rearview mirror. To pretend otherwise distorts science.”
Everyone preoccupied about the “impact” of current and future research should read Marc Kirschner’s full piece HERE.
1. worthless nonsense
2. interesting, but perverse
3. true, but quite unimportant
4. I always said so
Kudos to Haldane for his sharp insight into the scientific process, which the passage of time has only helped to confirm.
I always said so!
Thank you for sending us your paper “Downregulation of HlpxE-mediated transcription doubles median life-span expectancy in humans”, but I am afraid we cannot offer to publish it in The Current Biologist.
We appreciate the interest in the issue you are addressing, and your results sound potentially significant for the field, but our feeling is that at this stage your paper would be better suited to a somewhat more specialised journal.
I am sorry that we cannot give you a more positive response, but thank you for your interest in The Current Biologist.
Many of us —professional scientists writing research articles— have had to confront this type of letters from journal editors. We have grown accustomed to them. A standard cut-and-paste piece of text used knee-jerkedly by editors without much thought or consideration. We file them promptly, and move on. After all, there are plenty of journals around, both general and specialized. No big deal, right?
However, the concept of “a more specialized journal” remains as elusive as ever. Admitedly, The Current Biologist is a half-invented journal, but there are still plenty like it that claim to be “generalists” and yet publish papers with titles like “Slicing-Independent RISC Activation Requires the Argonaute PAZ Domain” or “Distinct Roles of Talin and Kindlin in Regulating Integrin α5β1 Function and Trafficking” or “SUMOylation of the α-Kleisin Subunit of Cohesin Is Required for DNA Damage-Induced Cohesion“ and so forth… How about that for “specialized” knowledge?
A journal that publishes papers containing three or more abbreviations or jargon terms in their titles can not honestly claim to be a generalist. To ask their authors to submit their work to a more specialized journal is –at the very least– disrespectful to the authors who have put so much work behind a research study. Understandably, however, polite alternatives require more time and effort from journal editors. “We feel that the results presented in your manuscript lack mechanistic insights and therefore seem too preliminary for our journal” would seem like a more honest and realistic alternative. Or why not simply let them know the truth: “The topic of your study falls outside the scope of our journal”? Alas, either of these requires editors to have read the manuscript, which —sadly— is not always the case.
Perhaps it’s time to launch the “Journal of Specialized Biology” , a forum for all those research papers that —like the one above on human life-span doubling— have been deemed to too specialized for die-hard “Argonaute PAZ Domain” generalists.
PNAS: “I asked Mellman whether his move from academia to industry has brought him closer to his goal of practicing people-centered science.”
Mellman: “It gives one a deep feeling of satisfaction that you’ve actually done science that’s meaningful to people’s lives – and not just interesting, which is what one normally does in the academic realm. You can be a terrific success if you are serially interesting, and it doesn’t really matter if you’re particularly useful. Here you really have to be both.”
So there you have it. At academia, it does not matter if you are useful or not.
I have to respectfully disagree with Mellman. First of all, I am yet to find an academic scientist who does not care whether his/her discoveries have an impact on people’s lives. Second, the practical consequences of all research are always of great importance at academic institutions, particularly in biomedicine. Clinical utility of biomedical research is always looming in the guidelines of all research grants. There is no interesting biomedical research –or successful biomedical scientists for that matter— that are not useful. Coming from Yale and Rockefeller, Mellman should know this very well.
But one point of greater philosophical interest is the general concept of “usefulness” in basic research. What does Mellman mean by being useful? Intriguingly, both of the research programmes mentioned as examples of people-centered science in the interview are rooted in basic discoveries made at academic institutions. Were those original discoveries not useful? Had they never been made, there would not be any “people-centered science” for Mellman. Two good quotes come to mind here as well:
“…the shortest path to medical breakthroughs may not come from a direct attack against a specific disease. Critical medical insights frequently arise from attempts to understand fundamental mechanisms in organisms that are much easier to study than humans” — Bruce Alberts.
“Translational research is meaningless without something to translate.” “The idea that tens of thousands of scientists are sitting on secret knowledge that could be applied today, if only they were provided with the simple tools and incentives that are needed to create a start-up company, is simply absurd” — Howy Jacobs.
The utility of basic discoveries is difficult to predict and Mellman has got himself into slippery territory here. Sadly, more than a serious statement about utility in science, Mellman would simply seem to be justifying himself in front of his academic peers.
— D. Rumsfeld, 2002
The scientific literature increases exponentially with thousands of papers added daily. As the day has only 24 hours, what this means is that every time we sit down to read a paper, we have —consciously or unconsciously— decided to neglect thousands of others which we will most likely never read, ever. Agonizing as this may sound to some, it is equally inevitable. The assurance that we feel when moving a paper to our “to-read” list can be self deceptive, however, and so it is crucial that we choose which papers to read with great care. Or rather, that we carefully decide which papers not to read. In fact, better to do this consciously than as a default consequence of the limited number of hours in the day. The art of selectively ignoring sets of facts has been called “controlled neglect” and it is a crucial tactic to cope with the vast mountain of facts that keeps growing by the day.
“Would you rather earn an A or an F in a class on Ignorance?”
—S. Firestein, 2012
What is it more important, what we know or what we don’t? It has been argued that ignorance fuels innovation, and this is probably true to some degree, but ignorance is a double-edged sword. One risk is that we turn current knowledge into unknow knowns, a category that even Rumsfeld’s uncanny insight failed to foresee, opening the door to AIDS deniers, creatonists and the like. The bottom line would seem to be that scientists should forget the answers (i.e. controlled neglect, with empahsis on “controlled”) and focus instead on the questions. The problem lies in that, unlike knowledge, ignorance is unbounded. When a sphere becomes bigger, the surface area grows. Thus, as the sphere of scientific knowledge increases, so does the surface area of the unknown.
The more we know, the less we know, and so our ignorance paradoxically expands as our knowledge increases. We’ve got what we don’t have. We’ve got our ignorance, preciously infinite.