• How journals are damaging science

    Thoughtful and provocative piece over at the Guardian”

    I am a scientist. Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives. The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best. Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational – I have followed them myself – but we do not always best serve our profession’s interests, let alone those of humanity and society.

    We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly NatureCell and Science.

    Go read the whole thing. Totally worth your time. I’m having a hard time disagreeing with the piece.


    • What’s the link to the “whole thing?”

    • Thanks for the link.

    • The article says:

      “These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.”

      Hmm. I subscribe to Science, and it’s not cheap and well worth every penny. And I don’t even read the research articles: the overview and background articles, the science-related news reports, the book reviews, and the in-depth specials make it the best general science rag around. (Nature’s just as good, but I don’t have time to read all of the good stuff in either, let alone both.)

      The original research articles make up about 1/3 the content. The references in the other articles (which include very few references to Science itself), make it clear that Science doesn’t intend to be, nor thinks it is, the last word in scientific research; they are quite aware that most of the real work happens (i.e. is published) elsewhere. Also, they go out of their way to find people who disagree with any claim being reported on.

      The article says:

      “Perhaps worse, it has not retracted claims that a microbe is able to use arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorus, despite overwhelming scientific criticism.”

      Huh? That’s not the way things work. Science doesn’t make or retract claims. It publishes papers and then letters criticizing those papers. If it appears a paper really doesn’t stand, it asks the author to retract it, and only retracts papers itself in rare/extreme cases.

      Whatever, bashing Science and Nature seems to have become a stylish sport of late. The linguistics blog “Language Log” has had multiple bash Science articles of late, but there was also a post recently with lavish praise for an article that appeared in Science, and they didn’t notice that there was a problem. Go figure.