randombio.com | science commentary
Saturday, December 15, 2018

Have printed scientific journals outlived their usefulness?

Prestigious journals bias research toward fashionable dead-end topics

T here's one scientific journal out there that, for some inscrutable reason, likes me. They send me two or three articles every week to peer-review. It's an enormous burden, because it can take the better part of a day to referee a paper. The odd thing is, when I recommend acceptance they thank me. When I recommend rejection I hear crickets—and a month later they send me the same paper again, with a few misspellings corrected, saying if I don't respond within a week, they'll publish it anyway.

It's a familiar tactic to anyone who's ever served on a grand jury: the DA presents the same case over and over until the jury gets so sick of hearing it that they vote to indict. When I served on one in Maryland, the jury foreman got so tired of the same flimsy cases being presented again and again that he'd falsify the vote count just so we could go home. Being indicted for a crime in Maryland means about as much as winning an election in California. Nature magazine in wastebasket

Science isn't that corrupt yet, but the same forces are at work. Both DAs and editors gain by controlling the narrative at the expense of corrupting the system.

Writers pay scientific journals to publish their articles, typically between two and three thousand dollars per article. These costs are charged to research grants, which means the journals are virtual government agencies. It's been estimated that 1.8 million papers are published each year. That amounts to 3.6 billion dollars of tax money flowing directly to publishers, not counting the enormous fees paid by libraries. If each paper is cited three times, which is typical, it means we pay over $600 for each citation.

This model is dying. These days, articles are sent electronically. Our filing cabinets, once stuffed with articles, are now stuffed with forms sent to us by campus bureaucrats. This is a great improvement, since we can now put them in a closet somewhere, freeing up office space. (I know one guy who found the door to an electrical room unlocked one day and moved six file cabinets there.) But the idea that journals confer prestige lives on, and it distorts science.

Last year a friend of mine made a spectacular scientific discovery that answered a burning question in my field. Yet you'll never hear about it in the press because he published it in some obscure journal that even I never heard of. He reasoned that the university bureaucrats had done everything in their power to ensure that he would not succeed; and his former boss, who had not only not contributed to his research but had tried unsuccessfully to stop it, now was insisting on being a co-author.

This was all true. Bureaucrats always have some rule that lets them do whatever vindictive thing they want to do. By burying his discovery, he denied them the undeserved credit they would have claimed for “supporting” his work. He also saved himself months of aggravation. But I think it was a mistake. Faculty search committees only care about two things: the number of grants and the number of articles in “top” journals. My brief return to academia has reminded me that there are many boots waiting to be licked. When I worked for the gov't, I was surprised at how bitter visiting academics sounded when I overheard them in the cafeteria. Now I know why. Why is the journal status hierarchy harmful? Important findings may never be discovered, because researchers who lack the resources or inclination to publish in a high-profile journal are passed over for tenure or not hired at all.

Everyone knows about publish or perish, but it's no longer the whole story. These days a paper in an obscure journal is not even worth putting on your CV—in fact, it harms you. When I was searching for a research position, I started out by listing all my publications. Only after I removed most of them, leaving only the ones in so-called high-profile journals, did I start to get responses.

Search committees are so predictable that they could be replaced by a simple computer algorithm, and I some­times suspect they already have been. My guess is it's something like R01 grant = 5 points, R21 = 2 points, a Science or Nature paper = 6, Cell or Neuron = 4, satisfying “Diversity” rules = 10, and hiring the Dean's cronies = 99. We should just calculate the statistic ourselves (“Dear Committee Chair: 28!”).

This is no small thing: it biases research in favor of flashy pseudo-discoveries. It biases science toward affirmation of existing narratives and discriminates against new, alternative ideas. When I was a postdoc we called this publishing in the press, but today it's the norm. Pushing research toward fashionably wrong ideas can cost thousands of lives.

In my field, every paper in a top journal that I've read this year has claimed vastly overinflated significance, “discovery” of a finding known for decades, or both. The undeserved prominence of articles on environmental topics, which are a mere backwater in science, is another example. The most important findings are not the ones with the flashiest graphics and the coolest topics. In fact, the importance of a finding may not be known for decades.

Publishing in these magazines is also an ordeal. They keep sending your manuscript back for nitpicking changes. One time my chromatographic peak was not exactly at the right spot. I re-ran the sample, and it came out a little closer. Then they falsely accused me of just shifting the X-axis on the graph. Then they complained about something else. It took forever, and unless you have an army of assistants it's not worth the trouble. The unrestrained enthusiasm of some authors for their cool toys convinces editors the article will boost circulation, but when the hype is stripped away, the finding is . . . meh.

On more contentious issues, every article that gets published takes a position that just happens to coincide with the ideological predispositions of the editors. Contrary findings suffer an ignominious death, because researchers who reach unfashionable conclusions, or who lack the resources to publish in a high-profile journal, are passed over for tenure or not hired at all. If good science is the goal, journal prestige rankings thwart progress toward it.

What can be done? Eliminate journals altogether. Sites like ArXiv and BioRxiv are steps in that direction. Journals could survive by selecting papers they find interesting and commenting on them, but they shouldn't control who survives in science and who doesn't.

I bet that's what Nostradamus was talking about when he prophesied that something big would happen in the year 3797. But I'd hope it happens sooner.

dec 15 2018, 6:40 am. edited dec 16 2016, 3:19 am

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