Too Much of a Good Thing

In most of life, less really is more. Thatís a lesson my long-winded self needs to take to heart.

A lot of systems in our culture work against people who attempt to apply that maxim in their lives, though. As a graduate student in Physical Chemistry, I watched the publish-or-perish system in action, and it definitely encourages quantity over quality. Thatís one reason I ran from Academia straight into the arms of Industry (although the money and relative lack of pathological personalities didnít hurt, either).

The Academic system forces younger professors to crank out research at a tremendous rate in order to keep on the tenure track, and in order to keep the grant money flowing. Some older professors like to boost their egos with thirty page publication lists. There was one guy in our department who had come out of the US National Labs system, who was one of the most cited people in his field. He had a few really good papers that deserved attention, but mostly he achieved his hallowed citation status by publishing every time his graduate students sneezed into a detector. Derek Lowe had a comment about this type of behavior not long ago:

Even famous scientists have fallen into this trap, and I would like to adduce the late H. C. Brown as a shining example. Who, during the 1970s and 80s, did not groan on seeing yet another paper from Professor Brown? Variation after variation on his boron reagents poured forth, each with slightly different characteristics and reactivity, later superseded by other variations in the endless series. And the thing is, there are a number of real advances in there – the man didn’t get the Nobel for nothing. But there’s an awful lot of work that has, to put it kindly, not stood the test of time. Not everything he and his group did was worth being published.

Tenure committees started getting wise to this, however, and thus was born the Impact Factor. The theory is simple: one publication in Science or Nature is worth a heck of a lot of publications in The Polish Journal of Chemistry. However, even within the pages of Science and Nature, not every article is of equal value, and this was born the Y factor. These measures have take some of the wind out of the sails of those who over-publish, but progress is slow Ė scientists are no less immune to social inertia than other segments of society.

The most prestigious journals tend to be cheaper, and published by non-profit organizations (with the notable exception of Nature) such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association or the American Chemical Society. There is only so much time a part-time editorial board can devote to publications without damaging their scientific reputation, however, so the work of publishing the less prestigious stuff is farmed out to for-profits. The for-profits have a quasi-monopoly in certain fields. Although barriers to entry in publishing are not that high, and are now even lower in the information age, there is a certain gravitas associated with publishing in a journal with a long print history.

Elsevierís marketing tactics have angered so many scientists that the barriers to entry may be dropping, however. Derek had a good smack-down on Elsevier and itís Impact Factor marketing recently:

But my favorite blurb is this one: “Heterocycles: WAS 1.064. NOW 1.070”. Well, all right, then, spread the news! The impact factor for Heterocycles has moved up in the third decimal place! What, did three more people cite papers from it in 2005? Look, Elsevier knows the truth as well as anyone else: Heterocycles is just not a good journal. But then, it never has been. Back in the 1970s and 80s, it came directly from Japan on expensive glossy paper stock, which along with the sleek black cover made a distinctly weird impression on those infrequent occasions when you actually looked inside a copy. The paper completely outclassed that stuff that was printed on it. Most of the articles could have been titled “Not Particularly Surprising Rearrangements of Bicyclic Imidazo Compounds That No One Cares About”. I have seen no evidence that makes me think that the situation has improved.

Derek is pretty mild in his criticism compared to some. I always found the more extreme examples of Elsevier-bashing a bit hypocritical, though. Professors who want to pad the publication list should pay more for the privilege than they do for getting an important piece of research into Science or Nature. Those big name journals take care of the really important scientific news that most of the scientific community cares about, and we pay for that through our dues to the organizations. But lower-tier journals remind me of the private security firm where I work. My company has trade secrets that we wish to keep secret. Our hired security firm sees that this is so. We do not demand that taxpayer funded police forces also man our front gate. We have an extra need that we think is important, but that the rest of society is a reluctant to fund right now (youíll tell us if you think our efforts were worthwhile when given the chance to buy our products). So we pay extra for extra resources. In the same way, a professor wishing to publish a paper on “Not Particularly Surprising Rearrangements of Bicyclic Imidazo Compounds That No One Cares About” is using resources and time (reviewersí, editorsí etc) to tell the rest of us about results that amount to the scientific equivalent of a gossip column. Everyone reads Science and Nature (or at least pretends to). The Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry? Not so much. Advertising rates are a lot lower in the latter. But publishing costs are roughly the same for both.

So, would less be more in this case? I donít know. I know that when I wade through the literature in my field, the journal signals quality, and unless Iím hunting for a specific experimental method, I donít delve into the lower tiers. Providing experimental details is the primary useful function of lower tier journals in my opinion, but with the advent of online archives and supplements for the majors, my thinking on this might change.

The Internet is now providing an outlet for the frustrations of Academics fed up with the high cost of publishing articles in lower-tier journals. Iím really curious to see how the online alternative journal revolution fomented by some economists, computer scientists and mathematicians is going to turn out. One or two really famous Academics on an editorial board can lend instant weight and prestige to an online journal. On the other hand, I can see rival academic camps founding their own journals, and some of these electronic offerings might turn out to be nothing more than echo chambers. A number of online journals will serve as graduate student outlets, as do some lower tier print journals. And thatís a good thing, but itís not a body of literature Iím going to read regularly at this point in my career. Iím most curious to see which journals survive the winnowing that will surely come after an initial dot com type of boom. Will they morph into for-profits and rival Elsevier? Or will they remain true to their open-source roots?

5 thoughts on “Too Much of a Good Thing”

  1. Some time ago, I read an article describing just how far this had gone in medical research. After two authors, adding more authors to a paper is costless to the other authors. (For one author, the citation will be to Smith, for two, Smith and Jones, and for three or more, Smith, et. al.)

    As a consequence, everyone who was in the building when the research was done might have their names added to the author list. This had some amusing results from time to time. Some researchers became “authors” of papers they had never even read. Others became “authors” of separate papers that came to opposite conclusions.

    Not sure just what the solution is to this problem, though eliminating tenure (something I favor for other reasons) might be a good first step.

    (And paying more attention to the problems caused by those “pathological personalities” might help, too.)

  2. Jim – have you seen the author lists on the supercollider papers? Some of them approach 100 names. I think that the janitor slipped his name into one or two of them.

  3. John – I recently saw a high energy physics paper with over 1,600 authors. Take a look here. The very first paper I just downloaded had more than 200 authors.

  4. Another factor: In some disciplines (say, linguistics) books are rare and articles are important; in others (say history) books are more common. Within a discipline scholars know these differences, but sometimes it affects understanding (you can “know” things but can’t help bringing your own discipline’s assumptions with you) at the dean level.

    Obviously, the publish/perish has encouraged relatively superficial scholarship in more cases than most would like to admit. It has also led many to devalue teaching.

  5. Ginny – this piece was meant to cover only the experimental “hard” sciences. I was a double major in Slavic Linguistics for a while, and I do marketing for a living now, so I had no pretense of making this applicable beyond physics, chemistry, biology, and a few other disciplines. I’d be interested to hear a historian’s or a linguist’s take on this.

    Scholarship is a different beast than research, and books are more important to scholars than to researchers. By the time a monograph hits the press in my field, it’s already out of date.

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