Advice for Publishing (Not Perishing) in Science

On August 31, 2011 by Grad Forum

Research today relies upon a constant cycle of publications, allowing researchers to evaluate, cite, and acknowledge the work of their peers. The problem enters with the ever-increasing body of published literature, which is virtually unreadable for any individual. The solution is to decide what papers and journals to read, and whom to consider a publishing peer.

In any single research field, there is an ongoing exponential rise in publishing. In my own narrow field, I estimate there is between 10 and 50 thousand relevant papers published, and they are continuing to be published at a rate of 1-4 papers per day. Even journals of exceptional quality show steady increases in the numbers of papers published, and exponential rises in papers submitted for review. The question of who to read, who to cite and where to consider publishing is much more challenging today than it used to be.

Editors and, increasingly, reviewers are recognizing that the growth pattern seems unsustainable given that many papers are not cited. It is known that a large fraction of the scientific literature is not even read seriously by anyone other than the original authors. One piece of evidence for this is the fact that papers that receive no citations in their first few years of publication dominate most journals. Impact factors are largely a weight derived from the few papers which are highly cited in this time period. So while a few papers are read and cited, the vast majority are not getting cited and therefore are also unlikely to be read by many people.

The key to finding your niche in publishing is to identify your scientific community, and publish in journals backed by that community of researchers. Publications which do not identify with, and are not supported by a research community are not worth the attention of researchers, because it means the journal is out to make money rather than promote a research community. Young researchers or those from universities just establishing research prominence can be easily attracted to publishing in journals where the barrier to acceptance is low. Yet in a scientific world where publications come out much faster than they can possibly be read, this approach will lead to papers that are simply lost in the sea of publications.

Gradually, we are now replacing the reading of publications with the reading of summaries, using tools that extract key information from potentially relevant publications, allowing researchers to save time by predetermining if a paper is worth reading. Use of electronic search tools has now virtually replaced the old library system, and the perusal of one’s favorite journals.  It seems likely that new scientists will be awash in ‘scientific chatter’ from which they must simply adopt tools to listen in, and pick out the pertinent bits of information. Reference manager software is already allowing much of this, but online scientific search engines will also be useful, as the ability to search information and filter will become more critical. So, as publication rates increase, the evolution of a new approach to reading literature must emerge, and become a sustainable process, though vastly different from the process before it.

Finally, my advice to the scientific community is to latch onto software and tools that allow you to filter the chatter and find the hidden jewels of science, and don’t contribute to this chatter through shotgun publications. Find your scientific community and directly participate in it by publishing with their sponsored journals and attending the conferences associated with those publications!

by Brian Pogue, Dean of Graduate Studies


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