Peak publications? (Part 1)

By Henrik von Wehrden

Part 1

Science demands communicating though publications. However, if you take a closer at current trends in publications, you might wonder how much longer the number of publications can increase. Every modern scientist has a computer at hand and thus can write a manuscript, and the world wide web has not only revolutionized our ways of exchanging information, but also the whole world of scientific publication. Yet, the rising number of publications makes me wonder whether we are currently generating something comparable to the world economic crisis we witnessed in 2008. Then, nobody stopped a likewise rising madness (in economic activity) until disaster hit, until all of a sudden, stocks held in high esteem were worth nothing. Will this happen to our publication records as well, soon? Will our “impact”-driven publication bubble burst?

Ok, maybe not. But I’m guessing that most of us agree that some details about the current peer-review process are not quite working out. We get more and more papers, and journals are often at the limit of what they can handle, or already way beyond it. We need to streamline publication processing, and we need to focus on science, and nothing else (i.e. more substance, less gloss). We need new creative concepts to overcome the problems (and ‘madness’) of the current publication spiral. In the long run this may lead to fewer but more valid publications. This should allow us to regain control over the inflation of publications that we currently witness. I am not experienced enough to offer the concrete solutions for all problems related to this, but in the following, I offer some thoughts that have crossed my mind. I hope this may trigger discussion, if only on a small scale, which might bring us all forward.

1)     There are often quite a lot of authors on one paper.

Modern research quite frequently demands complex cooperation. This increases the numbers of authors often to uncountable numbers. The author list of an important opinion paper may read like a “who’s who” on the given topic, and core papers from large project may have a title and the author list covering the entire first page. Still, one might wonder if all authors always know what is actually going on within a given manuscript. From my own experience I know that it is difficult to meet the demands of multiple co-authors, and before one has the re-do the analyses for the 10th time it might be easier to take the acceptance of the co-authors for granted (who are usually too busy anyway). All journals demand authors agreeing on the last version. But where to draw the line? Some journals discourage authorship, if all a person did was to raise the funding for the work. The interesting detail is that of course everybody tries to maximize the impact, so maybe some folks deal each other co-authorships – I’ll rub your back if you rub mine. How could we solve this? Some journals demand a detailed listing of how each author contributed (e.g. PNAS); which I would say should be mandatory. Still, I would even go one step further (thereby crossing into the world of fiction…?). How about editors checking the accuracy of the author statement? I know this is Orwellian, but editors could call authors in case of doubts, or at random (lets say in 1 % of authors), and if authors cannot explain their role in the manuscript promptly, this should be cause for concern. I know it’s a though suggestion, yet we should put an end to this. I know a decent modeler who got 30 papers in one year, and I can kind of figure he knows each one by heart, and really contributed to the text  (although I do not know how he is doing it). On the other hand do I know several instances where co-authors did not contribute at all. We should filter this, since it biased the way scientists are evaluated.

Also, we need to consider not only how many authors contributed to a paper, but also where they are situated in the co-author order. PhD students usually have only a few papers, yet are often first authors. Post-Docs have an increasing amount of papers, yet are often co-author and sometimes senior author. Full professors have an exploding amount of papers, out of which they are usually the ‘last’ author if they have a lot of projects, or co-author, if they network a lot. If we could capture these details in numbers, we could evaluate the work of scientists much better, I believe.

….to be continued

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One thought on “Peak publications? (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Happy birthday to our blog: One year of “Ideas4Sustainability” | Ideas for Sustainability

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