Tuesday, October 9, 2007

What would you do if you could publish only 20 papers throughout your career?


There are researchers who think that something is seriously
wrong with the way science is published.
Some complain about power: “Editors of ‘high-profile’
journals have too much power over scientists, because their
decisions profoundly affect one’s chances to get a grant/job/
tenure.” However, with a number of excellent journals to
choose from, an important paper should find a good home
in one of them, despite any poor editorial decisions from the
others. Besides, high-profile status is ultimately conferred to
a journal by the community, and publications that don’t do
a good job of filtering scientific information (an important
raison d’etre for professional editors) do pay the price.
Others complain about money: “Publishing firms make a
fortune selling back to universities the papers that scientists
produce.” The open-access movement stems at least in part
from this complaint. So much ink has been spilled over this
argument that it is hard to say anything new. Instead, let’s
acknowledge that if there are so many journals on the market,
it’s because of the tendency of authors to submit very incremental
papers—what one could call ‘minimal publishable
units’. There are as many scientists who ‘slice the salami’ as
thin as possible as there are specialized journals willing to
publish their work.
It’s certainly possible to argue that the proliferation of papers
also results from an explosion of research disciplines, each of
which needs its own set of journals, and from the need the community
has for the independent replication of published results.
One could also say that trainees need papers to advance to the
next stage of their careers and that researchers need papers to
show funding agencies where their money has been going.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s agree that there are
problems about cost and power in scientific publishing that
need to be fixed. So, here’s a bold proposal to reduce both the
number of publications that your library has to pay for and
the influence of editors on what is granted visibility in highprofile
journals—let’s set a limit on the number of papers that
scientists can publish during their careers.
These are the basic rules: whenever you get your first academic
job (that is, the first lab of your own), you get 20 tickets.
Ticket scalpers
What would you do if you could publish only 20 papers throughout your career?
Every time you publish a paper, you hand over one of them.
Once you run out of tickets, your publishing days are over. As
simple as that.
If we adopted this model, many articles reporting incremental
advances would no longer be written, and many specialized
journals would disappear. And with far fewer papers to read,
each one reporting a much more complete piece of research,
search committees or funding bodies could directly evaluate
the work of a given scientist, instead of (as is often the case)
leaning on surrogate indicators such as a journal’s impact factor
or number of citations.
At the extreme, we might not even need journals (and editors)
anymore; everything would be published in preprint
servers like those used by physicists, and the community
would simply evaluate and rank the different contributions
as they become available. This way, the whole community could
act as reviewers, doing away with the existing peer-review process.
This is somewhat reminiscent of what some websites are
already trying to do, so far with limited success. But if everybody
agreed to publish just 20 papers to keep the size of the
literature manageable, then the journal of the future might
conceivably be a preprint server.
As this model is adopted, it will certainly need some tweaking.
Maybe a particularly seminal paper would be exempt from
ticket usage. Would review articles require a ticket? Maybe a
much coveted award could come with half an extra ticket,
and a very competitive postdoctoral fellowship could get you
one-fourth of a ticket. If you collaborate with another lab, you
could be sole senior author of a paper at the expense of one
ticket or, alternatively, ‘split the bill’ with your collaborator.
Authors of fraudulent papers could be penalized by taking away
from them, say, three tickets. Maybe we would even see the birth
of a new class of ticket scalper and the production of counterfeit
tickets. And if you are one of those extraordinarily persuasive
scientists, you can always try to convince another researcher to
give you one of their tickets so you can publish another influential
piece of work.
The key question is: if you are unhappy with scientific publishing,
would you agree to the 20-paper limit?

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