Columns Opinion

Holistic science sans impact factor

Subhash Chandra Lakhotia

Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, is a common name in India because of his Indian origin. As part of my desire to impress upon our educators to provide a holistic training in Science to our B.Sc. and M.Sc. students and to encourage the students to prepare themselves for gaining knowledge of a wider canvas, I have myself often cited Dr. Ramakrishnan’s example to illustrate the benefits of such a holistic learning since he was primarily trained in Physics, worked on a biological problem and finally got a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I hope that the controllers of our highly compartmentalized education system as existing today in most universities and colleges would indeed find this example motivating enough to really make the required changes in rules as well as curricula rather than simply go on endlessly facilitating the great scientist that Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is.

With a view to learn more about his background and his science, I read the biographical note at the Nobel Foundation web-site and was struck with the way he moved in his career. However, the most striking part was Dr. Ramakrishnan’s following observation about the MRC as he moved there from the US: I found that almost nobody there was working on routine problems just because they would lead to publishable results. Rather, they were trying to ask the most interesting questions in their field and then developing ways to address them. The other lesson was that even very famous scientists would ask questions at seminars that were often trivial to people in the field.”

This observation about the atmosphere at the MRC struck me since it resonated with my own thoughts that I had alluded to in a letter to editor of Bioessasys (Nature of methods in science: technology driven science versus science driven technology. BIOESSAYS 31 (2009): 1370 – 1371). Most of us today seem to be doing research in currently fashionable” areas to publish papers in the so-called high-impact” journals! In this age of impact factor, H‑index and similar other complex scientiometric parameters that judge our scientific caliber, the real pleasure of doing research for its own sake is nearly lost. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find instances where novel research strategy was designed to address a specific question.

Are we not depriving ourselves of the challenges and the resulting real pleasure when the challenge is met? Is impact factor of the journal the sole parameter that lets the peers know about significance of one’s work?