Columns Opinion

Publishing your research - a trend of higher expectations

Ron Vale

I am picking the topic of publishing scientific work for my first series of blogs. There are many reasons why this is an interesting and important topic for discussion. First, for better or worse, scientific papers have become our “currency” for evaluation. Students obtain their Ph.D. based upon a publication (in most cases), postdocs get jobs based upon the papers that they publish, and faculty members are promoted (at least in many institutions) and obtain grants based upon similar metrics. Second, writing papers represents a significant learning experience for most students and postdocs. The learning comprises not just the act of writing per se, but also the bigger issues such as what information should I gather for publication and how should I present it? Third, the paper is an interesting “cultural aspect” of our profession- what type and how much information constitutes a good paper, how should a paper be evaluated (reviewed) and how does one judge the impact of the work? There are plenty of meaty issues here, some of which I will cover in later blogs.

Regarding the third point (the “cultural aspect” of papers), let me start with a historical perspective based upon my own life and experiences from a graduate student to my current position as professor. This perspective might be useful for students who are just entering and trying to understand the system. As an exercise, go to the library (for those under 25 yrs old, this is a relatively empty building filled with many books and bound copies of journals which you might be able to find on your campus). Pick up this week’s volume of Nature (2011) and scan through some issues of Nature from 30 years ago (1981) and then compare and contrast the papers. You will see a dramatic difference- this week’s issue likely has papers with 4 figures packed with multiple panels and a Supplemental section which often contains 10 supplemental multi-panel figures. Despite all of this information, details on how the experiments were performed are often scant. Now look at the “typical” 1981 paper- still 4 figures, but not as many panels. Some of the panels seem as though they are “less significant or information rich” and might go into a Supplemental section. But the web had not been invented yet so there is no on-line Supplementary Material option. What do we learn from this? Maybe science was not as good in 1981 and we learned less? However, this was certainly not the case; less crowded perhaps, but this era was not characterized by “lesser science”. Rather, what is clear is that the demands for publication have become greater over the last three decades. The scientific story has to be more complete now, or it might fall prey to reviewers’ comments of being “premature”. Experiments are easier technically to perform now than they were in 1981 (there are kits for everything now!), which has increased journal/reviewer expectation of what should be included in a paper. And the addition of supplementary material (which only the hardiest of readers explore) creates an almost unbounded reservoir of experiments that can be included to convey rigor and provide a venue to deposit data to satisfy an increasing long list of reviewer comments.

There are advantages and disadvantages in the world of scientific publishing circa 2011 versus 1981. Current demands have forced us to think harder and work harder to achieve the beautiful and complete paper. Papers of such high standards benefit science as a whole. I would argue that this situation also is advantageous to consumers of scientific literature; readers benefit from digesting one clear and complete paper, rather than having a story spread out in multiple publications, as often happened in circa 1981. However, the disadvantage is that it has become harder to complete a scientific publication. (I will address related issues such as time in the review process and journal impact factors in later blogs). The problem, in my opinion, is that institutional expectations of how many papers we are expected to publish are often not in synch with the current reality of the time required to produce a high quality paper. How many scientific papers should one produce as a graduate student, a postdoctoral fellow or a junior faculty? I will address this subject in my next blog.