Journal articles in the life sciences: expanding publication to improve recognition

By Ronin Research Scholar Heather Maughan

Journal articles are aplenty these days (at least in the life sciences). I can never keep up with my “to read” list. Twenty years ago when I was a graduate student I managed to thoroughly read tens of papers each week, and could keep up on what was being published through monthly journal table of contents e-alerts. Now I struggle to read a few papers each week (not counting the papers I edit through my work as a freelance editor) and can not quite keep up on current literature by receiving Google Scholar alerts on numerous topics. 

What has changed in the last 20 years? My lifestyle is certainly different now: I have dependents and hobbies so I have less time to spend reading papers. But it also seems like there are just too many papers. Indeed, Science recently reported that over 530,000 articles or preprints were released since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, according to one analysis, papers now have an increased number of figures, figure panels, and/or tables. So not only are there more papers to read, those papers are getting larger or more complex. 

We can’t stop publishing papers, but writing and reading text may not always be the most efficient way to communicate scientific or other achievements. In some cases traditional journal articles can work well. But in other cases, different forms of communication may be more efficient…

Continually drowning in unread papers got me thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of publishing papers. (In this vein, I am thinking of papers in the mostly traditional life sciences sense: one or more authors create a written account of their research and results, along with figures and/or tables and a bibliography. This written account is submitted as a preprint to a server and/or to a peer-reviewed journal for publication.) Here are some advantages and disadvantages of publishing in this format. I’d be happy to learn what Ronin Research Scholars and other readers think should be added to (or removed from) these lists.

Advantages:

  1. Papers are useful for sharing results and hypotheses/conclusions with other scientists. We like to tell others about our exciting results and discuss conundrums.
  2. Papers serve as a metric for productivity. Though this can be problematic, there is no doubt funding agencies and university committees rely on the number of publications to estimate each scientist’s output.  
  3. Publishing papers has become more accessible for scientists in lower income countries. For example, the rate of increase in the number of publications between 2008 and 2018 was higher in lower income countries than in the USA or other high-income countries.

Disadvantages:

  1. Writing, submitting, and resubmitting papers for publication is a lot of work, particularly for early career researchers. We don’t always learn good writing or editing skills in our training so dealing with papers, and the resubmission process, can be frustrating.
  2. Because scientists review others’ papers in their own field, more papers means more reviewing, which is unpaid time-consuming work that usually goes unrecognized. 
  3. If there are too many papers, most of them will never be read or cited. As former Ecology Letters Editor-in-Chief Michael Hochberg discusses on his blog, many or most papers will not be cited, which he suggests contributes to science becoming disposable. 

Considering these lists, recently I’ve been thinking of how we can reconcile our need to publish and announce achievements while not getting bogged down with the overwhelming number of papers being published. We can’t stop publishing papers, but I think we need to consider that writing and reading text may not always be the most efficient way to communicate scientific or other achievements*. In some cases, where there are clear stories to be told, traditional journal articles can work well. But in other cases, different forms of communication may be more efficient for both producers and consumers. For example, I often think about graphical abstracts and how they might eventually be extended to replace full content papers. Many readers are naturally oriented towards the figures and, instead of reading the text, examine figures and data tables to understand the science. Publication artifacts such as computer code, raw data, single observations, among others, also deserve recognition and could be incorporated into a broader definition of publication. I’m certainly not the first scientist to suggest this; indeed, PLOS has initiated discussions on how to best recognize research contributions.  

Furthermore, in many fields outside of the sciences, achievements cannot be shared in the traditional paper format. For example, art exhibits, presentations, illustrations, et cetera. Is there a good way to document these achievements to give each of them equal weight in the eyes of productivity evaluators? Really the goal is to stay abreast of what others in our field are doing in an unbiased way, through a medium that is not excessively time-consuming or overwhelming.  And to show others how much we’ve accomplished during our scholarly pursuits. 

*Moving forward with ideas to showcase our productivity, Ronin Scholars can share their achievements on the “#achievement_announcements” Slack channel. 

Featured image source

Heather Maughan is a microbiologist, Ronin Research Scholar, and freelance writer & editor. She lives on a small farm in Ontario. 

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

2 Comments

  1. In some of the areas that interest me, the number of papers published per year is ever-increasing, but many of them contain little that’s new or exciting. A typical lab publishes several papers every year, but much of each paper is a rehash of earlier papers, and what isn’t a rehash is often a very slight advance. To anyone trying to keep up with an area, this repetitiveness is a tiresome nuisance, one that has gotten worse over the years I’ve been observing and coping with it. I frequently wish people would publish fewer and better papers, as I try to do myself.

    But of course, they can’t, not if they’re academics, especially junior ones. Publication inflation is a predictable consequence of hypercompetition for jobs, grants, and, in general, professional survival – the academic Hunger Games, as our fellow Ronin Scholar Alex Lancaster put it in his opening remarks to the IGDORE/Ronin Institute conference earlier this week. Want an interview for a faculty job at a name-brand (or even not-so-name-brand) university, let alone an offer of one, or tenure? Then you’d better have publications – the more, the better. Hence the glut of “minimum viable papers”.

    Naturally, it’s also important to publish in the most “prestigious” venues you can, but that too is a numbers game, to a remarkable degree. In my experience, both as an author and as a reviewer, reviewing is disturbingly erratic and perspectival (to put it politely). Accordingly, your best chance of getting into “prestige” journals may well be to pelt them with manuscript after manuscript. This game, where more or less the same manuscript gets submitted to journal after journal, starting at “the top” and working its way down “the ladder” until it gets in somewhere, wastes enormous amounts of academics’ time.

  2. Heather Maughan

    Hi Ralph,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree that, in many ways, academic publishing has become a Hunger Game and there is little that many of us can do about it as we scramble to survive professionally. This is partly why I think that changing the nature/format of publication can relieve some of the burden of writers and readers. I think it is key to find a format that takes less time to produce and consume, but that we could still count/list as an accomplishment.

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