One of the complaints I’ve had about the current stewardship of the scientific literature is that we seem to be cultivating a system that rewards publication to such an extent that there is no real filter any longer on the literature (unless owning a copy of Word is viewed as a legitimate signal of brilliant scientific insight).
This leads to a prevalence of dross that not only causes specific problems for specific people (patients, policymakers, engineers, and others), it threatens to make the entire scientific publishing process a laughingstock in the public’s eye.
Why would scientists publish junk? Apparently, the current system does not penalize its publication. Conversely, it rewards productivity. In 1986, Drummond Rennie noted that nothing can deter a paper from ending in print. Since then, more papers are published each year and more authors flock to the masthead of the average manuscript. Nowadays, some authors have been co-authoring more than 100 papers annually. Some of these researchers actually published only 3 or 4 papers per year until their mid-forties and fifties. Then suddenly, they developed this agonizing writing incontinence.
The authors of the editorial also cover the role of citations in providing a bulwark against trivial findings and speck-sized ideas, but find little to support the notion that citations are providing any clear indicator of quality:
Two decades ago, only 45% of published papers indexed in the Web of Science received at least one citation within 5 years. This pattern has now changed: 88% of medical papers published in 2002 were cited by 2007. Almost anything published this year will eventually be cited.
Self-citation is a major issue in the sciences, and again, there seems to be no check to balance it out. In fact, one of the 300 most-cited authors on ISI’s Highly Cited list generated more than 90% of his citations through self-citation.
As the editorialists describe the recipe for success in today’s publishing environment:
. . . co-author more papers (salami slicing, elimination of quality checks, undeserved co-authorship and acceptance of gifts from ghosts can all help); ignore unfavourable reviewer comments; keep submitting until you find a hole in the peer-review system; self-cite; and expect random citations.
The Female Science Professor has an interesting post that touches on the same topic, but in a slightly different manner. In it, she talks about the slow sabotage of the review process at one journal, and the alternatives she then faced. The comment thread is worth reading, especially for how aware many authors already are of the problems with the incentives in the system.
And while the editors of the European Journal of Clinical Investigation can patrol their own backyard, there is a systemic issue here, one that includes publishers, authors, academic committees, information companies, and many others.
A responsibility rests on the shoulders of leaders creating incentives in scientific publishing, academic advancement, funding bodies, and authorship: If you need to resubmit your paper five times to get it published while ignoring reviewer comments throughout; if you make publication a requirement for advancement or for receiving funds before knowing if the findings are worth publishing; if you create publishing vehicles that lower the bar and drive the race to the bottom; and if you exploit rather than rectify the situation — well, there’s still time to become a responsible member of the scientific community.
I would urge you to start now.