The woes of scientific publishing

I am the EIC of a small Brazilian journal and associate editor of a large American one. I have become increasingly concerned with the mounting pressures on scientific publishing from all quarters that, in my view, are undermining the core values of the enterprise, namely, contributing to Science in general.

A capitalistic approach to scientific publishing, something that has all but destroyed the news media, now much more devoted to the spectacular than informing, corrodes everything it touches, and two posts I have seen recently seem to confirm what I think.

First of all, an associate fellow from Oxford writes about the damage done to actual science by the hype created around it: When ‘exciting’ trumps ‘honest’, traditional academic journals encourage bad science. Just a tiny nugget will give an idea: "This problem comes about because science, though mostly funded by taxpayers, is published in academic journals you have to pay to read. Like newspapers, these journals are run by private, for-profit companies. And, like newspapers, they want to publish the most interesting, attention-grabbing articles.
This is particularly true of the most prestigious journals like Science and Nature. What this means in practice is that journals don’t like to publish negative or mixed results – studies where you predicted you would find something but actually didn’t, or studies where you found a mix of conflicting results
."

Second, an interview with the chair of social anthropology at Aberdeen touches on this and several other points: Interview: Tim Ingold on the future of academic publishing. Just consider the opening statement of the interviewee: "I am very concerned, as you are, about the pressures towards standardization and uniformity that are currently being brought to bear on publication in anthropology, as in other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. There are many reasons for this, including the ever-increasing demands of research assessment, the inherently conservative tendencies of peer review, and the commercial environment of book and journal production. Perhaps, too, there have been pressures to conform to prevailing publishing protocols in the natural sciences, which continue to assume that in its formulation, methods and results, “research” is independent of the way it is written up, and which leave no room for the voice, personal experience and wisdom of the author".

I believe that this venerand form of scientific communication is under severe risk, and, by extension, so is Science itself. We — autors, researchers, editors, and even the public at large — must resist this tsunami before it is too late…

But, to end in a lighter note, Shortest-known abstract for a serious scientific paper: only 2 words.

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