The Sustainable Geoscientist – how many papers should academics really be publishing?

The Sustainable Geoscientist – how many papers should academics really be publishing?

In this guest blog post, Nick Arndt, Professor at the Institut des Sciences de la Terre, Grenoble University, reflects on the pressures on academics to publish more and more papers, and whether the current scientific output is sustainable.

Imagine a highly productive car factory. Thousands of vehicles are built and each is tested as it leaves the factory; then it is stored in an enormous parking lot, never to be driven. Science publication is going this way. It is becoming an industry that produces without reason or limit, with no consideration whatsoever of whether the product is ever consumed.

A successful scientist is now required to publish 5 or more papers per year, the pressure coming from the need to foster the H-index and boost the total number of citations. Twenty years ago, to publish a paper in Nature or Science was all very well, but nothing that special; now, according to persistent rumours, a Chinese researcher can buy a used car with his share of the reward his university receives for such a publication.

Some months ago, a geoscientist (let’s call her Tracy) saw that Earth and Planetary Science Letters (EPSL) had published over twice as many papers in 2014 (about 630) than in 1990 (about 250). She recalled that twenty years ago there was just Nature; since then the publishing house has spawned Nature Geoscience, Nature Climate Change, Nature Arabic Edition and 36 other siblings, not to mention Nature Milestones, Networks, Gateways and Databases. In 2001 Copernicus Publications launched its first highly successful open-access journal; now it publishes about 50. Each day Tracy receives an email invitation to contribute to, or edit, a newly launched publication; such as the Comprehensive Research Journal of Semi-Qualitative Geodesy, impact factor 0.313, which “provides a extraordinary podium where scientists can share their research with the global community after having traversed numerous quality checks and legitimacy criteria, none of which promises to be liberal”. An editor of one well-known biology journal now handles 4300 manuscripts per year.

The explosion in the number of new journals means there are quite enough portals for Tracy to publish her annual quota, but are these papers ever consumed? What proportion is ever read? One well-known geoscientist published 114 papers in 2014, more than two per week. Did he have time to read them?

Imagine an artisan in a Morgan car factory, carefully hand-crafting V6 Roadsters, each car taking two full weeks to finish. Some of these become collection pieces, stored and never driven. Geoscience papers are going in the same direction – the time taken to write them is far, far longer than the time dedicated to reading them.

Many of us now admit that the only time we read a paper from cover to cover is when we do a review (the equivalent of the test drive). Tracy knows from talking to others that her own papers are never read thoroughly, even those that are remarkably highly cited.

Citation report for two highly productive researchers prepared by N. Arndt using Web of Science.

Citation report for two highly productive researchers (Prepared by N. Arndt using Web of Science).

Tracy has resolved to become sustainable, which means that she will publish no more than 2 papers per year and will train no more than two PhDs during her career. By avoiding shingling and taking care with the writing, the two papers will be quite sufficient to report the results of her research (at least those that warrant publication). The fate of some of her PhD students worries her; does a thorough knowledge of Semi-Qualitative Geodesy really help Judith, who now works in a bank, or Christophe, a mountain guide? She thought that 2 PhDs would be quite sufficient, one to replace her when she retired and the other reserved for that one student who was brilliant.

The sustainable geoscientist has a very mixed opinion of the science funding industry. She applauds the measures taken to help assure that money goes to the best science, but deplores the time and effort that is consumed. She spends a third of her time writing proposals to one agency or another, knowing that the chances of success are far less than one in ten. Another large slice of time is spent reviewing the proposals of others, a exercise she suspects is futile because the final decision will be based mainly on the H-index. She looks forward to the time when her grant proposals will be judged from the content of her two publications per year, which will be read thoroughly by all members of the evaluation committee.


By Nick Arndt, Professor at the Institut des Sciences de la Terre, Grenoble University & EGU Outreach Committee Chair


Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post that expresses the opinion of its author, whose views may differ from those of the European Geosciences Union. We hope the post can serve to generate discussion and a civilised debate amongst our readers.

Introducing the new EGU logo!

New logo

As part of a long-term effort to modernise EGU’s overall look, today we are introducing a new EGU logo. You will find the new logo on all EGU websites (including General Assembly and journal websites) and social media pages, as well as in Vienna in April, at the EGU 2016 General Assembly.

The new logo retains elements of the previous one, including the circle with a tilted axis representing the Earth’s rotation axis, but the letters ‘EGU’ are larger and more easily discernible than in the old logo. When used in its simplest version (without the claim ‘European Geosciences Union’ shown above), the logo works in both large and small sizes, and is easy to view even on small-screen devices such as tablets and smartphones. We’ve also changed the EGU font. We previously used Verdana on our main website and the General Assembly page, but are now changing to Open Sans.

These changes are part of a long-term effort to make EGU’s visual identity more modern and more suitable for the increasing number of people who interact with the EGU and its products not only on paper and desktops, but also on laptops, tablets and smartphones.The next step will be to redesign the EGU website: we aim to make the page easier to navigate and suitable for desktop and mobile interfaces within the next few months to a year.

The EGU colours (blue and yellow) remain the same in the new visual identity. To find out more about EGU’s new look and view the various versions of the new logo, please check

We thank André Roquette for creating the new EGU logo and visual identity.

This post is a shorter version of a full news announcement which you can read, in full, on our website.



All you ever wanted to know about EGU publications

All you ever wanted to know about EGU publications

Did you know that, the EGU, through Copernicus Publications, publishes 17 peer-reviewed open-access journals? The journals cover a range of topics within the Earth, planetary and space sciences: with publications spanning the cryospheric sciences, soil system sciences, through to non-linear processes in geophysics, there is something for everyone. Whatever your area of research, chances are you’ll be represented within the range of EGU publications!

Better still, the EGU is a signatory of the Berlin Declaration. This means we believe that scientific literature should be publicly available and free of charge. Anyone wishing to read, download, copy, distribute, search or print research findings is able to do so without encountering any financial, legal or technical barriers. Authors of research articles are fully protected, too! They retain full copyright for their work via the Creative Commons Attribution License, which requires that full credit for any distribution of the research is given and any changes made to figures and or/data is highlighted, too.

Most EGU Publications also extend the traditional peer-review process by applying the Interactive Public Peer Review system. This means that a manuscript is subjected to two stages of review. The figure below helps to illustrate the process.

Two-stage public peer review as practised in the scientific journal Climate of the Past (CP) and its discussion forum Climate of the Past Discussions (CPD). 1. Submission; 2. Access review; 3. Technical corrections; 4. Publication as Discussion paper; 5. Comments; 6. Final response; 7.Post-discussion editor decision; 8. Revisions; 9. Peer-review completion; 10. Final revised publication.

Two-stage public peer review as practised in the scientific journal Climate of the Past (CP) and its discussion forum Climate of the Past Discussions (CPD). 1. Submission; 2. Access review; 3. Technical corrections; 4. Publication as Discussion paper; 5. Comments; 6. Final response; 7.Post-discussion editor decision; 8. Revisions; 9. Peer-review completion; 10. Final revised publication.

In the first stage, the manuscript undergoes a rapid pre-screening and is immediately published as a ‘discussion paper’, in the journal discussion forum. During the next eight weeks or so, the paper is reviewed by the referees, as well as the scientific community. Referees and other scientists can leave comments which are published alongside the paper. The referee’s comments can be anonymous, or signed, whilst the public comments are always signed. Authors can actively participate in the discussion by clarifying remarks and offering further details to those reading the discussion paper.

The second stage of review follows: if the editor is satisfied with the author’s responses to the comments, the manuscript can be accepted for publication. If the editor still has some concerns about the publication, further revisions will be carried out until a final decision is reached. If necessary, the editor may also consult referees in the same way as during the completion of a traditional peer-review process. In order to increase transparency, some journals also publish a report that documents all changes to the paper since the end of the public discussion.

The system offers advantages to the authors, referees, editors and even the reader. The publication of the ‘discussion paper’ means that research is rapidly disseminated. Added to which, the interactive peer review and discussion means that authors receive feedback directly and can participate in the discussion. The final published research undergoes a full peer-review process, in addition to comments from other scientists, assuring the quality of the research, that is published in EGU journals.

On average, it takes approximately 200 days for a manuscript to complete its journey from submission to publication. However, this time can vary from journal to journal and manuscript to manuscript. This video, produced by our publisher Copernicus, shows the review times for various EGU Journals. Not only that, the average length of time the manuscript spends at each of the stages from submission to publication is broken down, too.

Maybe next time you come to publish your research findings you’ll consider submitting your manuscript to one of the EGU journals. You can learn more about the EGU publications by following this link. To submit your manuscript, head over to the website of any of the EGU journals, and look for the author guidelines and resources for reviewers.

Some food for thought to finish off this post: Have you ever considered the global journey a manuscript goes on after it is submitted? Using an article from Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Copernicus produced a video tracking its globetrotting journey: from its birth in Norway and collaborations in eight different countries, to its editor in Switzerland and referees spanning Europe and Asia, the global impact of this manuscript is truly remarkable.

Did you know you can follow many of the EGU journals on Twitter, too? With links to useful journal information, highlight and discussion papers, the social media platform provides a quick way to keep up to speed with the journals. Please follow this link to find out which journals are on Twitter.

Do you have any questions about EGU journals that were not answered in this post? Get in touch through the comments below.


Pöschl, U.: Multi-stage open peer review: scientific evaluation integrating the strengths of traditional peer review with the virtues of transparency and self-regulation, Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, 6, 33, 1-16, doi:10.3389/fncom.2012.00033, 2012.

Open Access: Access to knowledge

“Access to knowledge is a basic human right.” Yet sadly as scientists we are often forced to operate in a framework in which this is not always the case. This week sees the celebration of the eighth Open Access Week, and whilst there have undoubtedly been many achievements by the Open Access (OA) movement since 2009, there is still a long way to go before mankind’s basic human right to knowledge is restored.

Open for business: The Open Access logo (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

Open for business: The Open Access logo (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

So why all the big fuss about OA in the first instance? If you are reading this as a layperson or as a scientist at the outset of their scientific career, then you may be surprised to find out that it costs (often large sums of) money to read online research articles. Even if these fees are not being charged to you personally, the chances are that it is costing your research institution or library thousands of pounds/euros/dollars that could otherwise be spent on research, resources, jobs, or infrastructure (as an example, in 2009, Clemson University in the US, an institute with less than 17,000 students, spent an astonishing $1.3 million on journal subscriptions to the publishing magnate Elsevier alone).

Over the past 30 years, journal prices have out priced inflation by over 250%; but it wasn’t always like this. In the past journals existed for two reasons: as an affordable option for scientists to publish their work in (as opposed to the more expensive option of personally-published books), and as a place where members of the general public and the wider scientific community could find out about the advances in science that their taxes were helping to fund. Sadly, in recent times many journals seem to have lost their way on both counts, hence the need to open it up again.

Climbing Higher: The cost of journal articles continues to rise completely out of proportion to inflation (Photo credit: Association of Research libraries)

Climbing Higher: The cost of journal articles continues to rise completely out of proportion to inflation (Photo credit: Jorge Cham/PHD Comics)

The beginning of the modern OA movement can be traced back to the 4th July 1971, when Michael Hart launched Project Gutenberg, a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works for free. However, it wasn’t until 1989 (and with the advent of the Internet) that the first digital-only, free journals were launched, amongst them Psycoloquy by Stevan Harnad and The Public-Access Computer Systems Review by Charles W. Bailey Jr.

Since then, the OA movement has grown considerably, although it is important to note that publishing articles so that they are free for all is itself not without expense. Despite the lack of print and mailing costs, there are still large infrastructure and staffing overheads that need to be taken into consideration, and so rather than make the reader pay, alternatives have to be found.

One alternative, known as the Gold route to OA, is to make the author(s) of the article pay for the right to have their research accessible by all. Many journals already require an Article Processing Charge (APC) to be paid before publication, and so some journals have simply elected to add an additional charge if the author wants to make their journal open to the general public.

The other main alternative is the Green route to OA, which involves the author placing their journal in a central repository, which is then made available to all. The journal in which the article was originally published will usually enforce an embargo period of a number of months or years that must pass before the published articles can be placed in these repositories, although this can often be circumnavigated by uploading final, ‘accepted for publication’, drafts of the article. You can read more about OA subject repositories in this article.

A sea of golden green: the availability of gold and green OA journal articles by scientific discipline in 2009 (Source: Björk, et al.).

A sea of golden green: the availability of gold and green OA journal articles by scientific discipline in 2009 (Source: Björk, et al.).

Both of these approaches to OA have their respective advantages and disadvantages, and normally research intuitions and/or funding bodies guide the route that researchers choose. The Research Councils UK (RCUK), for example, has a policy (which can be found here) that supports both the Gold and the Green routes to OA, though it has a preference for immediate access with the maximum opportunity for reuse. It is worth noting at this point that another key aim of the OA movement is that published research is free to reuse in future studies. This might seem like a fairly trivial point, but currently for any articles published in closed access journals, express permission is needed from the publishers if the results are to be used in any future studies.


Top of the food chain: the top 10 UK universities in terms of APC funding distribution (Source: RCUK).

The major barrier that still needs to be overcome with regards to OA is determining who pays for the right to free access. At the moment many governments have a centralised pot, which they allocate to their different research institutes. However, issues arise when one considers the limitations that this imposes on poorer countries, institutes, research disciplines, and independent researchers. There is also the minefield of determining who gets how much and why; my own institute, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) has only been allocated enough funds to pay for 7 academic papers a year via the Gold route to OA. When you consider that some researchers would hope to publish that many papers themselves on a yearly basis, there is clearly a disconnect. It is for these reasons that many are pushing for ‘OA 2.0’, an initiative in which articles are, in the words of EGU’s former executive secretary Arne Richter, “Free to Read, Free to Download and Free to Publish.” However, such an approach will require a major change in the modus operandi of almost all publishing companies. It is worth noting that Copernicus, who are responsible for publishing the majority of EGU’s affiliated journals are very strong proponents of the Open Access movement, and have been one of the leading lights in an otherwise murky world.

The sad truth of the matter is that many of the more traditional journals are now run as big-business, moneymaking machines, safe in the knowledge that they can get away with charging large fees, because scientists are still desperate to publish in places with a ‘high-impact’. However, if enough scientists rise up and move away from these restrictive journals, and migrate towards those with an OA policy, then the impact factors will soon follow suit (in fact, there is already strong evidence that publishing in an OA journal will result in more citations for your research). Only then can we begin to reinstate knowledge as a basic human right available to all, rather than as an expensive luxury dolled out to the privileged few who can afford it.


By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University



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