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.
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.