The growing dilemma with the biological/biomedical publication enterprise

Part 1: The growing dilemma with the biological/biomedical publication enterprise

Considerable emphasis is routinely placed on the critical importance of frequent publication in peer-reviewed journals; preferably those with high impact (i.e., those journals with high Impact Factors). Yet, at the same time, and for a multitude of reasons, achievement of this goal has become increasingly challenging for most would-be authors. In a recent publication in P.N.A.S., R.D. Vale has presented a detailed analysis of key changes in biological/biomedical publications over the last thirty years. (“Accelerating Scientific Publication in Biology”, P.N.A.S. 2015; 112, 13,439-13,446, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1511912112) He has identified some disturbing trends in the characteristics of the publication process, none of which bode particularly well for investigators in these disciplines. This is especially true for those scientists at the early stages of their professional careers. Among the key changes are significant increases in the body of evidence required of authors for acceptance by peer-reviewed journals. Dr. Vale presents strong evidence for support of this conclusion by showing that there are significant increases in the total average number of panels of data in 2013 for both Cell and Nature (biology only) relative to 1985. Thus, the “top” journals are increasingly requiring more data to support an author’s conclusions. Moreover, the so-called “lesser (impact)” journals are following suit in order to move into a position of increased stature. This, in turn, requires more and more time for authors to meet reviewers’ (and, accordingly, journal editors) demands prior to acceptance for publication.

The consequence of all of this is that there is a correspondingly correlative increase in time for a graduate student to publish his/her first first-author publication. This is important since having such an accomplishment is usually required for progressive advancement of a future biological/biomedical scientist’s career. In fact, as Dr. Vale argues, the time now required for such a publication is usually of the order of the average time required for a graduate student to complete a terminal degree. This translates into many graduate students being awarded their degree before publication of a first author publication. This, in turn, presents its own problems for that student in obtaining a quality post-doctoral position or appropriate employment. Very similar problems are frequently encountered by post-doctoral fellows in obtaining suitable employment after completion of post-doctoral training and being competitive for grant support. Notwithstanding the enormous pressure placed on authors to publish in the high impact journals, the increase in time to publish and its impact on scientific careers also results in delayed access to new knowledge, the very reason for scientific publication in the first place.

In a future post, we will discuss Dr. Vale’s projection of today’s publication practices from the perspective of important scientific discoveries sixty years ago and his proposed potential solution to this problem.