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There is but one journal: the scientific literature

Posted by plosmedicine on 31 Mar 2009 at 00:31 GMT

Author: Richard Gordon
Position: Professor
Institution: Department of Radiology, University of Manitoba
Additional Authors: Bryan J. Poulin, Professor, Faculty of Business Administration, Lakehead University
Submitted Date: October 13, 2008
Published Date: October 15, 2008
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

We agree that the concept of excellence in science has led to a positive feedback mechanism[1,2] that not only biases the direction of science[3] but can also lead to mass delusions[4]. The very notion of paradigmatic versus paradigm changing research[5] suggests that the former is necessarily done by herds[3] of scientists. Nevetheless, we think that Young, Ioannidis & Al-Ubaydli[3] may have missed the underlying cause of the pecking order amongst journals and scientists. It is not prestige that scientists need first and foremost but rather funds to initiate and continue their work. It is the grant system that the "'winner-take-all' reward structure"[3] permeates. As grant "success" rates plummet, this system is driving towards more money for fewer scientists, the latter then determining which scientists and journals are "excellent"[2].

Fortunately, the great search engines of PubMed, ISI and Google Scholar, amongst others, have leveled the playing field in scientific publication. There is a revolution about in open publishing, open reviewing, and posting of un-refereed preprints. The use of paper is passing as an older generation who required tactile evidence of scholarly work dies off. Digital scanning of journals and books reaches ever further back into the history of science, making the past equally present. With perhaps 20,000 academic journals to choose from[6], many of whom compete with one another by soliciting papers, any competent scientist can get published. Frankly, when downloading a paper, we pay more attention to the contents than the name of the journal, which has become incidental. "Artificial scarcity"[3] is a frame of mind. The result of all these technologies and attitudes is that we are rapidly approaching the concept that there is but one journal: the scientific literature.

We thus respectfully disagree that anything has to be done for the "problem" of scientific publication[3]. The underlying problem is rather one of maximizing innovation, rather than suppressing it, as is current grant funding practice, to which the authors' statement most applies:

"Science is subject to great uncertainty: we cannot be confident now which efforts will ultimately yield worthwhile achievements. However, the current system abdicates to a small number of intermediates an authoritative prescience to anticipate a highly unpredictable future"[3].

This is where the basic distortion of science occurs: when an individual scientist with a new idea has to expose it to the scrutiny of "intermediary" peers before having the money to test it and believe it or not themselves. The simple cure for this is no-questions-asked baseline funding, perhaps proportional to average salary, recognizing that society has already made a huge investment of trust and money in scientists via their education, hiring, promotion and tenure[2].

1. Poulin BJ, Gordon R (2001) How to organize science funding: the new Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), an opportunity to vastly increase innovation. Canadian Public Policy 27: 95-112.
2. Gordon R, Poulin BJ (2008) Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance: in press.
3. Young NS, Ioannidis JP, Al-Ubaydli O (2008) Why current publication practices may distort science. PLoS Med 5: e201.
4. Gratzer WB (2000) The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception, and Human Frailty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
5. Kuhn TS (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
6. Mabe M, Amin M (2001) Growth dynamics of scholarly and scientific journals. Scientometrics 51: 147-162.

No competing interests declared.