Friday, 14 August 2009

a threat to scientific communication

Once again, I am getting spammed by Nature — this time it is an email with a modest subject “Impact Factor confirms Nature is top research journal”. It informs me that its Impact Factor is 31.434 now. The reason they bother to send me this?
To celebrate we are offering you an exclusive 30% discount if you
subscribe to Nature this week.
No thank you. I just read a brilliant review by Zoë Corbyn in Times Higher Education. Featuring opinions of scientists such as Peter Lawrence, Peter Murray-Rust, and Sir John Sulston, it is a wonderful read.
Noting that the medical journal articles that get the most citations are studies of randomised trials from rich countries, he <Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet> speculates that if The Lancet published more work from Africa, its impact factor would go down.

“The incentive for me is to cut off completely parts of the world that have the biggest health challenges ... citations create a racist culture in journals’ decision-making and embody a system that is only about us (in the developed world).”
Horton believes the real crisis facing journals, and in particular the top health titles, is in defining the “purpose” of their role. While journals founded 300-odd years ago had an explicit mission, which was to “use knowledge to change society for the better”, today’s journals have “lost their moral compass”, he contends.
So, is it just the publishers to blame for the present situation? What about scientists themselves?
Unfortunately, say observers, there is no incentive for people on the inside to change things. The scientists who have learnt to play the “complicated game” of getting their papers into the top journals are reluctant to ditch it because they fear losing out.
Can anything be done by ‘ordinary’ scientists (i.e. those who do all the real work)? Yes!
A small but growing number of scientists are simply ignoring journals and putting their work on web pages and blogs, where there is no limit on the length of articles, raw data can be published with ease and peer review can take shape through discussions and comments.
Top universities, working together, could force the reform of copyright laws, Murray-Rust believes, but, given their inaction, he thinks that a better answer might be “civil disobedience on a mass scale”.

He envisages scientists focusing on one or two areas, such as medicine and climate change, where there are strong moral grounds for allowing science in journals to be reproduced — and “sticking the whole bloody lot” on their websites.
Even if you think you know all this (as I thought), read it.

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