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Publish or Perish!

Research must be made accessible for the world to benefit from the discoveries made. Research is supported by grants which are paid for through tax money by society at large and so, it is only fair that research findings are given back to the same society. Publishing research findings is also of benefit to the research community - ensuring that researchers do not unnecessarily repeat the experiments of others, thus creating a learning community that is far greater than any single laboratory. Publishing one's research has become ingrained in our scientific society to the extent that the quality of a researcher or academic is often determined from the number of publications.

Publishing one's work was not always the norm. Scientists were cautious about publishing their works in fear that other scientists would claim priority over the works. This attitude changed when Henry Oldenburg, a German theologian, diplomat and natural philosopher, became the founding editor of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society - a publication of the Royal Society and which, in 1665 became the first journal exclusively devoted to science. Oldenburg convinced the scientists of the time that their work would be rapidly published and that society would offer its support should the author's priority be questioned. Oldenburg also had the idea of ensuring the quality of the publication by sending the manuscript for review to a select group of experts prior to publication. Hence, the beginnings of the peer-review process as we know it.

Oldenburg is rightly credited as the founder of the modern-day scientific publication process.

What is the path to getting one's work published?

Once research has reached a stage which is sufficiently mature such that experimental data has been collected and analysed, a researcher will be in a position to write a paper detailing one's approach, data collection, data analysis and results. This is the research article. The researcher then has two possibilities: to submit the work to a conference or to submit the work to a journal. In general, journal papers would require works that are more mature, with greater experimentation and results, while conference papers can document works that, while still ongoing, would have reached a certain level of maturity.

Once the article is submitted to either the journal editor or the conference programme chair, these will make a preliminary decision about the paper, determining if it fits within the scope of the journal or conference and if the quality appears to be, at first glance, to the expected standard.

The editor/programme chair is then responsible to send the paper to reviewers - usually three other scientists considered experts in the field and whose role is to read the paper and assess whether the method described is sound and novel, whether conclusions drawn are reflective of the results obtained and whether results could be replicated by others. The reviewers submit their reports to the editor independently of each other.

The editor/programme chair must then decide whether the paper should be accepted for publishing. In journal submissions, authors whose articles are outright accepted may be asked to revise their article according to the reviewer recommendations and go through a second round of review, in this way, giving the authors the possibility to amend the paper to improve its quality. In conferences, where the turn-around is by nature faster, this is not possible and a paper is either accepted or rejected.

Authors must, therefore, consider whether their work has reached a maturity level worth publishing and then, the best avenue for submitting the work.

How do journals come to exist?

What is the cost of publishing?

The open access model

Publish or perish!

Is there a metric to assess publication quality?

A closer look at the peer review process

Looking ahead

Going forward, I think that it is time to re-introduce the ideal that it is the quality and not the quantity of publications that contribute value to science. It is also essential that institutions educate young researchers on the art of performing a good review such that the scientific community may benefit from a larger pool of reviewers that provide more than #sixwordpeerreview. It is also important for reviewers to demand longer time frames if this is necessary to provide a good review. Finally, in selecting journals, authors may want to consider how much the publication values open access vs the potentially doctored impact factor to ensure that research is truly accessible to all.

What are your opinions? Do share your views in the comments below.


Further reading

  1. Stephen Buranyi (2017) Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? The Guardian, 27th June, 2017.

  2. Jessica Borger (2018) Peer review has some problems – but the science community is working on it The Conversation, 12th July, 2018.

  3. Bradley Allf (2020) I published a fake paper in a 'Peer-Reviewed' journal, Undark, 26th July, 2020.

  4. Elaine Devine (2015) Why peer review needs a good going over, The Guardian, 28th October, 2015

  5. Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman (2015) Let's stop pretending peer review works, Vox, 7th December, 2015

  6. San Francisco Declaration of Research Assessment

  7. Rashmi Tandon (2016) Making and impact: Pros and cons to impact factor BiteSizeBio, 9th July, 2016

  8. Toni Feder (2021) Joanne Cohn and the email list that led to arXiv Physics Today, 8th November, 2021

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