The hidden knowledge

It is becoming increasingly known to everyone that scientists are under constant pressure to publish their research work. Due to highly competitive recruitment and funding processes, publication requirements have been shifting towards high profile stories. But once scientists reach such standards, are they willing to publish smaller stories in smaller journals?

The importance of publishing in science

Science is a constant search and sharing of knowledge, supposedly in a collaborative effort. Such knowledge becomes valid once it is published. Publishing science is the researcher’s way of making their discoveries known, allowing for progress in various directions: either certain questions can be further studied in more extensive projects, or knowledge can be applied to healthcare or technology development, for example. Without a publication, it is as if such knowledge did not exist. However, publications became not only a part of the scientific process, they became mandatory to succeed in the highly competitive environment of academic research. Recruitment processes and funding opportunities rely strongly on a candidate’s publication record, which implies both a constant supply of publications, with a preference being given to publications in high impact factor journals. The importance of publications in the different career stages of a scientist has been recently discussed in another article in the EuroScientist online journal.

Such selection methods place the scientists under pressure to publish specifically in this very restricted group of high impact factor journals. These journals acquired their status after their tradition in the scientific world, and their high requirements for publication of very complete stories with novel results and scientific breakthroughs. Publishing in these journals is undoubtedly a great achievement, but it also stimulates a self-restrictive loop: scientists start to be known in their community, chances to obtain funding and to work in leading institutions are higher, leading to conditions where they can continue to develop research that will reach such standards. Now in the middle of this process, what happens to scientific observations that are not a major discovery?

Publishing high: hopefully not the only option

While some scientific projects result in big discoveries, some others do not. Many factors influence what is considered a discovery or not. The main factor might just be the question that was asked and how it was addressed. However, there are other factors we cannot ignore, such as the field, the time and money research teams are willing to invest, and even the trends of the moment. However, if projects are developed according to appropriate quality standards, they can and should result in a publication, even if smaller.

So should we care to publish the smaller stories as well? Smaller stories are as worth of publishing as the big discoveries, and there are many journals where such work can be published. In many cases, a smaller story can become a much more complete one, if researchers work in it for longer periods of time. However, such periods of time often extend the lifetime of PhD students or postdocs in the labs. With competitive postdoc fellowships of 2 to 3 years, many postdocs do not have the time to complete ambitious research projects, and they might prefer a smaller publication that can validate their years of work. Other times, since results are what we have, it can happen that they are just not as novel or exciting as initially expected. In such cases, it should still make a smaller publication. But often times I’ve heard and seen around me that when a research team starts publishing above a certain standard, it becomes difficult, or even impossible, to publish a smaller story simply because they are less desirable and prestigious.

Hidden science: consequences and solutions

Can we imagine any consequences arising from such selected publishing? Well, I would say several! First, it goes against a ground principle of science, in my opinion: knowledge that is not shared. This can lead to a more inefficient scientific process. Without scientists knowing what has already been investigated, probability says more scientists will enroll on attempting to answer those same questions. Moreover, this can lead to numerous junior researchers finishing projects without a publication, which will not only impact their motivation, but also their professional future.

There are attempts to stop this trend, such as the appearance of online platforms/journals where observations can be published and continued in case the project develops. Some journals are also opening up to the option of publishing smaller stories that can be a continuation of a previously published article from the same authors.

So is there still something we need to change? Yes, mentalities. Similarly to many other aspects in society, once certain ideas become imprinted in our collective mentality, it can be difficult to make changes. We, as a scientific community, have the responsibility to see the potential and importance of the scientific work, and not the label where it is published. For that to happen, adjustments also have to start in recruitment processes and funding agencies, as they have the power to make it visible that smaller publications are just as valuable and important. Some changes are happening already, mostly with the acceptance of open access preprints as valid publications. I do believe that once these measures are more established, scientists will be more open to less traditional forms of publishing their work.

And we? Are we ready to publish, read, share and value the smaller or simpler scientific work?

By Inês Pinheiro
Postdoctoral Fellow at Curie Institute

Featured Image credits: Knowledge by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0
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