A comical caricature on a popular website raises a serious and important discussion about the flaws of the method that pushes scientists to publish more and more articles
A comical caricature published recently by the popular comic network XKCD went viral and reignited the ongoing debate surrounding the essence of scientific articles. Illustrated by Randle Munrow, the artwork titled “Types of Scientific Paper” humorously captured the essence of typical article introductions, through a series of witty opening sentences. Some examples include: “Check out this weird thing one of us saw while out for a walk”; “We figured out how to make this exotic material, so email us if you need some”; “Some thoughts on how everyone else is bad at research”: or “We are 500 scientists and here’s what we’ve been up to for the last 10 years''.
Caricature | Source: xkcd.com
Beyond the comedic value of the caricature, its creator has touched upon one of the most pressing concerns of contemporary science - the gap between the sheer number of published scientific articles and their overall quality, driven by researchers' relentless race to increase their publication count for the purpose of career advancement.
The Pressure to Publish
An article published in the monthly American newsletter “Atlantic” focused on the central issue highlighted by the cartoon. Scientists today are assessed largely by the number of their contributions to scientific journals. The articles that get published impact their prospects of securing an academic position, dictate the pace of their progress toward receiving tenure or achieving professorial status within their respective institutions, and significantly affect their chances of obtaining research funding.
Research institutions employ complex equations to evaluate the quality of every scientist, taking into consideration factors such as the number of publications, the prestige of the publishing journal, the number of citations by other researchers, and other similar metrics. Hence, researchers across all research fields face constant pressure to publish an ever-increasing number of articles. This phenomenon has become so pervasive that it has acquired its own nickname: “Publish or Perish”.
This situation has resulted in an extraordinary surge in the number of scientific articles published in scientific journals across all research fields in recent decades. For example, one study found that the number of scientific journals worldwide increased from around 60,000 in the year 1950, to a staggering one million by the year 2000. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the surge in the number of publications has been accompanied by a decline in their average quality: when a scientist writes five-six small articles simultaneously at any given time, it is reasonable to assume that the level of novelty, accuracy, and contribution to scientific knowledge within each one of them is compromised, compared to a scenario where the scientist focuses all their energy on producing a single, significant article.
In addition, scientists find themselves compelled to devote an exorbitant amount of time to keeping up with the ever-expanding pool of published articles within their respective fields of research. Many of them also undertake the voluntary task of reviewing their peer’s articles before publication (peer review), often at the expense of the time that they could have otherwise dedicated to their own research initiatives
Good peer review even influences the research funding received | Illustration: Cartoon Resource, Shutterstock
A Brief History Of The Scientific Article
Let’s take a few steps back and explore how we reached this point. The scientific article is by no means a recent or novel medium for communicating scientific findings. Published articles began to emerge alongside the beginning of the scientific revolution in the 16th century. At that time, findings were often shared via personal letters, lectures at academic institutions, or books. Brief articles made it possible to publish research findings in a straightforward way, reaching a wide audience rapidly.
In the early days, articles were typically shorter than what is accepted today. They were also generally intended to reach beyond the scientific community to the general public, at least to the educated within it. The main reason for this is that during that period, modern science itself, which was still in its infancy, was much more general and much less focused than it is today. Most scientists were multidisciplinary, meaning they were deeply knowledgeable in a number of research fields simultaneously, and often without the distinction common today between exact sciences, humanities, and philosophy. In that period, scientific terms and concepts were not as numerous as today, where each research field has its very specific terminology that is unfamiliar to those who have not studied the field in depth.
These early norms persisted for many years, and can even be found in James Watson and Francis Crick's groundbreaking paper from 1953, which introduced the world to the structure of DNA. The paper’s length is only a single page, written in straightforward language, comprehensible even without expertise in molecular biology. The article features only one illustration of the double helical structure of DNA, and includes a mere six references.
Groundbreaking idea in a single page. Watson and Crick | Illustration: Harald Ritsch / Science Photo Library
This article shaped our understanding of how genetic information is stored and replicated in all living organisms and paved the way for numerous scientific discoveries and breakthroughs in the fields of genetics and heredity. Even though it proposed a scientific model instead of presenting an empirical study, it is still amazing to observe the stark contrast in length and simplicity compared to most scientific articles produced today, seventy years later.
Another noticeable difference is the structure of the article. Watson and Crick's article was written as one continuous narrative, without the standard subdivisions seen in modern-day scientific paper: abstract, introduction, theoretical background, research method, results, discussion, and conclusions. This observation invites us to question a prevalent issue in today's scientific writing: the prescriptive presentation of the scientific method in a dogmatic and uniform manner, where research invariably commences with a specific research question from which a hypothesis is derived, and continues with the design of an experiment or another research tool, followed by the collection of the results, their analysis and finally, the drawing of conclusions that either confirm or refute the hypothesis
However, real scientific research is not always conducted in such an orderly and elegant manner, and it is often a complex, intricate, and convoluted endeavor. Research does not always begin with a well-defined question and a well-formulated hypothesis. Sometimes scientists come across an intriguing phenomenon serendipitously and set out to investigate it. Many times they must conduct numerous experiments and employ a wide array of methods and tools, only to discover the most suitable and effective ones much later along the way.
A standard scientific article, with its typical sections, presents a clean but often inaccurate portrayal of the scientific research process. Scientists are well aware of this discrepancy, but readers unfamiliar with the nature of science may inadvertently get the wrong impression about the scientific method and the nature of scientific investigation.
The chaotic nature of the scientific process.| Illustration from the 15th century | Illustration:Sheila Terry / Science Photo Library
An additional issue stemming from the pressure on scientists to publish as many articles as possible is the rise of predatory journals. Such journals outwardly project an appearance of reputable journals with scientific standards, but in reality, they operate solely for economic gain, without any regard for scientific credibility or the quality of published articles. Scientists eager to find journals willing to publish their work, are often willing to pay considerable publication fees, thus publishers have a clear financial incentive to collect as many articles as possible. Conversely, they have no motivation to invest resources in processes essential for scientific publishing, such as a proper and comprehensive peer review, rewriting and editing.
Scientists are constantly bombarded with offers from such predatory journals, inviting them to publish their findings. Sometimes, scientists may not be aware of the dubious nature of these journals and their failure to adhere to the rules of scientific ethics.
This phenomenon has ignited a counter-movement of scientists aiming to expose these predatory practices and reveal the true nature of such journals. In recent years, there have been numerous examples of scientists publishing entirely fictitious articles in predatory journals, aiming to reveal the pervasiveness and danger of these publications. Among them are some very amusing examples, such as a fabricated article claiming that right-wing politicians typically wipe their buttocks with their left hand and vice versa, or an article that consisted solely of repetitions of the sentence "Take me off your mailing list" spanning several pages, complete with absurd and detailed charts, and was accepted for publication in one of the predatory journals.
Of course, not all profit-driven journals are predatory. One of the world’s leading scientific journals, PLOS Biology, operates on a profit-based model while maintaining high reliability and rigorous and careful peer review process. Furthermore, some journals that charge authors fees are Open Access publications, aimed at making their content accessible to everyone, not just subscribers and research institutions. This approach seeks to broaden the accessibility and availability of scientific knowledge to the wider public.
The obstacle course on the road to scientific publishing. Illustration: Nick Kim
Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that the majority of articles published in reputable scientific journals meet the strictest requirements of peer review. A significant portion of the articles that are submitted to these journals face rejection or are required to undergo extensive revisions and modifications before being accepted for publication. And above all, despite the inherent limitations of the scientific article format, it remains the most effective and widely accepted method for publishing research findings.