Scientific publications

February 28, 2018

Preamble: I wrote a draft of this post some months ago but did not publish it because of I found it at first lengthy, a bit too ambitious in its goals and not conclusive enough to be truly relevant among the large set of articles daily published on the topic. Yet, after stepping back from the area of research, I realize that these criteria do not matter. This post summarizes some ideas of mine at a given point and can all the same serves as a basis for further thinking.

This is the beginning of a series of posts to establish an overview of the state of applied physics research. This is mostly to get for myself clear ideas of the good and bad aspects of this field of research based of on my experience. This experience is, by nature, limited to the area of plasma physics and to what I have read from other related fields. This is an opinionated view and in no way a methodical scientific study.

It starts here with the scientific publications which are the visible parts of the iceberg and attract most of the attention from a wide audience.

The researcher has three types of relations with publications: as a reader to get information, as a reviewer to validate the results of colleagues and as a writer to present his own results. The failures and advantages of the present publishing system will be detailed for each type of relation and an attempt to draw some conclusions about what can be done or is already done to improve the process. I will also highlight the issues which are direct effects of the structure of the academic system and which cannot be solved by just changing the way articles are published.

Publications as a source of information

When you start to study a topic, you have to “stand on the shoulders of giants”. Publications are these shoulders. They provide the information you need to understand the status of your area of research: what is known, what is not known, what are the issues, what is unclear. The present research has four sources of information to access this existing knowledge: books, articles, internet and human relations.

  • The purpose of books is to cover a well established body of knowledge: you will find the tools, mostly theoretical, to use for your research. The problem is that books for specialists are very expansive, mostly only available on paper. Institutes have libraries where you can find them, but this is a very analog process. You have to go there, find the book, wait if it is already lent, get it for a limited amount of time. When you have to browse a lot of books, it is inconvenient. Fortunately now, you can now find on internet scanned versions of most of technical books. Yet, there are in PDF formats. But better than nothing.
  • Articles present the state of the art of research, topics which are not 100% sure but with new ideas, new data. The purpose of research is mostly to validate existing articles, or to invalidate them and to propose alternative solution or to unify several articles. This is your daily bread. All articles are now online. When you work in research in western countries, the price is transparent for you. Only the administration sees what an article costs. It is not the case in other countries and the success of SciHub show how big this price is. But, in my opinion, it is not the price in itself which is too high, it is the ratio service/price of the publication which is too low. Because, the question is: what do you get in a publication: a PDF file, most of the time limited in pages with the assurance that two or three people read it before and validated it. That’s it. But you get only an assurance, not direct insight in the reviewing process, you don’t know what issues where raised, how they were answered. You don’t know if other people find problems on the paper or confirmed its validity. Everything is completely opaque- In addition, a paper is mostly text and few graphs and schemes. You don’t have any direct access to the data, to the exact experimental protocols or codes used to get the results. Yet, technological solutions exist to make the process more transparent and reproducible but it is not used for this purpose. Technological tools are mostly used to streamline the publications in their present state and to make their number skyrocket. It has never been so easy to publish articles. You could do that every month and some scientists just do that, because it is better for the career. So you get overwhelmed by the amount of articles with a very low signal to noise ratio. Scientific publication is at the age of Youtube comments. This is where the two remaining sources of information play a role.
  • Internet offers knowledge beyond articles. You can find blog posts by fellow scientists who talk there more freely about their research and where you can catch some details which where missing from the publications. You can find contributions by laymen who just have fun with technical stuff and spend a lot of time shooting videos with their GoPro camera to explain some obscure electronic construction, which is of utter importance to develop your experiment. The information there is not organized, not well structure but offers a wider range of innovative solutions to expose scientific content.
  • The last source of information is your social network, your colleagues, your fellow scientists, the guy or the lady who you discuss with at the coffee and who will offer you his or her experience and contacts to explain you something you did not understand. They represent the unstructured informal channels of information communication. This is a precious source, which is both underestimated (the myth of the lone genius scientist, but this is another story) and very hard to reach. It requires competencies in networking, team building, public outreaching, which are far from being a major of the scientific education.

Publications for reviewers

The second relation that a scientist can have with publications is when he is requested to review them. From my experience and the one from people I know, this is most of the time a gratifying experience because of two aspects: first, it is a recognition of your expertise and second, it brings you to topics related to your area but where you wouldn’t have necessarily spent time studying. It opens an opportunity for the curious people. So, even if it takes time on my planning, it is always a pleasure to review another paper. Yet, what I miss is the lack of real discussion with the author. You have two or three passes of questions/answers and that’s it. In my opinion, the process is not iterative enough and not enough open to more people. The counter arguments are usually twofold: first, versioning could bring instability to the system: without a definitive version of paper, there is no solid ground, no reference which can be used to progress further. This is true, but only partly. Indeed, psychologically it is very helpful to have a finished and published paper. You have the feeling to get something done and it can be used as a showcase for your work. Actually you know the approximations, the uncertainties present in the work. But you wipe them away and get a boost of energy for the next publication. But, like in software, you could imagine major and minor releases, stable and unstable editions. That would perfectly fit the research process. One paper which is improved, enriched, extended following the progress of your work. The second reproach would be that open review by a wide audience would lead to less review because nobody would feel responsible for it and would not spend time for that. This is also only partly true. It would be necessary to have main reviewers like you have main contributors on pieces of software. They would be in charge of the main review. But, I am pretty sure, that if you open the review to the community, and you enable a rational dialogue between the authors, the main contributors and the community, you can dramatically improve the quality of papers. There are many publications where I would like to comment, to ask, to suggest. But it is not possible in a systematic way. You can do that at conferences when you meet the authors but this is informal and most of the time, without any follow-up. The key for success is to create the proper framework and adequate tools to facilitate these processes.

Publications for authors

You have managed to get results and you want to broadcast them to your scientific community. There is only one way: to publish in a journal. You are here confronted with several issues: the choice of the journal, which is mostly defined by a compromise between the relevance of your results, the impact factors and who your co-authors are. Then, you are constrained by a format: number of pages, non-interactive, text and images only. This is not necessarily a disadvantage. For instance, I find the Physics Review Letters absolutely awful for the reader. How useful 4 pages can be? It is like understanding the Syrian crisis only trough a dispatch from a press agency. But for the author, it is a very interesting exercise: it forces you to extract the essence of your research, to determine what makes your results interesting and nothing else. It brings a lot of structure in the scientific thinking. Yet, a lot of this effort is spoiled by the time needed to format the article. No publisher has ever spent time and money improving publishing tools, plot creators and other useful editing framework. At the best we get templates and Latex libraries. All interesting software come from outside publishing. This is also true for most research institutes which push to more publications without trying to improve the editing process itself.

The future of science publishing

There are tools of all sorts to improve the communication of science. Yet, the situation looks like stale with disagreement and divergent interests between the stakeholders of science (researchers, institutes, publishers). As in engineering, there are two ways to design a new system of science communication: top-down with an initiative of the decision-makers; this can happen with a change of generation of science leaders with people who have only known a publishing system in crisis and aware of the problem and of the possible solutions. Or bottom-up with the self-organization of scientists who collectively manage to agree on the standardization a more effective way to communicate and validate the scientific knowledge. Solutions will probably emerge, if they emerge, from both directions and will require time and patience. But these two elements are the most effective weapons of Science.


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