Publish and you might perish anyway
hen I decided that publishing in medical journals would be subject of this column, I though about using the title “ How to become first author of 17 medical publications a year without having any results to publish.” I decided against it because the ranks of my enemies would again increase.
On the other hand, those people writing 17 scientific papers per year are probably so busy they do not have time to read anybody else’s work. I should not be concerned that they might see this column. I also have to be careful since I once published 17 scientific papers myself within 12 months, with four of them lacking outstanding new scientific results. I stand in awe of the Central European radiologist who, I am told, published nearly 300 papers in one year.
"I stand in awe of the Central European radiologist who,
I am told, published nearly 300 papers in one year."
I receive at least one medical journal almost every day. Some I have subscribed to, but most I get for free. I read only a few of the abstracts and papers, and most journals I do not read at all because I do not have the time. Some are filed, some are kept for a few weeks, and others are thrown away immediately.
We seem to need a wide spectrum of journals, for reasons other than just keeping informed: to cope with unemployment among publishers, printers, and scientific writers, for instance, or to have some journals just to detest, or to be able to say: “He published in this fantastic journal and perished anyway.”
An estimated 4,000 biomedical journals are published worldwide. Many are so esoteric that I believe even the editors do not read them. And only those published in English have an international impact in our field in Europe and North America. The language question has become a big problem. Whatever is not published in English is destined to be lost. Most scientific papers published in Russian, as well as many in French and German, will never reach the audience they deserve.
In some cases, publication in the native language and in English or publication in an international review journal that is translated into several languages would be a benefit, because not every scientist reads and writes fluently in English. Otherwise, duplicate publication benefits only the printers, who make money, and the authors, who can add another article to their list of publications.
Still, there are cases on the edge. I recently received a manuscript for review in a radiology journal. After reading it and checking the references, I found that the same paper, with only minor changes, had already been published in a cardiology journal. The authors referred to their earlier paper, which had been published the year before. This is not usually done and it is up to the editor or reviewer to detect it. But editors and reviewers have limited time and do not always check carefully, and the authors know that.
One common argument for duplicate publication is the interdisciplinary character of most scientific work today. Different audiences read different journals. In addition, many journals lack a supply of manuscripts, and their editors happily accept papers of even average quality.
We do not need these journals because hardly anybody reads them. However, they do allow younger academic physicians to publish their papers. Together with the few journals that can boast decades of existence, they are among the serious scientific journals publishing original papers. They are the “publish or perish” journals in which you must publish if you want a career. They might also be called “publish and perish” journals because even if you publish in them, you could perish anyway.
Everybody knows Roentgen and Mickey Mouse, but who remembers Dupont (the famous French radiologist who described roentgenographic measurements of liver size in the 1930s), Müller (who described the 10 possible fracture lines of the third toe in the 1940s), van Dijk (who described the influence of the big flood of 1953 on the size of Dutch pituitary glands), and Smith-Brown (who described the disastrous influence of pop music on the inner ear in the 1960s)? All were great radiologists in their time, as is I.P. Pavlova, who compared the influence of radiation of the American hydrogen bomb on Nagasaki with the results of the Chernobyl catastrophe. (Please note that all names are fictitious).
Because the number of articles published plays a major part in making a scientist’s career, the number of superfluous publications has increased rapidly in the last three decades. In many instances, everything has already been covered, except for some new developments in new technologies, such as MRI or spiral CT. But in time even this information will be published over and over again, without reference to the earlier papers in which the same results were described.
Another negative factor is that usually all results will be stretched. For instance, if your research deals with pigs that break their legs upon impact when thrown from a tower 10 meters high, you can easily turn this experiment into three papers. The first will deal with the methodology of the selection (why we chose pigs and not frogs); the second will feature the parameters of the blood samples taken before, during, and after the fall, and their changes; and the final paper will discuss the x-ray images of the broken legs. You can even summarize all results in a review paper and add a discussion on the advantages of plaster of Paris versus plaster of plastique.
The latter point adds another component to such papers: the question of authors’ independence from commercial and other interests, along with the question of scientific fraud and honesty. For many readers of scientific journals, faith in such publications has been shattered after the scandals at some major U.S. institutions. In Europe, such scandals have not yet been detected to the same extent, but it is public knowledge that publications from some research institutes are not very reliable.
Certain journals are considered above average because their reviewers and editors are tougher than those of other journals. However, the independence of the editing board is not always guaranteed, and sometimes it is not only the authors who are to blame for unethical behavior, but also the editors. Repeatedly, cases have been disclosed where editors have delayed or hindered the publication of manuscripts that either presented results of projects similar to those the editor’s own research group was working on, or results that were nor in accordance with certain commercial or political interests.
It is easy to criticize the negative sides of scientific publications, but in the short term I do not believe it will be possible to change the journal market from outside. Who should be the judge and the police officer? We are all involved. Limited self-censorship guidelines, such as those of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, will improve the credibility and quality of the journals applying them. Standards for biomedical journals have been set in an effort to cope with the problems of multi-authorship, duplicate publication, wrong references, scientific fraud, and hidden commercial influence on scientific articles. Journals not following such guidelines will be considered secondary by both authors and subscribers.
During the past few years, a new species of journal has become increasingly popular: those directly sponsored by commercial companies. These are not necessarily inferior to journals paid for by advertisements or societies. On the contrary, some of them are much better, because their financial independence and a strong editorial board independent of the sponsoring company allow the publication of better quality articles. Such journals are usually the domain of authors with a proven track record of excellence in both science and writing.
The philosophy of quality rather than quantity should apply to publications. Quality standards should pertain to papers at various levels: original work, reviews, new developments, academic research, interdisciplinary work, etc. The entire biomedical community would benefit if the pressure for mass publication were removed. Researchers could concentrate on doing good research for later publication rather than having to publish half-finished research, those interested in being informed would not have to sift through tons of worthless paper, and editors and publishers would have no less of a job to perform.