Wednesday 28 June 2017

Publish or be predated

 I was in Trinity College Dublin at the end of last week witnessing the 2nd graduation of one of my students who passed through The Institute a couple of years ago to get her BSc. Her work was sound and if the money had worked out as she had wanted, it would have been possible to parlay her MSc into a PhD.  But she has now decided that she's not so much interested in hewing at the frontiers to generate some primary data as she is in explaining those findings, Other Men's Flowers [prevs], to Joe and Jenny Public. She wants to be a Science Communicator. Scientists are often woeful at this necessary task, so there is a niche there in the same way as there is a niche managing labs because Principal Investigators are often hopeless with money too.  Those two deficiencies collide when you reflect that there is precious little science that you can do without going cap in hand to the tax-payers and their proxy-funders at Science Foundation Ireland. After the Initium Ceremonia, there were canapés and I explained the maths: her MSc supervisor has had about 35 post-graduate students under her care; academic appointments are at a steady state; so 34/35 of these intellectual children are going to work elsewhere: as drug reps, administrators, secondary school teachers, entrepreneurs . . . science communicators. Your post-grad mentor is thus an unlikely role-model for your future career development. Ego being what it is, all the teachers and mentors you meet going through university have Arrived, ther self-esteem requires them to believe that they have been successful - and other careers will be implicitly cast as not quite top drawer. This is bloody nonsense because most academics haven't worked at all out in the real world so they are not qualified to make any comparisons.

Getting a seat at the academic table, and access to the Senior Common Room, is fiercely competitive and the main criterion for separating the bleaty sheep from the rugged goats is the number and quality of peer-reviewed publications which each candidate, for appointment or promotion, has generated. This is covered by the phrase Publish or Perish. It costs money to maintain an academic journal. Even if it is entirely on-line with paper/printing costs hoofed back on the consumer as downloadable PDFs, the secretary, the telephone line, the desk, the e-mail account all have to be paid for. The Editor is often moon-lighting pro-bono from an academic post, and the referees are almost certain to be working for the journal for free. On the other side of the counter, there are a lot of academics trying to get their stuff 'over the line' and out in the public domain . . . and they're prepared to pay for it. Accordingly, as a storm follows the sun, hopeful entrepreneurs are prepared to set up as an academic publisher to follow the money. Nobody gets nothing unless a paper is published so there is plenty of scope for implicit and explicit corruption. Although seats at the academic table are more or less the same, the generation of papers is going exponential, to satisfy the bean-counters, so it is hard to keep up with which journals are reputable.

At The Institute, the pressure is less intense because, in contrast to Universities, research and publishing are aspirational rather than essential. We spend so much time in class that you have to be extraordinarily dedicated, single and well-fit to find time to do research on top of the billable hours. This is a good billet for me because I lack finish: my attention tends to drift off after the data-gathering and analysis; restlessly moving onto the next puzzle rather than writing up the results and getting them published. The path of my career can be followed by the trail of manuscripts: unfinished, rejected or unrevised. Nevertheless I have acquired a student because he beat a path to my door and wouldn't be brushed off.  This chap has more bottle than me and is energised rather than disheartened when papers are not accepted. Because of this can-do we had a paper published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It's sound; it contains a novel methodological insight that might qualify is the fourth good idea I've had in 4 decades of science; the data are noisy because the data are real; that made telling the story less crisp; but that is the nature of biological and environmental science. An earlier draft had been turned down by another journal, which gave us the opportunity to revise and extend the original work. The second version was much stronger and had better figures. Nevertheless we had to address a number of criticisms and comments from three referees and had to work to get the thing over the line. It wasn't a shoo-in.

Last week, restlessly surfing the interweb, I found myself reading a Canadian story about predatory publishing. Dr. Lucy Lee had her doubts about a journal in which one of her students was trying to get published. To make her worries explicit, the journal in question was highlighted in red: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. You may notice that it is the same place where we published our brick in the wall of science. There is a certain amount of reputational damage in that observation, but having bitch-slapped IJERPH, the Canadians moved on to reserve its broadside for an entity called OMICS. I note that IJERPH is indexed in PubMed, so that confers a certain amount of legitimacy. My student's response to the issue was robust: "They can kiss my Irish arse".

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