The trouble with publications

March 10, 2016

Dr. Nigro, Filipodia editor


The most uncomfortable question coming from my PhD advisor when I was a graduate student was “What are you going to do next?” and I heard it often. My PhD advisor never let up, always asking as soon as I would finish an experiment, and even at my thesis defense (partly as a joke, partly as a serious question)—the one day that you have mentally set aside to celebrate the conclusion of several years of intense work.


It was a very direct way for my advisor to make sure I would reach an immediate goal, as early as the next day perhaps, but it was also a more than subtle reference to the future. I usually had an answer for my advisor, but he had made this easy because he was a genius at focusing on a biological question that still drives his research today. No matter what the answers were to this question, they would easily lead to new projects. My PhD project was difficult to leave behind because it really was just a beginning, not an end.


Publications came easily in this context. I could see where a single paper would end, as well as where the next would begin. But once out on my own as an independent investigator wannabe, the rhetoric got a little tougher-you need papers, you need more papers, you need more papers in high impact journals. We cannot ignore the fact that publishing is a necessary measurement of our progress as scientists, but if such messages predominate, is it productive in the long run for achieving our real goals? Are we publishing work we might want to read in 10 years? And is it possibly leading to a premature ending (or a distraction) for promising students and post docs, or towards more risky, vulnerable scientific undertakings?


Publications are nevertheless rapidly accumulating on the Internet, and more new journals are coming online to accommodate papers arriving from around the world. It is reasonable to ask whether we are advancing our respective fields or just in the business of establishing more journals (and revenue) so that we can have more published papers. There is no question that more journals are necessary today because of the development of new areas of research and the number of scientists now able to actively participate in research around the world. No matter where we publish, however, we can still generate manuscripts based on passion.


To me, that means to consider the significance of even simple experiments on a grander scale. Anyone can think of a project based on immunostaining for specific genes in a cancer, but why and what comes after that? Sequencing a genome just costs money now, but again, what do you plan to do with the results?


The pressure to publish is real however, and a critical component for keeping our jobs and renewing our grants. So what do we do? My role as an editor requires me to be unbiased in the treatment of manuscripts, to perceive all papers as equal in terms of publication potential. The problem that is even more evident to me now as an active editor is not the publication of a lot of lower impact papers; it is the publication of papers that lack a connection to a bigger story.


It is up to us then as scientists, mentors, and colleagues to encourage the production of articles with thought-provoking material for journals, regardless of impact factor. The emphasis in our institutions should be on creating an environment where the science leads to a natural succession of publications. “What will you do next?” is a simple but powerful question to help guide the development of our own projects as well as for those we are training.