Archive for scientific papers

Why we don’t need scientific papers

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , on April 21, 2022 by telescoper

There’s a recent piece by Stuart Ritchie in The Grauniad that argues that the concept of the “scientific paper” has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped. I think there’s a lot in the arguments presented and the article is well worth reading. Indeed, I have made similar points myself a number of times on this blog relating both to individual papers and to the journals in which they are published.

In this post from a couple of years ago, for example, I asked the question: what are scientific papers for? Here is an extract:

I can think of two main purposes (which aren’t entirely mutually exclusive): one is to disseminate knowledge and ideas; the other is to confer status on the author(s) .

The academic journal began hundreds of years ago with the aim of achieving the former through distribution of articles in print form. Nowadays the distribution of research results is achieved much less expensively largely through online means. Nevertheless, journals still exist (largely, as I see it, to provide editorial input and organize peer review) .

Alongside this there is the practice of using articles as a measure of the ‘quality’ of an author. Papers in certain ‘prestigious’ ‘high impact’ journals are deemed important because they are indicators of status, like epaulettes on a uniform, and bibliometric data, especially citation counts, often seem to be more important than the articles themselves.

By the way, I put up a poll in that piece, which is still open. You can vote here:

The point – also made by Stuart Ritchie – is that the traditional scientific journal is a 17th Century invention and, as such, does not reflect the way modern scientific is performed and disseminated.

In fields like astrophysics and particle physics this anachronistic approach leads to absurdities such as papers with thousands of authors, many of whom won’t have even read, let alone contributed any writing to, the article. Reflecting on the publication of a paper with 5000 authors back in 2015, I wrote this:

It seems quite clear to me that the academic journal is an anachronism. Digital technology enables us to communicate ideas far more rapidly than in the past and allows much greater levels of interaction between researchers. I agree with Daniel Shanahan that the future for many fields will be defined not in terms of “papers” which purport to represent “final” research outcomes, but by living documents continuously updated in response to open scrutiny by the community of researchers. I’ve long argued that the modern academic publishing industry is not facilitating but hindering the communication of research. The arXiv has already made academic journals virtually redundant in many of branches of  physics and astronomy; other disciplines will inevitably follow. The age of the academic journal is drawing to a close. Now to rethink the concept of “the paper”…

This is the closing paragraph of Ritchie’s piece, which says much the same thing:

We’ve made astonishing progress in so many areas of science, and yet we’re still stuck with the old, flawed model of publishing research. Indeed, even the name “paper” harkens back to a bygone age. Some fields of science are already moving in the direction I’ve described here, using online notebooks instead of journals – living documents instead of living fossils. It’s time for the rest of science to follow suit.

It seems to me that the barrier to opening up the processes of scientific publication to these is that the more accurately publications reflect how science is actually done in the digital age, the more difficult it is for the bean counters to assess research quality or productivity. The academic publishing industry has cornered the market on bibliometric indicators so it rather than the scientific community gets to dictate how scientific quality will be measured. The tail is wagging the dog. Until that ends – and it will only end when we fairer ways of evaluating research – we will be saddled with the broken system we have now.

The Art of the Abstract

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2012 by telescoper

I’m one of those old-fashioned types who still gets an email from the arXiv every morning notifying me of the latest contributions and listing their abstracts. I still prefer to get my daily update that way than via logging onto the website, although I suspect that’s really force of habit more than anything. The emails are longer these days than they used to be, of course, so now I only manage a quick skim but it’s still a worthwhile exercise.

I have noticed over the twenty-odd years that I’ve been subscribing to this service that as well as being more numerous now, abstracts are also unquestionably longer (at least on astro-ph), to the extent that one sees the dreaded “[abridged]”, indicating that the (approximately 20-line) length limit has been exceeded, much more frequently now than in the past.

Without criticising individual papers, it does seem to me that excessively long and ponderous abstracts are likely to be counter-productive. The whole point of an abstract is that it is a sort of executive summary of the paper which is supposed to convince the reader that the whole paper is worth reading. Given the number of papers there are flying around, a short pithy abstract with a high density of key ideas and results is much more likely to get people reading further than one that waffles on and on about “discussing” and “constraining” this that or the other. Abstracts should be about answering questions, not merely addressing them.

Another mistake that some abstract writers make is to write the abstract as if it were the introduction, which isn’t the point at all. The first few sentences of the abstract should establish why the topic is interesting, but that doesn’t mean it’s meant to be a mini-literature review. References in the abstracts are best avoided altogether, in my opinion.

When so many experienced professional scientists write poor abstracts it’s hardly surprising that our students also struggle to compose good ones for, e.g., project reports. The best advice I can offer is always write the abstract last of all, when you know exactly what is in the rest of the paper. Incidentally, it is often a good idea to write the conclusions first

Once you have finished everything else then set yourself the task of making your abstract as brief as possible but ensure that it answers the following questions (in no more than a couple of sentences each):

  1. Why is the topic of the paper interesting? What is the question you’re answering? Summarize the background.
  2. What did you do? What techniques/data did you use? Summarize the method.
  3. What were your results? Summarize the key results.
  4. What are the wider implications of your results? In particular, how do they answer the questions in 1?

If your abstract comes out more than 20 lines long then cut it. If one of the four sections is much longer than the others then chop it mercilessly to restore the balance. The shorter the abstract the better it is, in my view, although perhaps you don’t have to go this far

Come the revolution, when all papers will be available online, the abstract will be even more important in getting your work recognized. Digital open access publishing will increase the amount of stuff “out there”, and a good abstract is going to be essential to raise your paper’s signal above the noise level.

Abstracts no doubt play different roles in different fields. I understand that in some disciplines abstracts are even actually the primary mode of publication. I think the guidelines above are pretty good for astrophysics, physics generally, and perhaps even most physical sciences. I’d be interested to hear from folk working in other disciplines how they might be modified to suit their requirements, so please feel free to comment below.

Comments will not be abridged.