Archive for scientific publications

What are scientific papers for?

Posted in Astrohype, Open Access with tags , , on May 30, 2020 by telescoper

Writing scientific papers and publishing them in academic journals is an essential part of the activity of a researcher. ‘Publish or perish’ is truer now than ever, and an extensive publication list is essential for anyone wanting to have a career in science.

But what are these papers actually for? What purpose do they serve?

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 organise 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.

I thought it was just me getting cynical in my old age but a number of younger scientists I know have told me that the only reason they can see for writing papers is because you need to do it to get a job. There is no notion of disseminating knowledge just the need to establish priority and elevate oneself in the pecking order. In other words the original purpose of scientific publications has largely been lost.

I thought I’d test this by doing a (totally unscientific) poll here to see how my several readers think about this.


Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on September 10, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve just noticed a  post on another blog about the  meeting of the Herschel ATLAS consortium that’s  going on in Cardiff at the moment, so I thought I’d do a quickie here too. Actually I’ve only just been accepted into the Consortium so quite a lot of the goings-on are quite new to me.

The Herschel ATLAS (or H-ATLAS for short) is the largest open-time key project involving Herschel. It has been awarded 600 hours of observing time  to survey 550 square degrees of sky in 5 wavelenth bands: 110, 170, 250, 350, & 500 microns. It is hoped to detect approximately 250,000 galaxies,  most of them in the nearby Universe, but some will undoubtedly turn out to be very distant, with redshifts of 3 to 4; these are likely to be very interesting for  studies of galaxy evolution.

Herschel is currently in its performance verification (PV) phase, following which there will be a period of science validation (SV). During the latter the ATLAS team will have access to some observational data to have a quick look to see that it’s  behaving as anticipated. It is planned to publish a special issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics next year that will contain key results from the SV phase, although in the case of ATLAS many of these will probably be quite preliminary because only a small part of the survey area will be sampled during the SV time.

Herschel seems to be doing fine, with the possible exception of the HIFI instrument which is currently switched off owing to a fault in its power supply. There is a backup, but the ESA boffins don’t want to switch it back on and risk further complications until they know why it failed in the first place. The problem with HIFI has led to some rejigging of the schedule for calibrating and testing the other two instruments (SPIRE and PACS) but both of these are otherwise doing well.

The data for H-ATLAS proper hasn’t started arriving yet so the meeting here in Cardiff was intended to sort out the preparations, plan who’s going to do what, and sort out some organisational issues. With well over a hundred members, this project has to think seriously about quite a lot of administrative and logistical matters.

One of the things that struck me as particular difficult is the issue of authorship of science papers. In observational astronomy and cosmology we’re now getting used to the situation that has prevailed in experimental particle physics for some time, namely that even short papers have author lists running into the hundreds. Theorists like me usually work in teams too, but our author lists are, generally speaking, much shorter. In fact I don’t have any publications  yet with more than six or seven authors; mine are often just by me and a PhD student or postdoc.

In a big consortium, the big issue is not so much who to include, but how to give appropriate credit to the different levels of contribution. Those senior scientists who organized and managed the survey are clearly key to its success, but so also are those who work at the coalface and are probably much more junior. In between there are individuals who supply bits and pieces of specialist software or extra comparison data. Nobody can pretend that everyone in a list of 100 authors has made an identical contribution, but how can you measure the differences and how can you indicate them on a publication? Or  shouldn’t you try?

Some suggest that author lists should always be alphabetical, which is fine if you’re “Aarseth” but not if you’re “Zel’dovich”. This policy would, however, benefit “al”, a prolific collaborator who never seems to make it as first author..

When astronomers write grant applications for STFC one of the pieces of information they have to include is a table summarising their publication statistics. The total number of papers written has  to be given, as well as the number in which the applicant  is  the first author on the list,  the implicit assumption being that first authors did more work than the others or that first authors were “leading” the work in some sense.

Since I have a permanent job and  students and postdocs don’t, I always make junior collaborators  first author by default and only vary that policy if there is a specific reason not to. In most cases they have done the lion’s share of the actual work anyway, but even if this is not the case it is  important for them to have first author papers given the widespread presumption that this is a good thing to have on a CV.

With more than 100 authors, and a large number of  collaborators vying for position, the chances are that junior people will just get buried somewhere down the author list unless there is an active policy to protect their interests.

Of course everyone making a significant contribution to a discovery has to be credited, and the metric that has been used for many years to measure scientific productivity is the numbered of authored publications, but it does seem to me that this system must have reached breaking point when author lists run to several pages!

It was all a lot easier in the good old days when there was no data…

PS. Atlas was a titan who was forced to hold the sky  on his shoulders for all eternity. I hope this isn’t expected of members of the ATLAS consortium, none of who are titans anyway (as far as I can tell). The plural of Atlas is Atlantes, by the way.