8 Feb 2007

CNS disease, or [ney-cher-sahy-uhns-uhnd-sel]

I've read some comments to the effect that PLoS ONE is a new competitor to Nature. You know who you are. The confusion appears to be wrought by the fact that PLoS ONE is a general science journal, but in reality it is poles apart from Nature, Science or Cell. If Nature is aiming to be at the tip of the publications pyramid, PLoS ONE is the broad base, much as the BMC series is also part of the broad base. And that's a Good Thing.

Harold Varmus has complained about ‘CNS disease’, the tendency to regard publication in these journals too highly. These three journals are mentioned in one breath so often that perhaps a new word could be coined: naturescienceandcell [ney-cher-sahy-uhns-uhnd-sel] -noun: 1. General science journals that cause researchers to temporarily lose their sanity.

Jan Velterop
estimates that 1 million scholarly articles are published each year, and I read somewhere this week that there were around 680,000 abstracts added to PubMed in 2005, so that estimate looks reasonable. A quick look at PubMed tells me that the hallowed trio of Nature, Science and Cell between them published in the ballpark of 3,000 research articles that year. As only around 0.5% of publications appear in these journals, the attention paid to them is a little bit unwarranted. I'd wager that at least some of the other 99.5% of articles have some merit.

In a similar vein, Doug Altman has pointed out that although randomized controlled trials in general medical journals get such attention paid to them, 93% of trials are not published in general medical journals and 90% of medical publications are not trials. The focus on these "big headline" RCTs that make up 0.7% of the medical literature appears to be due to reprints being bought by pharmaceutical companies -- the Vioxx article by Merck brought in $700,000 to the NEJM -- and due to what Ben Goldacre calls
Humanities Graduates In The Media hyping medical stories in the press.

It is worth remembering that although these journals have high impact factors, the impact factor doesn't determine the number of citations an article published in a journal will receive: the causation is the other way around. To their credit, Nature have been honest about the fact that their 2004 impact factor mainly (89% of it) derived from 25% of their articles, including the mouse genome paper that has been cited over 1,000 times. Not all articles published in Nature receive that kind of response, yet people still refer to Nature publications in awed tones. Some people might "read" Nature each week, but, seriously, does anyone actually read the research articles if they're not in the field?

Science depends
more on a slow and steady accumulation of knowledge than upon "breakthrough" papers. Geoff Watts has argued in the BMJ that we should "pension off the major breakthrough". I'd echo this, and I'd agree with Harold Varmus: we need a cure for CNS disease.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Heh, CNS disease. I like that. I am hoping that new bibliometrics driven by Open Access (see, e.g., any of Stevan Harnad's eleventy-million articles on the subject) will kill off the impact factor, and researchers and institutions will be assessed directly rather than by the odd, ineffective proxy of "what journals do they publish in?".