Jonathan Eisen Is Absolutely Right About Science Articles…

…and it’s symptomatic of a larger problem too. First, here’s what Eisen says about articles published in Science (and presumably Nature too; boldface mine):

In addition, by choosing to publish the paper there [in Science] but not elsewhere, the field of deep sea symbionts may have been hurt rather than helped.
How could a Science paper hurt the field? Well, for one, Science with its page length obsession forced Irene to turn her enormous body of work on this genome into a single page paper with most of the detail cut out. I do not think a one page paper does justice to the interesting biology or to her work. A four page paper could have both educated people about the ecosystems in the deep sea, about intracellular symbionts in general, and about this symbiosis in particular. The deep sea is wildly interesting, and also at some risk from human activities. This paper could have been used to do more than just promote someone’s resume (which really is the only reason to publish a one page page in Science).

The problem I have with Science and Nature papers is they require a very simple, straightforward narrative. As Eisen notes, that format has limited utility for the scientific community: often, specialists in the field need those complicating details. The format of a Science article might be good for Science, but it’s not so good for science.

The ‘self-editing syndrome’ of a Science paper is only the extreme version of a larger problem: the dreaded ‘Supplemental Information.’ I hate these sections: if it’s important, put it in the fucking paper. If a journal can’t put important information in a paper, then that journal needs to change its format–or go out of business. There are some forms of legitimate supplemental sections: nobody wants to read a list of 2000 bacterial strains. In days of yore, this was referred to as an appendix. But when scientific communication is impaired by the needs of for-profit publishers, something needs to change…and it shouldn’t be the science.

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12 Responses to Jonathan Eisen Is Absolutely Right About Science Articles…

  1. PhysioProf says:

    Science and Nature continue to enforce strict page limits even though almost no one looks at printed copies of journals because they and their authors benefit from scarcity of pages. “It’s hard to get your shit in there, so the shit must be fucking awesome!”

  2. TomJoe says:

    …the dreaded ‘Supplemental Information.’ I hate these sections: if it’s important, put it in the fucking paper. If a journal can’t put important information in a paper …
    There are two types of information. That which is essential for the overall understanding of the paper, and that which is not essential but can either answer criticisms that may come up during reading or otherwise address tangential issues. The first category is necessary for inclusion into the actual paper, whereas the second category can easily be put into a Supplementary Material (S.M.) section.
    Example: I’m currently writing a paper which shows phylogenetic information. To show that I was thorough in my sampling I do some statistics. One of those can be shown as a rarefaction curve. Well, I can just say the curve approached saturation and leave it at that, but I decided that I would include it as S.M. for the benefit of the reader. It’s clear the curve approached saturation, and the other statistics prove it as well … but that visual helps bring the point home. Is it SO IMPORTANT as require inclusion in the paper itself? I debated that point, but when you have 8 other figures … some of the minor stuff needs to go elsewhere.
    Another case in point: have you ever use the phrase “data not shown” in a manuscript? If you haven’t, countless others have … and well, that’s not necessary any longer … just slap it in a Supplementary Material section. When I review manuscripts that have been submitted to journals that have Supplementary Material capability, and an author uses “data not shown”, I request that that data be considered for inclusion into such a section (I’m a bastard, ain’t I?).

  3. Morgan Price says:

    I think the solution is for the general-interest journals to distribute the paper magazine with 1-2 page extended abstracts and with more background material than in a normal paper. Then the online version of the paper can be a normal scientific paper of reasonable length that includes the details that the specialists who are going to read the paper carefully want to see.
    But is this *that* different from the status quo of a 1-3 page paper + supplementary information?

  4. Edward says:

    This goes hand in hand with the obsession with impact factors. Many journals seem more interested in whether the topic is sexy (are will sell the journal) than in whether the article is good science. Articles that use “new technology” but have questionable results are routinely taken over papers that used tried and true methods and have solid results. It’s not just science, our society as a whole has an obsession with new technology, whether or not it offers any real benefit. I was talking with a couple of teachers the other day, who said that the educational administrators wanted them to use self-scanning whiteboards, but the times that these rather expensive devices were actually useful in the class room are very limited. The administrators were also trying to get the teachers to stop using overhead projectors, which the teachers still found very useful, because overhead projectors are “old technology.”
    I think this general level of wanting some superficial “new technology” has caused the scientific content of many journals to go down. Scientific results are NOT always simple and sometimes 40 pages are needed to describe the results. What Science is doing is the scientific version of sound bites on the evening news.

  5. Dr. Kate says:

    While I agree that the page limits for Science and Nature are generally too restrictive to permit thorough discussion of a particular project, I do think these journals serve a purpose. I believe (although I may be incorrect, or it may have changed since the last time I tried to submit a paper and read the instructions to authors) that the stated purposes of both of these journals is to provide information on a wide variety of research topics to a wide variety of scientists. Both of them, I believe, actually have guidelines that require authors to write with the goal of making the article interesting and understandable even to non-specialists in the field. The goal of these journals is to provide an overview of new research in all subject areas, not to provide the details of a particular research project in a particular discipline.
    That said, the reason (I think) that most researchers want to get published in these journals is not so that they can convey every detail of their latest study to the rest of their colleagues. Instead, a publication in Science or Nature indicates that a researcher’s work is innovative (I don’t think that’s the right word, but I’m drawing a blank) enough to be interesting and potentially useful to a wide range of scientists in many different disciplines. If that is truly the goal of such publications and the authors that submit to them, then I think restricting page limits is not necessarily a bad thing. As a geochemist, I don’t really want to wade through a 20-page paper on the genome of a catfish; I’m not really interested in (nor would I understand) the fine details of the experimental procedure. But I AM interested enough in the topic to read a 2- or 3-page paper describing the research in broad strokes.
    There is a reason that every scientific discipline (and sub-discipline, and sub-sub-discipline…ever really LOOKED at your library’s journal holdings?) has at least one or two peer-reviewed journals dedicated to it. Those journals are read primarily by practitioners of that discipline, who will understand (and benefit from) the fine-grained details of every study relating to the topic. Those journals are the proper venue for detailed discussion of experimental procedure, data analysis, etc. Science and Nature are not designed to be those journals.
    Now, I’m not saying that economics and “coolness” don’t play a role in acceptance of articles at Science and Nature, and I’m not saying that there’s nothing wrong with the system. And I do think that the 1-page Brevia in Science really are just too short to really be much use at all. All I’m saying is that these journals in their current format DO play an important role in disseminating the high points of current research. If we look at them in that light, I think they do a decent job.
    I personally would not want to see Science or Nature change to a format of much longer, detailed articles. It would substantially reduce the percentage of each issue that I would actually want to read.

  6. Orac says:

    Eisen is a whiner. I’d almost kill for a Science paper, and I make no bones about it. Of course, I’d much prefer a Cell paper because Cell provides sufficient space to really do the science justice.

  7. TomJoe says:

    Yep, I’m with Orac on this one. That blog entry wanted to make me puke … “Woe is me, I got published in Science.” WTF.

  8. P. A. DEPLAND says:

    I agree with Eisen’s conviction that some articles published in Science or the like may require more than one page to offer an effective presentation. What I disagree with is today’s unnecessary propensity for the use of smut language in putting forth a point of view in public. Ce n’est pas gentil!
    One more reason why the only way to save the planet and return ourselves and everything else alive, be it plant or animal, to a quality of life state, is
    by reducing the human population back to 1850 levels. That is a level the earth should be capable of sustaining in perpetuity and can be accomplished painlessly by attrition [strictly only one child per couple (with sterilization of both parties) as humans are known to cheat], until parity is achieved. PAD

  9. synapse says:

    @TomJoe: When the supplemental information is regularly longer than the published paper, something is wrong. I’ve read lots of papers where crucial controls and information is relegated to the supplemental info, and it’s boggled my mind.

  10. Coturnix says:

    Jonathan’s main beef is that it is not OA. But the format is not good for some kinds of papers, I agree. It is fine for other kinds, though.

  11. Shirley Jackson says:

    Try to submit to “New Scientist” or “Popular Mechanics” to popularize your work and make yourself famous. It doesn’t matter which peer-reviewed journal you publish your work in. Today scientists query subject databases archiving journals in English. You ought to learn another language! Who’s learning Mandarin? China is the future of science.

  12. mirc says:


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