Hola! Mole here, and no, I'm not home – actually I've been gone for a few days. I'm at a meeting on the ‘Mayan Riviera,’ and it's very nice here, thank you (Mango margaritas!). If you're just joining us, I managed to wreck my car, and while that was happening (and while it was subsequently fixed) we talked about impact. Not the impact of my car against a fender-bending road hazard, but the sort of impact factor (IF you remember) that we use to rate the journals we read and in which we publish. And, by proxy, use to rate each other, our institutions, our nations (from the perspective of science), and, once we enter the Federation of Planets, our star system (‘Sol’). (The latter is because Earth somehow becomes the headquarters of the Federation. Just remember not to wear a red shirt; that never ends well.)
There are lots of problems with IF as a tool for rating journals and those who publish in them. And while there are alternative metrics we can use (we even got a bit, as Paul Krugman likes to say, ‘wonky’ about these), I think that our real goal is to figure out where we can publish work that is actually read, discussed, and, ultimately, matters.
There is a need for a service that can guide us to the papers (and, as a consequence, journals) that we may want to read. There are journals that I always do read, and because I peruse them, I often read papers outside my immediate expertise (which, not uncommonly, prove very useful to the things I do). The problem is that getting me to read papers (of course, by ‘me’ I mean ‘us’) is of economic interest – journals that are regularly read generate revenue (although publishers have come up with ways to make money with journals that, as far as I can tell, are never read). A service that gives me a heads up on what I may want to look at this week would have to be trusted – if I think they are promoting papers for any reason other than ‘this one is worth reading,’ I'll ignore the recommendations.
This need is being met, if sparingly, by a few intrepid souls who put out mailing lists with their recommendations. I get a couple of these, and they are terrific – I trust them, and often find papers that I've missed (hey, it happens!). Very useful. At least, in the case of the two I receive, I personally know the wonderful Prof. Gecko who runs it, and I know that she does this as a service to the community (thank you!). I'd love to have a few more. Gecko puts a lot of time into her mailing lists, and sometimes feels unappreciated (I just spoke with her – some of us on the list tell her she makes them feel guilty, to which I say, “good!” Again, thank you Gecko – please keep it up!).
In fact, I wish that there was a way that we could regularly peruse recommendations in every field I have an interest in, and fields I might be interested in learning more about. It would have to be someone who had no agenda other than to help us navigate the literature flood as it pours into the e-space. Some way to navigate the Sea of Publication.
Let's do the math (warning, wonkiness ahead). Over the last five years, there were 1,141,540 papers published per year that were listed in PubMed. If you read them for 8 h per day, 5 days week, for 50 weeks year (I'm giving you weekends off and a two-week vacation – even if I don't give these to myself), you would have to read about ten papers a minute (okay, only 9.5) to read them all. And of course, I'm assuming that you have nothing else to do.
But what if we had 600 people, all well versed in a variety of scientific disciplines, spend their time reading this literature? If each one spent an hour on a paper (which is too much time for many papers), they could do it, in principle. They might even be able to make notes and recommendations.
Let's get more imaginative. Let's make it 1000 readers. Suppose that each of these people ‘covered’ overlapping fields of research. Suppose we assembled this group into strata: fields and subfields, covering all areas of biomedical endeavor. And let's pretend that they had a mandate to compile the ongoing progress of every field, not only recommending specific papers but summarizing the progress for ‘consumption.’ Not only for scientists but for any interested party. This would include the interested parties who generate the funding that directs public money into the research effort. The work this group would do would not be focused on the IF of the journals, they would at least look at everything, striving to be unbiased.
Yes, I'm suggesting Mole's Center for Unbiased Literature Exploration, or MOLECULE. Every week, MOLECULE will provide you with updates on scientific progress, with recommendations for reading (for those who read). MOLECULE advises governments, industrial concerns, researchers, advocacy groups, and the public at large. We're thinking about adding a branch for scientific education, using the most modern educational tools, and we will have very cool CGI. And the readers in MOLECULE, because they read so much, are quickly becoming sought-after experts (but you can't hire them, because they have such a great benefits package).
How did we pay for all this? Easy. Massive amounts of money are spent on research. MOLECULE is an essential part of this endeavor, and relatively little of this budget has been appropriated for this purpose. Its Readers were recruited from the ranks of bright, young, research scientists who love science but do not love bench work, and were thrilled with the alternative that MOLECULE provides. Oh, and because the public were so happy with all the progress that they hadn't known about, pressure was placed on governments to make more money available. Hey, it's a lot cheaper than a war. Actually, it turned out to be a lot cheaper than an aircraft carrier that will never be used in a war. (Here's a factoid: about 20 years ago, a military tank was developed that cost more than all the money that had ever been spent, publicly and privately, on cancer research. I'm sure that there are more current examples, but I don't tend to follow such things.)
Wait, sorry. MOLECULE doesn't exist. If it did, we might not care about IFs any more. Maybe we wouldn't care about journals (but, honestly, I think journals would still have an important role, as would expert reviewing of manuscripts). But all of this is just a dream on a lazy, lovely beach.
Oops, there's a scientific meeting starting – I'm supposed to be there. Meet me in the bar after the session?