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Spotlight falls on top 1% in science

Nature volume 511, page 387 (24 July 2014) | Download Citation

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Nature's roundup of the papers and issues gaining traction on social media.

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News that a rarified group of scientists has claimed the lion's share of publications has set off a social-media discussion about the fairness of the system. Researchers also took to Twitter to share their take on a controversial paper that posits a microbial view of religion.

An analysis led by John Ioannidis, a health-policy researcher at Stanford University, found that less than 1% of all researchers managed to publish every year from 1996 to 2011, but that those elite few were authors on more than 41% of all papers in the same period. Many noted the similarity between this and claims that the top 1% of US earners hold an inordinate share of the country's wealth. “Occupy!” tweeted Karen James, a geneticist at MDI Biological Laboratory in Maine, alluding to the Occupy Wall Street protest movement that calls for economic equality. Chris Cramer, a chemist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, tweeted that it was “an interesting example of the top 1% CONTRIBUTING 41% (instead of owning?).”

Ioannidis and his coauthors warn that the publishing gap between the top 1% and the rest might be a sign of instability in science. If a few established researchers are dominating the literature, they caution, it will be difficult for others to make their mark. “The research system may be exploiting the work of millions of young scientists for a number of years without being able to offer continuous, long-term stable investigative careers to the majority of them,” they write.

Cramer sees nothing nefarious in those numbers. When reached for further comment, he speculated that less than 1% of people in the scientific workforce have positions that require them to publish on an annual basis. Besides, he noted, if someone wanted to publish every year, it wouldn't be hard to find an outlet. “You've got more than enough bottom-feeding journals out there,” he said. “Some of the predatory ones would probably publish your local phone directory if you coughed up the page charges.”

Aaron Clauset, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, tweeted the take-home message: “For maximum impact, publish consistently.” He also called it a “great read”.

Benoit Bruneau, a researcher at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco, wrote a pair of tweets expressing scepticism about the analysis: “Conclusions of Ioannidis paper, and its premise, are nonsensical. Of course PIs will publish more often than trainees.” And: “impossible to make any conclusion on freq of authorship without delineating categories of authors.” In a phone interview, he noted that the study lumped all researchers together, from graduate students to full professors. Because principal investigators (PIs) have their name on every paper that comes out of their labs, they will naturally have many more publications than most postdocs and students, he said. Ioannidis and colleagues, he added, reached “sinister conclusions about what all this means for the future of science. But I'm surprised they even did this analysis. I think they're doing a disservice.” He thinks that it would be more informative to analyse the impact of PIs alone — if a small number were publishing much more often than other PIs, that would be worth knowing, he said.

A trio of Russian researchers stamped their names in the literature — and inadvertently started a conversation about open peer review — after publishing an intriguing hypothesis. They propose that certain microbes gain an evolutionary advantage by encouraging humans to perform religious rituals. The authors claim that many of these, including Christian Holy Communion, Islamic ablution and Hindu plunges into the Ganges, could potentially spread infectious agents. The authors speculate that, in much the same way as the single-celled parasite Toxoplasma gondii changes the behaviour of rodents (infected mice are less afraid of cats, for one thing), some bacteria or parasites might prod humans to perform the types of ritual that let microbes thrive. This, in turn, would make certain microbial communities more common among the pious. The paper prompted Aaron Hardin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, to tweet: “I'm willing to bet that pilgrims who kiss the toe of St. Peter in the Vatican share some microbiome.”

The paper was published in an open peer-review journal, and so the pointed critiques from the original reviewers — as well as the authors' responses — were in full view. In his review comments, Dan Graur, who studies molecular evolutionary bioinformatics at the University of Houston in Texas, wrote that the predictions of the hypothesis were too open-ended to really test it — and that he doubted the hypothesis was correct. And reviewer Rob Knight, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, noted: “No actual data are presented in favor of the hypothesis; this would of course strengthen the manuscript considerably.”

In response to the reviewers, the authors reiterate the basic pillars of their suggestion: microbes have been known to control hosts, some rituals could spread microbes and certain rituals can seem irrational. Acknowledging that they haven't provided any new data, the authors write: “We agree that this isn't much, but after all we are proposing a hypothesis that has yet to be tested.”

Willem van Schaik, a medical microbiologist at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, joined the conversation by tweeting: “Surprised that editor let this manuscript pass, even though reviewers (@DanGraur a.o.) basically said that it's nuts.” In another tweet, microbiologist Nick Loman at the University of Birmingham, UK, called it the “best argument yet against open peer review”.

For the record, Graur didn't use the word “nuts” in his review. He did, however, call the paper “thought provoking and amusing”.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/511387e

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