09 March 2018

What makes good scientific source?


Yesterday, while I was driving on some errands I listened to an episode of the SGU podcast. At one point Steven pointed out how some person contacted him complaining about bashing the pseudoscience (yoga for a smarter brain) when that particular piece of information was published in what person called scientific journal. In short, Steven pointed out that so-called 'scientific publications' are not really scientific.
In my previous posts, I was talking about what makes scientific journal worthof attention. Now I’ll tell you why not all journals are equal.

Predatory Journals

I was at my first post-doc position, just learning about what is really good scientific journal when I meet the first time one of the bad ones. A new journal, from one of the parts of my ex-country of origin (Yugoslavia), contacted me asking for the paper to be published. I refused it simply because they asked for money, and my boss would never pay for publication in some little fringe journal, especially because we could, as EU institution publish for free in two quite prominent journals from our own area, Astronomy & Astrophysics and Solar Physics.
And frankly, postdocs receive quite small salaries, My first postdoc in the US paid me only $40000 per year in 2008. So you can understand why I just cannot pay around $1000 to get a paper published. Most of the scientists cannot, we are really paid peanuts. So we stick with tried and trusted methods that scientific institutions and universities follow, and that meant, publishing in journals that have proven scientific track record.
Later I learned more about so-called predatory journals, and even had to deal with people who published in such journals and thought that they work is good enough to be used to trump mine. I even talked with a person who was angling to start new journals. See, publishing scientific papers seems like a lucrative business. The most prominent journals require payment from the scientific teams, and they also charge access to their publications. This practice became worse and worse as publishers pushed for more profit undercutting the very point of the scientific journals as a means to share scientific discoveries. If only institutions with money can access the results then how is that public? Not to mention that such practice would slow down the progress of science basically limiting the talent pool.  That is the main reason why there was a rebellion among scientists, and push to make open source journals. One consequence of such a push is an appearance and multiplication of the predatory journals. And those muddied the waters in the scientific publications.
Predatory journal does not care about the quality of the work they publish, a number of citation work can bring, and worst of all, they do not do proper peer-review process. So they end up publishing trash, pseudo-science, and generally bad scientific works.

Bad sides of old trustes journals

But the truth is the old system is not without failings either. As I mentioned, it limits access to the scientific results, basically rendering them useless to anyone not willing to pay huge fees. During my first postdoc in the US, my boss lamented why I did not use his work in my thesis. And I really did not. And the reason was painfully simple. Goettingen observatory where I got my Ph.D. did not have AJ subscription at the time, so since my boss papers were published in that particular journal I never read them. I could not access them. For me, they simply did not exist. So of course, his works never got citations from me.
He is a conservative and started a rant about how wrong the German university and me were for not buying his papers. At the time I could not point out that what he experienced was simply a free market. German university decided not to buy a super expensive journal. So in essence, this line of the events is a consequence of the business decision of the publisher behind AJ. They set the price and thus limited the access to the published papers and potential citations.
However, low-quality open source journals do not solve this problem. They just add a brand new problem.

What makes good scientific source?

The answer is simple, any source that upholds the two major principles, makes sure research follows the scientific method and uses proper peer-review.
But how to find out which source is good scientific source? If you can, visit your local university and ask a scientist who has good publication record (around 2 papers per year of career). But not all of you can do that. Another option is to visit researchgate net, pick a scientist from there and see where they publish papers.
Or you can stick to the old tested methods. This means sticking with the old good names that you heard being mentioned by your parents and grandparents. Those are the safest bet. And unfortunately, those mean going with the very same scientific journals who are limiting the audience by setting high prices. 
But we all need a safe bet. Especially today when the internet is full of the people who fake their identity and post stuff that will make you support their agenda. Just recently I read the news that Russian trolls are pushing pseudo-science behind GMO simply because Russia is trying to break into organic growers market. (I posted a tweet with the link to this news on my tweet account.) And they are not the lone example. Majority of the pseudo-science info is shared to protect someone's profit. That's why is important to learn who funds the research. But that is a topic for another post.
The science is very conservative. I know that sometimes does not looks so because of the effects science has, but the basic and main principles behind the scientific research are very conservative.
It is possible for the new organizations or journals to get in. This happened with some new universities that topped the old ones, and arxiv.org from Cornell University Library is now used more for the obtaining the scientific papers than any other official source (at least in my field).
So, if you do not have scientists around you to tell you which sources are good, go with the traditional ones. Yes, those will not cover your pet pseudo-science theory, but there is a good reason behind that.

Journal's pecking order

Even among the scientific journal, there is a ‘pecking order’, called impact factor. The impact factor is a measure reflecting an average number of citation to articles published in scientific journal. If you are mathematically inclined the equation is:
Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 11.17.56
This formula gives for Nature journal around 41.46 as an impact factor for 2014. And trust me this is an awesome impact factor. The journals I published in had barely factor of 2 (Mainly this is because there are not many astronomers around the world. In my area there are only around 2000 scientists in the whole world).
Anyway, For 2012 list of the top 10 journals was:
  1.  Nature
  2. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
  3. Science
  4. Physical Review Letters
  5. Journal of the American Chemical Society
  6. Physical Review B
  7. Journal of Biological Chemistry
  8. Applied Physics Letters
  9. New England Journal of Medicine
  10. Cell
This list changes every year, but as far as I know, Nature is usually around the top. The journals have rules and guidelines for choosing the papers which will be published by them. The impact factor is important because it also means that the particular journal will be read by the most scientists. Journals are also careful in judging the significance of the scientific paper. Because one bad, insignificant paper can knock the impact factor down.
I have to mention this little difference too, Nature and Science have more-less same rules for the publications of the articles, and both tend to prefer significant scientific papers with a novel and breakthrough results. But Nature has a little section where they give news based on their accepted papers, completely for free, one does not need even to give them an email. Journal Science is more restricted. Now I do have access to Science because I’m a member of AAAS, but that still means I pay for the access with my membership. In my opinion that is exactly what makes that slight difference in citation’s number and why Nature is simply more regarded as the best scientific journal in the world. And that is also the reason that I prefer to share articles from Nature and ignore articles from Science on my blog. I cannot expect people to pay for a subscription.

What journal scientists pick?

As a scientist, one picks the journal that will bring the most citation to the paper. Because a number of the citations are used to judge the quality of the scientist too. Especially if one wishes to stay in academia, a number of citations are crucial. And to do that, scientists targets the journal’s that are most read by her colleagues. That’s why I was always targeting Solar Physics journal and if I had money to pay publications then Astronomical Journal and Astronomy and Astrophysics, in that order. Only a few times I published in different journals, partly because of the misguided patriotism, partly because my work was not significant enough to be published in those 3 journals I mentioned. And of course, those works of mine were never cited by anyone except me, while papers I published in AJ, AA, and SP brought me the most citations. So good scientists will pick traditionally accepted journals.
Because I came from a poor country and all through my grad studies and postdocs, I served as a research paper source for my classmates that reminded in a country, I made sure to put every paper where I was the first author on arxiv.org and lately on researchgate.net too. This automatically caused journals where I published to put my papers in open access. So there are several places where one can get to my papers.


In my future posts I will teach you how to read a scientific paper, so you’ll be able to get to the source of the matter yourself. And you will be able to stop wasting your time on the sources that are not scientific.

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