Product has been added to the basket

Publish or die

usDon Hallett* has been working with GeoRef and finds it a wonderful aid, but...

You just put in a few key words, specify a time interval and, hey presto, up comes a whole suite of references, some from journals you would never think of checking. It comes complete with abstracts, which allows you to decide whether the paper is likely to be useful or not. But the exercise led to some interesting reflections, which led me to question whether this is really the best way to disseminate scientific information.

Publishers take comfort from the fact that most papers are peer-reviewed and therefore not likely to produce embarrassing gaffes, while authors have the satisfaction of seeing their work permanently enshrined in print. Yet how often do authors miss a key paper because it has been published in some obscure journal?


And why so many journals? The number of journals has grown enormously in recent years, but do we really need 10 (ten!) journals in sedimentology or eight for micropalaeontology? And that is not to mention journals published in languages other than English, or obscure conference proceedings. Truly, without GeoRef the task of bibliographic searching would be totally daunting (not to say mind-numbing).

My search revealed some intriguing features. Geologists, it seems, like doctors and schoolteachers, now have to demonstrate performance. It is no longer enough for academic geologists to teach, supervise, arrange field trips and conduct research. If they are to get on, they must publish. The same is true of company geologists, and this has led to the proliferation of multiple-author papers.

Whether the project is carried out by a university department or a company it is now common practice for a paper to be authored by five, six or seven individuals - however small their contribution and apparently excluding only the tea-boy. Then, when promotion opportunities arise a geologist can point to the fact that he or she was joint author on 10 papers in the last five years.


There is also the dubious practice of publishing practically identikit papers in different journals. I have discovered two papers, by the same authors, published in the same year, in two different journals covering essentially the same ground - in which even the titles were identical. Journals too have set themselves performance targets (citation), so introducing an unwelcome element of competition into scientific publishing.

And can anyone explain why an author, or group of authors, publishing a related series of papers, should publish in different places? I have found six related papers by the same group published in six different journals. Why? It seems reminiscent of switching energy supplier every year.

My searches also came up with a few surprises. One was a German paper on micropalaeontology, published in 1943, printed in Gothic and concluding ‘Heil Hitler’! And very recently I came across another in which the acknowledgements included Allah.

Academic publishing may have its problems; but, is it - like democracy – really the best worst system we can devise?

Don Hallett