Efficacy Challenges

The Ugly Truth About The Publishing Arena

Does your paper possess the 'Impact Factor?'

An idealized and naive image of the scientific world has it that scientists, moved by nothing else than by the lone ambition of furthering knowledge, share data and information. They submit their results to their peers, who provide valuable comments. Peer review is also the method followed to ascertain that a set of data gathered in a manuscript is worthy of publishing—and the number of publications is one major parameter to decipher a scientist’s progress on the hierarchical ladder. 

Of course, publications in reputable scientific journals are worth more than publications in lesser journals or in books! The story goes that the application of the Almighty for a professorship in an Ivy League University was rejected because He/She never published in scientific journals and His/Her only publication was in a book that was never peer reviewed.

What makes Journal A “reputable” and Journal B not? The deciding parameter selected by the scientific community to answer the question is called Impact Factor (IF).  

IF You Got It… 

IF is the number of papers, printed in that journal, that are quoted by other scientists divided by the total number of papers published in that journal. The higher the IF, the “better” the journal. It could mean, for instance, that journals with high IF have an editorial policy that is more attentive to scientific trends and that the board of reviewers is very selective and rejects papers reporting uncontrolled results, or describing non-relevant ones, or overinterpreting data, etc. It could also mean, of course, that the journal publishes controversial papers that many scientists will quote to get the story straight and promote the triumph of the Truth. Luckily enough, this does not happen frequently so that the correlation between IF and the quality of journals is maintained.

And what makes a scientist “reputable?” Well, the number of published papers and the number of times his/her papers are quoted by colleagues in their publications.

The Path to Glory

So, are the number of published papers and the number of quotations, the non-emotional, objective, independent parameters to assess the “value” of a scientist? Yes, that statement is correct but only under the hypothesis that all the scientists conform to the idealized description of the scientific world reported above. This might have been the case in a remote historical era (and yet, there are examples to the contrary! It is said, for instance, that on the walls of his laboratory somebody wrote: Jesus saves…and Milliken takes credit! And everybody remembers the story of Rosalind Russell and her X-ray diffraction analysis of a specimen of DNA)… Unfortunately, this seems no longer to be the case. 

In the last few months, “reputable” scientific journals are calling the attention of the scientists on several phenomena that risk to severely perturb the balance of a scientific world resting on the tenets of the peer review. 

Let me point out here that fraud or fabrication of data is not really a problem: as a matter of fact, the very essence of the peer review process is that results must be published with all the details to allow colleagues to repeat them. When someone publishes “fake” results, the fraud will sooner or later be discovered. A fraud might have tragic consequences, though, when a drug is put on the market because of fraudulent publications, for sure, but a fraud will not alter the balance of the scientific world. 

What is dangerous, and is happening in these days, is the following. 

First, some scientists undertake to convince other scientists to add their names to the names of the authors of a paper, for a fee. The best is to contact scientists that have an accepted paper in press and convince them to add your name when they receive the galley proofs. 

The opposite also happens: scientists are offered to have their name put on “submission ready” papers, for a fee. By doing so, scientists would put a notch on their belt by adding publications to their CV.1

Second, some authors supported by their institutions, have undertaken to propose financial advantages to members of the editorial board of scientific journals, in order to have manuscript accepted in their journal.1

Last but not least, some authors publish irrelevant papers in lower tier journals, quoting papers by themselves or quoting papers of “friends,” for a fee. By so doing, they artificially increase their number of quoted publications and artificially affect the IF of the journals where their irrelevant papers had been published.2,3 

What About Cosmetics?

In cosmetics, hair care and skin care, I have not heard of this kind of behavior. In cosmetics, we face a plethora of manuscripts intended to be advertising pages for specific concoctions, that are steadily rejected. What we would like to receive are manuscripts reporting results of interest for the cosmetic science community (e.g., physical chemistry of emulsion, clinical results with specific ingredients, chemistry of hair dyeing, etc.). Another aspect of what we face in cosmetics, is the plethora of manuscripts reporting uncontrolled results obtained with ingredients originating from Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic philosophy. These manuscripts are submitted to journals of cosmetic sciences perhaps with the hope that those ingredients will acquire western respectability when the paper describing them is published in a Western journal. 

I am afraid this is a poor strategy. The best way to provide an ingredient with world-wide respectability is to make controlled clinical experiment and publish the results when they are not only statistically significant, but really relevant!

References

  1. Frederick Joelving. (2024) Paper Trail. Science 383 : 253-255
  2. Katie Langin (2024) Researchers buy citations to inflate metrics. Science 383 : 807
  3. Michele Catanzaro (2024) Citation manipulation found to be rife in math. Science 383 : 470

About The Author

Paolo Giacomoni, PhD acts as an independent consultant to the skin care industry. He served as Executive Director of Research at Estée Lauder and was Head of the Department of Biology with L’Oréal. He has built a record of achievements through research on DNA damage and metabolic impairment induced by UV radiation as well as on the positive effects of vitamins and antioxidants. He has authored more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and has more than 20 patents. He is presently head of R&D with L. Raphael—The science of beauty—Geneva, Switzerland. Email: paologiac@gmail.com

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