Today the world is moving fast but we don’t know exactly where this leads yet. As the economy of knowledge inevitably extends its tentacles on the realm of science, what are we, scientists, going to do? So far an increasingly large number of critical voices are pointing out vast transformations that are occurring in the way that science, and scientists, do their activity and especially how such activity is disseminated and valued. These changes are very likely associated to the sheer size of a global science system, and to the growing connectivity of scientists, that corresponds to very fast mutations operated in society by the omnipresence of the internet and of portable computer devices. Indeed, many aspects of life like book reading, travelling, and social dating, have been transformed beyond recognition in the last ten years. Now a few companies such as Amazon and Facebook can manage in an instant the information and opinion of millions of people that in turn influences the way each person’s decisions are made. Correspondingly, the complex processes of scientific peer review and publishing of scientific papers are reduced to a matter of weeks. Dissemination takes an instant. Is speed the main criterion for the evolution of knowledge?
Science is in a way a big ‘industry’ today and simple and swift methods to attribute value to scientific activity have been adopted that are now widely spread. The value of scientific work is becoming increasingly associated to the face value of the journal in which it is published, so that the final objective of doing science in these days is to get as many papers in such journals (put here Science and Nature, or the large impact factor journals of your field), rather than to solve scientific problems or challenges that the researcher deems important, original and innovative. Scientific competition and scientific races have been always part of scientific production, and probably represent a part of the thrill of scientific publication. “Publish or perish” is a very old master rule, but the publishing process was slow. One scientist could invest time, in the scale of years, to solve a particular problem at his/her own initiative, without penalization. Now, the digital interconnection and the speed of communication makes everyone under intense continuous scrutiny on a day-to-day basis.
The elementary reason for the impact factor metrics was to value top quality scientific work in an easy and convenient way. This metric has become very popular among scientists and even more among managers, who value most of all things that can be easily accounted. In principle a panel of unbiased experts could value high quality work of its own, based on certain qualities of the results; say the originality, the effect it has on the scientific activity of others, the previous production of the main author, the technical perfection, and a multiple facets of dimensions that make a particular scientist very good or outstanding.
But according to the perception of many scientists and scientific managers, today such evaluation can be done instantly by looking at the number and impact factor of publications or to bibliometric indexes such as the h-index. The consequence is that the focus of scientific work, which used to be to make high quality work in order to perform an admirable trajectory, is now centered instead in making a good bunch of high impact factor publications, ensuring a large dissemination of related work which warrants higher citations. There is a clear inversion of value…