Brave new world

I’ve seen three loosely linked documents recently which paint a picture of the new world of reseach funding and publishing we are entering (two things which are not unrelated).

The first was an article in The Guardian about a letter written to the British Prime Minister (he who cannot be named here) about cuts in research funding for chemistry in this country. Specifically, they were concerned about synthetic organic chemistry, the discipline which creates new molecules with potential influence on “vast tracts of human endeavour from molecular archaeology to molecular zoology”, which has been selected for a funding cut. The letter was signed by “more than 100 of the world’s most senior chemists, including six Nobel laureates”.

Could mathematicians take such concerted action? I think a more reasonable question is, would anyone take the least bit of notice if they did? This despite the fact that, as Angus Macintyre has argued, one single mathematical advance, elliptic curve cryptography, contributes far more to the economy than the whole of synthetic organic chemistry…

Then came Nature, with a courageous opinion piece by Nai-Xin Wang on the wrong direction that Chinese chemistry has taken by chasing impact factors. He says many things in the piece, but this in particular:

Research proposals are judged according to the impact factor of a scientist’s previous publications. […] Worse, the salaries of my chemistry colleagues go up and down depending on a complex mathematical formula based on the impact factor of the journals in which we publish our work …

This is particularly damaging because it has the effect of encouraging short-term research, which will lead to publications in fashionable journals within a year or two. He describes current chemistry research in China as a “Vanity Fair”.

Wang claims that synthetic organic chemistry is particularly vulnerable because “papers […] often feature new synthetic routes and skills, but because some of the reactions involved are common, they are too often dismissed as lacking innovation and novelty”.

He expresses hope that change will come, but is not optimistic that it will be soon.

The bridge to the third document comes in the following paragraph:

Texts that teach scientists how to write first-class papers […] are popular in China at the moment. But too often these perfectly packaged and neatly written papers discuss empty concepts.

On the facing page of the journal is an advertisement from a major international publisher offering “publishing help” including developmental editing, feedback on content, organisation and presentation, advice on suitable journals, and language editing.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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