Publishing – a curse or a blessing?

To view this post in german click here/ Für die deutsche Version hier klicken: 

Earlier on our blog we were reporting on a scientific researcher’s working day, and how experiments are planed and conducted here. In addition to the experimental work, researchers spend a lot of their time writing. At the point, where the experiments finally worked out and interesting new results were found we write an article and publish it to spread the knowledge to the scientific community. So far in theory, in fact it is slightly more complicated.

Actually, we write an article consisting of text and figures showing the results and then have to send it to one of the many scientific journals and ask them to publish our article. We have to choose wisely where to send it and then format it according to the journals guidelines. Then we submit it to the journal of our choice and write a nice letter explaining why we think that our research is worth being published in their journal.

But we do not solely publish to spread the new knowledge into the world but also because a researcher needs a good scientific reputation for job applications. We have to apply for jobs approximately every two to four years, as there are just very few to none permanent positions in basic research in Germany. We also have the so called “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” (http://www.dfg.de/en/research_funding/principles_dfg_funding/legal_aspects/fixed_term_temp_contracts/index.html) also called 12-years-rule, which regulates the maximum duration of limited contract jobs a researcher can take. After 12 years of limited contracts, the employee need to get a permanent position but can´t be hired on a limited contract any more. The idea behind this law was to reduce limited contracts and increase permanent positions. The result is that it is difficult to get a job after 12 years of limited contracts, as permanent positions are not often offered.

Therefore, we need to apply for new jobs regularly and in a relatively short time frame try to become an independent research group leader. For these applications we need “good” publications (syn.: papers) in order to get the good job positions.

What is a good publication?

Nowadays, the value of a paper is often measured in the so called impact factor of a journal, reflecting its citation frequency. Thus, there is a ranked list of scientific journals to publish in. The logical consequence is that many researchers try to publish in the “top” journals. The top journals get a lot of paper submissions and therefore it becomes more difficult to get an article into these journals, as they can select the best ones.

If your article gets not selected to be published in your journal of choice you will get a rejection. The next steps then are reformatting your paper for another journal and sending it there, to try to get it published elsewhere, and so on and so forth. If you are lucky this process won´t take too long until you get your paper published (weeks or months) but if you are unlucky or your data don´t fit into a journal`s scope or the data are simply not good enough to be published it can take years of rewriting and new experiments.

Publishing process

When I was writing my last paper I was asked by a non researcher why we have to apply at the journals to publish our papers and why they would reject papers instead of appreciating that we submitted to their journal. Then I realized I had a hard time explaining this. First of all, we need a quality control. Otherwise, researchers could publish just anything they come up with without checks for the validity of their studies. This is done by independent reviewers that the journal sends the article to, to evaluate the paper. This process is called peer-review. However, we as researcher know that sometimes it is difficult to judge whether a study is worth being published in a certain journal or not. And often the reviewer’s opinions differ concerning the decision.

When I got my paper accepted for publication I got yet another confused question regarding the publishing fee. In fact, I was asked whether I would get money for my article, now that it is going to be published. They thought I would get a payment like someone who writes a book or something similar. I had to deny that and explain that we have to pay the journal a publishing fee, which can be in the range of thousands of Euros (~3.000-8000 Euros/article) depending on the journal, the number of pages, number of color figures etc.. Then there was silence, followed by the question whether I would have to pay that myself and why I would send my articles there and not just publish it for free somewhere on the internet. This brought me again back to the grant writing, we already wrote about here, and that we apply in grants for research money, which also includes money for publications. So no I do not have to pay from my own private money, in my case it is paid by my supervisors grant money. And why we do not just post it somewhere in the internet instead of publishing in a high impact journal although there is a strong selection process and high fees you might already be able to answer after reading this blog: we need good papers for our scientific reputation and job applications… Do you recognize the vicious circle? We need to find new jobs, for that we need publications, for that we need grant money and often we actually also need grant money for a new job, which we bring with us for instance when we go abroad.

Fee-free online journals as a solution?

Nevertheless, lately more and more fee-free open access online publishing sites open up. Here the idea is to break out of the circle and allow researchers to publish their papers without such high publication fees. The advantage of this publishing system is that there is no limitation in publication choices based on money, as also labs with lower money budgets or from developing countries can afford publishing there. Most of the open access online publications still lack scientific reputation and are therefore less often the author’s choice to publish in.

As you see, writing is next to our bench work also one of our major work tasks, also not forgetting data analysis, which is yet another part of it.

I hope you enjoyed reading more about our life’s as researchers and that you understand the process behind publishing scientific research articles.

If you have any question please write us.

Immunoblogist

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