Science and Nature: "Real" journals?

[Note: Wow; apparently I hit a bit of a nerve, but that's a good thing. I hope the comments keep coming in. Like many of you mentioned I think Nature and Science are good "pop" journals that introduce new research to a wide audience over a wider range of topics, but I am often disappointed by how shallow some of the articles turn out to be. It's not so much about length as it is the effort of analysis/research that ends up in print, so while I think both have their place I do think they're a bit overhyped. I'm sure we've all heard of some scientists who won't publish in anything but Science or Nature unless forced to do otherwise (at least I have), and it's that sort of trend that makes me ask whether a short sketch of an article in a high-profile journal is better than something more detailed in a more specialized publication. Again, this might have something to do with the areas I'm interested in and my own biases as to what I think is important when a new genus of prehistoric critter is announced, for example. Still, both journals fill an important niche even if I think their prestigiousness is a little overblown.]

Every week a slew of new scientific papers are published in the journals Science and Nature, at least one study usually gaining a fair amount of media attention with each new issue. These publications are high-visibility and are considered top tier, but is this designation justified? I've heard some scientists and professors occasionally say that these two journals aren't "real" journals in that the papers within are often too short and superficial to be of much use in scientific discussions; what do you think?

Speaking for myself, I've often been disappointed by paleontology and zoology papers that have appeared in Science or Nature, usually because the papers are so short that they can't go into sufficient detail about the subject at hand. Indeed, some papers seem more like announcements or brevia, almost like teasers to research that (hopefully) will be continued and published in the future. The recent discussion of Indohyus in Nature, for instance, was barely 4 pages long. Contrast that with a paper recently published in the journal Palaeontology by fellow Scibling Darren Naish and paleontologist Mike Taylor on a single vertebra that stretched about 15 pages long and contained plenty of in-depth discussion. I don't want to disparage all papers published in Science or Nature, but if I am to be honest when it came time to renew my subscription to Nature I decided to invest my money in the Journal of Mammalogy instead. Maybe it's just me though; perhaps I'm just cranky or the things I'm interested are better served in other journals while other disciplines have better papers in the two most well-known publications. Use the comments to throw your own opinion in; are Science and Nature all they're cracked up to be?


Taylor, M.; Naish, D. (2007) "An Unusual New Neosauropod Dinosaur From the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England." Palaeontology Vol. 50 (6), pp. 1547-1564

Thewissen et al. (2007) "Whales originated from aquatic artiodactyls in the Eocene epoch of India," Nature, Vol. 450, pp. 1190-1195

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No, Brian, you're right. I think of Nature and Science as sort of "hey, look what I found" journals, while the real meat 'n' potatoes are in journals like JVP.

A PhD student I knew claimed that Science and Nature are the tabloids of science journals, only going for stuff that's currently "hot". He said this rather bitterly as his own research was really cool but built on stuff that had been in the spotlight a few years prior, and hence had no chance at getting published in Nature.

Depends on the audience. I'm neither a paleonthologist nor any other kind of natural scientist; I have no desire to read 15 pages on a vertebra. But it's nice sometimes to pick up a peer-reviewed (right?) publication that gives me an idea of what people are working on these days. And yeah, if there's some major breakthrough, I wanna know about it, but I don't necessarily want to spend half my day on it.

Nice blog post, by the way. Short. :)

Comparing Science and Nature to tabloids is counterproductive, and tantamount to saying that these two journals invent sensationalist crap to sell themselves. What's "real" science? Is that four-page article lies all lies, or is it a decent (if superficial, by your standards) overview of a subject? Perhaps some disciplines are under-represented; one possible solution to that is to address the issue with the journals themselves.

"Scientific discussions" is also a flexible term. Are we talking layman's lunch, or post-conference-session milling?

I have a friend who is a computational biochemist. One day I ran into him sitting in a bar, staring into his beer. He looked like someone had just broken his heart and then killed his cat. It turns out he had a paper ("the best work of my life!") accepted by Nature, only to have it bumped at the last minute by some political hot-button issue they decided to cover instead. And of course, because it was already accepted by Nature, he didn't have a top-tier academic journal lined up as a backup.

Needless to say, my animus is personal. F*ck with my friends, Nature, and you f*ck with me.

They accepted the paper, then "bumped" it...permanently?
Sorry, I don't believe it.

Of course Science and Nature are "real" journals; they're just a) weekly, b) packed with advertising, nooz, features, and advertising, and c) aimed at scientists in general. Nobody wants to read 15 pages of anything that's not right down their alley. The idea is to get the cool, hot, and (ideally) wide-interest stuff out quickly. And though brief, the unusual formatting really packs a ton of info into those few pages. The real problem can be that, by trying so hard to stay ahead of the curve, they occasionally end up publishing crap. But most anything in those journals that i'm interested in is especially cool (again, with exceptions), and sometimes I find myself getting interested in something tangential. Actually, I'm pretty damn proud of myself when I can understand more than half the titles.

By Sven DiMIlo (not verified) on 21 Dec 2007 #permalink

And yes, I have seen several instances of stuff getting published in Science and Nature with the sexy data up and front, and then the same study appearing elsewhere a couple of months later at length and in detail and with much more additional data.

Deep space and planetary flight projects and solar system radar workers report their results in Science, which was why I started subscribing. I picked up Nature because there are some things missing from US coverage that UK covers.

Sven, I may be misremembering some details, and as IANAScientist, I don't know how journals go about these things. The short answer is that Tom had a rather groundbreaking paper on something to do with ion channels, and it was going to be published by Nature, and then it wasn't, and Tom was pretty upset about it.

Based on the timing, and what I remember Tom telling me about it, I suspect it may have been this paper (abstract), eventually published in Proteins.

I probably shouldn't say any more, because I know Tom doesn't read blogs so he's unlikely to come here to clarify, and I invariably get things wrong.

One has to factor in the fact that Nature and Science come out so frequently, with a small number of larger pieces, that they actually equal or exceed a quarterly journal in the number of substantive peer reviewed articles.

Absolutely Real journals. With these journals I can keep somewhat abreast of things happening in the larger world of science and not my specific niche. When I read an article (and accompanying perspectives) about some aspect of the immune system, I want a brief big hit paper. When I want to learn more about my specific area of research, I go to more specialized journals, not because they are better, but because there are at most 5-10 papers in Science/Nature per year that are directly related to my field.

When I worked at a University, the joke about tenure decisions was: "Deans can't read, they can only count." I can see the disease has spread.

Wow, clearly you've hit a nerve here Brian.

Tabloid does seem a little strong, though there have certainly been times when it seems appropriate. Maybe USA Today or TV GUIDE is the more apt comparison?

But, I think we need both really, the focused long-format journals and the more comprehensive short-format venues like S & N. If only to keep different fields communicating (ostenisbly). I'm extraordinarily unlikely to pick up a planetary science or genetics journal, but I am interested in the big discoveries across different sub-disciplines of natural science so it's nice to have them thrust into my awareness now and then in a fairly digestible format. And given the wholesale distortion that tends to occur in a lot of mainstream journalistic outlets, I find even the "Nooz" features in Science and Nature to be fairly valuable.

I do think that Science and Nature are a bit overvalued. It's especially unfortunate when the caliber of research is evaluated solely by the title of the publication it appears in without making any effort to even glance at the actual work that has been done. There's excellent, durable work that gets published in "lower-tier" journals and there certainly is a fair bit of flimsy "cutting-edge" stuff that pops up in the "top-tier."

I think academic administrators owe it to themselves and their institutions to consult directly with the peers of the person they are evaluating and even (shocker) read some of their work rather than just review a publication list. I know this is very time consuming but I think it's well worth the effort.

Most frustrating to me is that it's often very difficult to evaluate some of the results published in these journals since virtually no space is allocated to methods (although the advent of online supplements has helped this problem a bit). We wind up relying solely on peer-review which is critical but not infallible.

On that note: I've heard a rumor that National Academy Members can publish one paper a year in PNAS without review...does anyone know if this is true.

Another thing that irks me about essentially ALL non open-access journals is how much of a fuss they make about science literacy and policy on the one hand, while continually jacking up subscription rates to well outside the range of the average science enthusiast or even most local libraries. Go PLOS!

The length thing is a disciplinary issue. I'm not bothered by the short length of the articles in Science and Nature, because that's standard practice in physics. The top physics-specific journal is Physical Review Letters, which has a strict four-page limit (including figures, tables, references, etc, though there is an exception for collaborations with author lists running to a hundred or so). In physics, we're used to reading four-page papers, so there's nothing surprising about Science or Nature.

It can be a little awkward in discussions with campus-wide tenure review committees and the like, though-- people who are used to 60-page articles have a hard time believing that a four-page article in PRL is way more prestigious than a twenty-page article in Physical Review A.

Tabloids they're not. But it is true they trend towards the wide and shallow rather than narrow and deep. As such - and with all the news, policy and gossip items - they are more about reflecting the state of the research communities rather than in-depth detailed reporting.

I tend not to find very much of great interest in my field (I go to TINS, TICS and Nature Neuroscience for that), and when something of interest shows up it often pays to look up the authors and get their in-depth papers instead.

To be honest, I have a fairly low opinion of the two, though I work in invertebrate biology which the two journals do not regard as 'interesting' enough. Unless you work in genetics or vertebrate palaeontology, your chances of appearing as a biologist in Nature or Science are slim to none.

Leaving aside the question of subject matter, in which I have to admit that my own interests may not necessarily reflect the general public's (and the general public is, after all, more the two journals' intended market), the brevity issue is a serious problem. While Chad Orzei is quite correct that four pages may be quite adequate for a well-written paper in physics or genetics, in other biological fields such as palaeontology or systematics it's far from enough, mainly because a useful paper in these fields requires a fair degree of illustration. I have a serious issue with the sequestration of significant data in online supplementary data rather than the printed paper. Not only have I encountered cases where it has not been readily obvious from the printed paper that such supplementary info was even existent, but there is also the problem of continued availability - I have on a number of occassions tried to download supplementary info from a paper a couple of years old, only to be told that it was no longer available.

Tabloid is too strong. The stuff in Nature and Science is usually selected for the fact that the results are exciting and very broad. The problem is that if you select for big exciting effects you're more likely to end up being wrong (I think the best stuff is in the mid-range of impact factors), and unlike journals like Cell, the articles are very short. What the articles are useful for is getting the word out to a broad audience of a finding that deserves pursuit, confirmation and further study. Articles in Science and Nature aren't studies that complete our understanding of a problem, they're the ones that have made a big crack in the facade of a problem. You go to cell, and the smaller journals to see a problem fully flushed out.

And also remember, if you have questions email the authors! Scientists love talking about their stuff, and you shouldn't hesitate to write and ask for protocols, reagents or further explanation.

Although both certainly have their faults, I suppose much of their value depends on how important you think it is that scientists learn about findings outside their own, specific fields.

A journal that focuses intensively on a single subject will likely be too challenging for those not already familiar with it - the balancing act between depth and accessibility is a difficult one.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 21 Dec 2007 #permalink

Well, couple of points to mention. Coturnix and other bloggers have recently covered *CNS Disease* - go check

Please also check out this
recent interview (video) of Prof Richard Smith which to me is both relevant to this discussion

The Nature/Science model has unintended consequence of rewarding mediocrity. I know of several instances where the least competent of competing research labs got published in Science/Nature, all because they took shortcuts that produced faster but lower-quality work. The labs that based their results on a larger, more quality-controlled data set with more careful analyses ended up being shunted to the lower-tier journals.

This wouldn't be a problem except that the people producing the crappy work get rewarded with grants, jobs and tenure, while those working more carefully have a harder time.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 22 Dec 2007 #permalink

They're real journals, but most of the papers in them are wrong, or at least put an interpretation on the data that requires standing on your head and squinting to believe. Generally, a paper in Nature or Science is useless for actually moving science forwards, whether it be by solid knowledge that can form the basis for further work or by introducing concepts which clarify the approach to a question.

For example, a recent paper claimed certain eukaryotic kinases were important as targets for pathogens subverting host cells. They showed data from Vibrio cholerae and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and the kinases were the same for both. Oh, and in the supplementary material they showed that the same holds for Mycobacterium smegmatis, which is completely incapable of causing pathogenesis in anything, and has no interactions at all with the host immune system. Anecdotal, yes, but this is pretty much what appears in vanity journals.

Oh, and on a comment above: a four page paper is absolutely insufficient for almost any genetic paper, as serious genetics requires very careful controls and calibrations. There are physics papers that can weigh in under four pages, but they tend to be someone solving an outstanding problem that's been bugging the field for a while.

Not to mention that the editors of both journals are clueless, can't write, and know nothing about statistics.

(Note that I have never submitted a paper to either journal, have no intention of doing so, have no involvement with any other journal that would bias me, and don't care what journal a paper is in as long as I can get to it without paying.)

This wouldn't be a problem except that the people producing the crappy work get rewarded with grants, jobs and tenure, while those working more carefully have a harder time.

This is the problem with these two journals. Publishing in either of these two seems to have become a right of passage for any academic to attain tenure and decent funding. When I started graduate school, I was told to work hard and publish in one of these journals if you want a hope of getting a job - indeed, all the tenured profs (and most of the recent assistant profs)in my department have done so.

And no, not all of the work was of the highest caliber, and often it was comprised of incomplete, but novel, data sets. What impression are younger students to have of professional science and scientists when their work has become pure commodity?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 22 Dec 2007 #permalink

For paleo papers at least, the main problem with many papers in Science and Nature is that some researchers then delay horribly on publication of a full and more useful description of the material. In at least some cases, we're still waiting 10 years later for a full description. . .(and good luck getting access to the material, because "It's still under study, for the more comprehensive paper.")

I guess I have mixed feelings about Science and Nature. On the one hand, decisions about content are often highly political and faddish (though the same can be said of Cell, and probably several other high profile journals as well), and the automatic accolades that follow any publication in these journals are ridiculous. But in the context of science writing, longer and more are not necessarily better, and because of the strict limitations, figures in Science, for example, are often composite and data-dense.

I can think of one example, from my own experience, for which a relatively rapid and short publication is advantageous and desirable. If you develop mouse models for human diseases, you can be guaranteed that several other labs are doing the same thing, probably in the same way. You may have little choice (unless you enjoy being scooped by your competitors), but to get out a quickie initial characterization paper in Science or Nature, as soon as your tumor latency/spectrum or embryonic lethality studies (or whatever) are finished.

When I read an article (and accompanying perspectives) about some aspect of the immune system, I want a brief big hit paper. When I want to learn more about my specific area of research, I go to more specialized journals, not because they are better, but because there are at most 5-10 papers in Science/Nature per year that are directly related to my field.

The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (or JVP) was founded in 1980.

I guess I should have known that.

Beats these usages, for my purposes:

JVPJanatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front, Sri Lanka)
JVPJewish Voice for Peace
JVPJoint Vertisols Project (Ethiopia)
JVPJugular Venous Pressure
JVPJunge Volkspartei (Young Austrian People's Party)
JVPJunior Vice President
JVPJames Van Praagh***
JVPJanata Vimukthi Peramuna***
JVPJesuit Volunteers Philippines***
JVPJanatha Vimukti Peramuna***
JVPJugular Venous Pulse***
JVPJanatha Vimukthi Perumana***
JVPJanatha Vimukhti Peramuna**
JVPJesus Video Project**
JVPJanata Vimukti Peramuna**
JVPjugular venous plasma**
JVPJoint Venture Processing**
JVPJanatha Vimukthi Perumuna**
JVPJanatha Vimuktasi Peramuna**
JVPJugular Vein Pulse**
JVPJeux Video Populaire**
JVPJoint Vertisol Project**
JVPJewish Voices for Peace**
JVPJanatha Vimukthi Peremuna**
JVPJesus Video Projektet*
JVPJoint Venture Programme*
JVPJoseph V Porcelli*
JVPJanata Vimukthi Perumana*
JVPJanatha Vimtkthi Peramuna*
JVPJoint Verification Plan*
JVPJordan Venture Projects*
JVPJanata Vikas Party*
JVPJapan Venture Partners*
JVPJoint Vibrance Powder*
JVPJesuit Volunteer Philippines*
JVPJoint Venture Participants*
JVPJanet Viscount Public*
JVPJacques Vapillon Photographer*
JVPJuan Valdes Paz

Professor Jonathan Vos Post
(or "JVP" to some of my friends).