Long Maturation Times

Don’t be misled by citation figures! (23)
by Ralf Neumann, Labtimes 03/2010

Journal Tuning

Rassie was a taxonomist. For the past 28 years he had been keeping his university chair warm. Finally, he had been invited to give a big lecture – the topic: the role of taxonomy in the modern life sciences.

Rassie wrestled with his conscience and pondered about what he should actually say. One point, in particular, angered him a lot about this subject: in his view, over the last ten to 15 years, the way life science research was done had taken a sharp turn for the worse. In fact, it had developed into an increasingly short-winded enterprise. “Research is becoming ever more asthmatic,” he normally liked to ridicule.

For certain, one of the many consequences was an increase in the number of people doing life-science research; exponentially the number of researchers had risen over the last couple of decades. Logically, in this way, competition had grown dramatically and especially the young people in this “rat race” were virtually forced to publish faster and faster in order to keep their heads above water.

The paradox, however, was that for taxonomy in particular this was simply not true. The number of taxonomists had even been steadily declining during that same period. Therefore, the taxonomic literature was “aging” much slower and their findings weren’t washed out of peoples’ heads by a flood of subsequent papers as quickly as in most other life science disciplines. On the contrary, most species descriptions can still be dated back to before 1900 and are still relevant today. Thus, it was clear that the average age of references in current taxonomic publications would be much higher than in other disciplines.

It was for this reason that Rassie was always annoyed when someone approached him with impact factors and citation analyses. And so it was that, deep within, Rassie had already decided that he would talk about exactly that issue at the lecture – despite any lingering reservations he may have had.

Coincidentally, he had just come across two wonderful studies the day before. The first one analysed almost 2,100 references that were all listed in seven comprehensive taxonomic review articles from the last year – and finally revealed a mean “reference age” of 61 years with a median of 36 years. Similarly, another author identified an even better mean “reference age” of about 45 years in shorter taxonomic research papers. With these figures at hand, Rassie thought, it should become obvious to everyone that it’s just utter nonsense to assess taxonomic journals by applying that “breathless” impact factor method, which takes into account only the previous two years. Especially, when comparing them with journals from molecular or cellular biology, for example.

In addition, Rassie would top-off the whole effort using his own PhD thesis as the perfect example. After all, his PhD paper had slumbered in the dark for almost twenty years until it suddenly began to rise to one of the most-cited taxonomic papers ever – only because, out of the blue, one of the worms he had described became an important model organism for studying a specific developmental problem.

And while Rassie was thinking about all that, another idea came to mind. Most of the audience would be plant researchers. And what was the clear number one model plant? Arabidopsis thaliana. He would ask the audience: “Who among you has heard of the name Johannes Thal?” He was sure that at best only a few would know, if anyone. “Well, Johannes Thal was the first to describe Arabidopsis thaliana as a species, in the 16th century,” he would smugly reply. “Actually, I guess most of you would have had to quote him.”

Rassie smiled. Suddenly, he started really looking forward to the lecture.

Last Changed: 03.05.2012

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