Part of a Series of Excerpts from Prof. Sundar Sarukkai’s Book, ‘What is Science?’

” What does a scientist do when she has solved a problem, derived a new result or made some new observations? Typically, if she is in an academic institution, she will write her result in the form of a research paper. This paper is sent out to a journal in her area. The editor of the journal will send the paper for peer review, meaning that it is sent to other competent scientists who can evaluate the paper and recommend its publication or rejection. Based on various parameters, which differ from one journal to another, the reviewers suggest acceptance or rejection of the paper. They could also, as is often the case, ask for modifications and clarification in the paper. It is not necessarily the case that the ‘best’ papers get published in the best journals. Each journal, in general, has a focus on certain themes and a different yardstick for deciding which paper is publishable.”

” Science as a profession depends entirely on these publications. A researcher’s position in the scientific community depends on these publications. Given the inherent competitive nature of science, it should not surprise us to find that there is a competitive hierarchy in these journals. Some journals like Nature and Science are at the top of the heap and getting published in journals like these is supposed to be prestigious. There is a strong reward system inbuilt into this mechanism of publishing. Awards and promotions are based on the quality and quantity of publications. There are scores of journals catering to each sub-discipline.”

(Page 45)

“The professionalization of publishing industry in science leads to an interesting paradox. There are literally thousands of papers published every month in journals across the world. In physics alone, there are over 1100 journals listed covering different sub-disciplines. Some of these journals publish weekly and you can now imagine the staggering amount of new, ‘original’ work published every week in all of science! Since these research papers are products of new contributions, one should ask whether so much new knowledge is really being created – that too every week.”

” Not really. A majority of the published papers are never referred to by other researchers. In fact, the importance of a paper is measured by the number of citation the paper receives in other published papers. So a given paper has a citation index and journals themselves are ranked according to indices such as ‘impact factor’. The higher the impact factor, the more important a journal is. A paper published in higher impact journal is seen to have more scientific merit. Citation index and impact factors are ways by which the scientific community tries to rate the quality of a paper since they recognize the enormous output among the scientists.”

” A far more troubling question, one that has been raised by proponents of open access these days, is this: Who are the Publishers of these scientific journals? Almost all the big publishers are private organizations. They are also profit-making organizations. Therefore, journals in science are extremely expensive. Almost all the major journals are published in the West. Since they are priced in dollars, pound or Euros, the cost of journals becomes prohibitive for the rest of the world.”

(Page 46)

“As a measure of the cost of these journals, consider the expenditure on journals by libraries in India. Most good libraries in India spend the majority of their budget on journals, sometimes to the extent of 70 to 80%. There are other problems with these international journals. The copyright in general rests with the journals and not with the authors. An author cannot put her paper in the net because of copyright issues. Consider the irony of the situation: scientists work hard to produce quality papers, a journal decides to publish them, the scientist gets no monetary remuneration for these papers and the private publishers are the one who make money in this process. Moreover, the results of the paper are not available in the public domain although in most cases the research might have been funded by government, and therefore public, funds.”

” …a significant percentage of high impact papers come from people who are from US, UK and some countries in Europe. Papers from most of the other nations, with exceptions such as China and Japan, are an insignificant percentage of the total. The citation index of most of these papers are almost nil, suggesting that nobody in the larger scientific world bothers to even read these publications from the ‘other’ nations, including India.”

(Page 47)

” Let me discuss only one possible reason for this disparity: getting published and getting recognized are not merely reflective of quality alone. As commonly happens, an idea becomes prominent only when other scientists in well-known institutions decide to work on that idea and develop it. Almost always, the leaders of science supply these ideas and the army of scientists develop on them. Which idea a scientist decides to invest her energy upon depends on who the author is or the institutional address of the author. Of course, when the idea is radically new it might attract a larger number of scientists independent of who the author is but these cases are very rare.”

” Herein lies the paradox of publication. Most theories in science are ones that are developed in bits and pieces by a large community of science. This community building of an idea into a theory demands that the idea be first taken up by others. Here is where a lot of good ideas by scientists from countries like India lose out, since other scientists do not think it worthwhile to invest in ideas ‘coming’ from places like India.”

” One reason is that there indeed seems to be a lack of confidence among Indian scientists. Brave new ideas are few and far between. There is too much derivative research done by Indian scientists. This is partly because these scientists still depend on the West to validate their work. This leads to a piquant situation – good Indian scientists, in general, refuse to publish in Indian journal. Since the politics of publication is such that Indian journals have a low impact factor, the scientists rightly refuse to publish in them. The belief that validation from the West is more important also drives them to publish ‘outside’. It is generally true that a paper by an Indian scientist which supports or builds upon work done by scientists abroad gets published more easily than work done on another Indian scientists’ idea. Finally, it is also the case that India does not have a significant numbers of research scientists in every sub-discipline. Universities in India have not produced uniformly good work and the Indian model of supporting research institutions has led to a situation where education has been decoupled from research and both these activities have suffered because of this.”

(Page 48)

” This structure of publication has serious implication for the country. Answers to questions such as what constitutes good science and what scientific questions are important are often dictated by the concerns of scientists outside India. This has lead to a complete polarization between the kinds of issues scientists work on and the problems facing the country as a whole. This does not mean that scientists should choose their research based on the presumed needs of their nation but in the Indian case the choice of research problems are often influenced by the decisions of scientists outside the country. This is ironic, since many of the seminal ideas from the West were developed when scientists in these countries chose to solve problems related to their social needs.”

(Page 49)
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