The Nature of things

The Nature of things McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 25, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 15
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The Nature of things

All university scientists are under the gun to get their work published in a respected peer-reviewed journal.

It's an important test of a scientist's ability and it's also one of the principal methods used for advancing scientific knowledge -- Scientist A reads about Scientist B's work and takes it a step further in a subsequent study. Or refutes it.

Not all research journals are created equal. There are a few that stand out from the rest.

Journals such as Nature, Science and The New England Journal of Medicine are so well regarded and so well known, having a paper published in them is a feather in your cap that transcends the respect accorded to you for having your work published in a good journal that specializes in only a certain area of research.

A paper in Science might get you interviews with Scientific American and the National Post. That was the case with biochemistry professor Michel Tremblay, director of the McGill Cancer Centre.

Tremblay's paper, which identified an enzyme in mice that seems to play a huge role in determining whether or not the animal will suffer from diabetes or obesity, attracted a lot of attention when it appeared in Science two years ago.

"I've been on the road, talking about that study, for the past two years," says Tremblay. "I've given about 60 talks outside Canada and most of that is from the Science paper."

Publishing in one of the major journals "really gives you credibility," says Tremblay. "It gets you into places you couldn't get into before. When granting agencies see that you've published in Nature or Science, there is often an assumption that your lab must be doing fantastic work."

Says chemistry professor Adi Eisenberg, whose work has also been published in Science, "it's like somebody having his op-ed accepted for publication in The New York Times." Eisenberg was struck by the journal's impressive reach -- a colleague sent Eisenberg clippings about the chemist's Science paper from a Frankfurt newspaper.

"Any author would want to publish their work in a journal where it becomes so visible," says Christopher King, editor of Science Watch, a newsletter that tracks the hottest papers in science. "These journals boast large readerships and they're scrutinized by the popular press."

The media is, in fact, courted by these journals to some extent. Embargoed previews of particularly newsworthy studies are often sent out in advance to select journalists and editors. That's the reason why major Nature or Science studies will be covered almost immediately by the Los Angeles Times or The Globe and Mail -- the papers were forewarned ahead of time.

Biology professor Louis Lefebvre teaches a McGill course about the workings of the scientific world called "Perspectives of Science." He says a handful of journals stand out because "there is a much wider variety of scientists reading them" than is the case with most journals. He lists Science, Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science as the heavyweights in this respect.

Part of their appeal for the popular press, Lefebvre says, is that these journals include sections that pinpoint the major studies inside each issue and "give summaries in layman's terms.

"Journalists often don't even read the papers themselves," when they cover them in news reports. The summaries, which often include discussion among other experts about the merits and flaws of major studies, also appeal to a scientific readership "that doesn't have the time to read about everything in detail."

Professor Grace Egeland from the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment is a new addition to McGill, courtesy of a Canada Research Chair in Environment, Nutrition and Health.

A few years ago, she published a piece in Science, but not a research paper. She co-authored a paper for the journal's policy forum section.

Egeland studies food contaminants in the North and how dietary changes can affect chronic diseases among aboriginal populations. At the time, she was concerned about proclamations that were being issued in Alaska by the Environmental Protection Agency about what constitutes safe mercury levels in fish.

"How much mercury people should be exposed to in their diet is a broad public health issue, not an environmental regulatory one," she says of the EPA.

While mercury in fish can certainly be cause for concern, it all depends on how much fish you eat. "In Canada, people abandoned fish completely" when warnings about mercury were issued. That led to new concerns. "Now we have problems with diabetes because fish has such a bad name. What are [aboriginal communities] eating instead? Hamburgers and fried chicken. You have to look at this kind of health risk issue in a broader way."

Egeland's paper had an impact. The EPA re-examined the question, Health Canada invited her to a workshop discussion reassessing its own policies and CNN interviewed her.

"I felt the message needed a broad audience. That's why I chose Science."

As a referee who occasionally assesses other scientists' work for Science, Eisenberg has a sense of what the editors of the journal are searching for.

"The question posed is, is this something really new? It might be very good work, but if it doesn't offer something really novel, it won't be published. The editors are quite strict -- they want you to explain in detail why a paper is novel and interesting."

"To be published in one of the big journals, you usually need to reach a certain stage in your career where you're relatively well-known and respected in your field," says Tremblay. "The editors need to be able to trust the work that's been submitted. It's very difficult to publish as an outsider."

Biology professor Daniel Schoen, whose work on the reproductive techniques of flowering plants has been published in both Nature and Science, says he has an inkling of what piques the interest of major journal editors.

"It is often something that everybody knows about, something that's been widely discussed, but where there has been no conclusive work done to date."

There is tremendous competition to get published in one of these journals. On its web site, Nature states it only publishes about 10 percent of the 170 papers submitted to it each week.

"From what I understand, in order to get published in Science, you need to get one of the internal editors excited about your work. If that doesn't happen, the work is rejected right away," says Eisenberg.

Tremblay says some scientists will go to surprising lengths to make a personal appeal about their work. "I know of some people in Canada who fly to London to hand-deliver their work to an editor at Nature. The thousand dollars they spend on air travel is worth it if they can get that paper in."

There is terrific competition among these journals, especially between Science and Nature. Tremblay suspects there is a downside to that.

If one journal thinks it has an eye-catching study on its hands, one that will spark headlines, it will rush that paper into print. When Tremblay published his work on diabetes and obesity in Science, a paper that the journal knew would create a stir, Nature rushed another study into print.

The work concerned an exciting new approach to detecting breast cancer, "a sexy topic," says Tremblay, but the study itself didn't seem well thought out. Tremblay wonders if a quest for coverage might have caused the journal to be less cautious than it should have been.

Writing for these journals can be arduous.

"Science places very severe limits on the number of pages you have to work with. You have to be very careful in how you phrase things," says Eisenberg. "Normally with Macromolecules, the premier journal in polymer chemistry, you have five to 10 pages to do a much more substantial treatment of the topic.

"During the Christmas vacation before we published one piece in Science, my graduate student and I polished the manuscript again and again, making sure that every word carried weight. I opened up that document more than 50 times."

"There is some risk" in submitting your research to one of the best-known journals, says Schoen.

"It takes a lot of effort to write a paper like that. You have to get across a lot of information in a small space." And if you're turned down, "you have to pretty much re-write the paper if you end up publishing it in a more specialized journal."

While being published in a major journal pays off in all sorts of dividends, Tremblay says the party does come to an end eventually.

"It lasts for a year or two. Then you have to prove yourself all over again."

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