Tag Archives: science writing

Jenn’s Journal Club: Quantifying Scientific Impact

So since my current job involves a lot of reading of various journals, I come across a wide range of interesting papers on a regular basis. I thought I’d start sharing my thoughts occasionally if one really jumped out at me and today I think I have a perfect inaugural subject for this series: the study of scientific impact [1]. Impact in scientific publishing is a fascinating topic, to scientists and publishers alike. But for me, questions of impact speak to a deeper sense of self as a scientist. We constantly ask ourselves how we are doing professionally. We don’t necessarily get raises, promotions, or new titles often, but our work is constantly moving and changing. We can look at how well each paper does, but how can we tell if we’re poised for greatness, past our prime, or just plain missed the boat?

There is a feeling in Western society, at least, that people who are going to be great tend to show greatness from a young age. We look up to hear stories about Mozart, Pascal, and Gauss showing remarkable talent at a young age and we feel inadequate by the time we’re in high school. We hear about Bill Gates becoming a technology pioneer after dropping out of college and we feel inadequate by the time we graduate college and haven’t had our big break. And yet, the truth is that most scientists don’t have that one big break. This paper looked at the ones who did have a big break: Nobel Laureates.

For years, it’s been accepted that any most-significant output of a creative or scientific mind will come earlier in the career rather than later. And if you create a plot of the probability of a highly-significant (i.e., cited) paper from a scientist versus the time since that scientist’s first publication, you will find that this holds true. However, this plot is skewed by two things: one is that most scientists have a dropoff in publication frequency after an initial early-career rush, and the second is that papers published early have a longer time to gain citations. In order to remove these from the calculation, the authors plotted a different probability.

The authors of this study looked at over 200,000 authors who had been publishing in Physical Review journals for at least 20 years. They looked at a random paper in a given sequence of papers and plotted the probability that a paper will be significant versus its relative position in a history. So basically, how likely a paper is to be significant based on where it is in line. And with this change, they found that the probability distribution flattened, suggesting that the probability of a significant paper over time is actually random. They go on to fully develop and support this random-impact model, as they call it.

And this is major. This means that no matter when in your career you publish a paper, there is a chance it could be your most significant paper, over time. Sure, the paper that’s been out for 20 years is more likely to have more citations than the paper that’s been out for five years, but over time, this will flatten. Significant papers are random events, like cosmic ray bursts of genius. Which means that we don’t need to spend our youth frantically trying to make our mark and our middle years bemoaning that it never came.

1. Barabasi, et al, Science354, aaf5239 (2016).

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On Life Goals and Changes

It has been almost a year since I’ve posted in this space. I haven’t stopped doing science, I promise, but I have had some major changes in my life. As some of you may know, after getting my PhD, I took two postdocs that were both at government-run labs and discovered that I was required to get anything I wrote about my research reviewed before release. Obviously, this put a bit of a damper on my blogging activities because I wasn’t going to put in for approval for every blog post I wrote. In order to avoid this, I kept my blogging about my daily lab life far away from my blogging about actual scientific topics. I wrote a little about lab culture, but without discussing my current research.

And let’s be clear: when you are a laboratory researcher, a lot of your daily thinking about science energy is consumed with thinking about your own research. I found I just didn’t have the energy to learn about science outside of what I need to further my own project, but I didn’t want to write about that so that I didn’t inadvertently break rules at work.

In the meantime, I found myself becoming less and less enamored of laboratory research as a career. When you do laboratory research, you dive deep into one topic or field, and I found that I had broad interests, not deep ones. I loved going to conferences, because I knew just enough science to converse with a wide variety of presenters and understand a variety of presentations. And I started looking into science careers that didn’t involve just doing research.

Of course, my first thought was science writing, which I investigated, but ultimately ended up in a non-writing job in science publishing. It’s a very new experience, but part of my job is to learn about as much new science as I can. So given that, I now hope to keep this space updated a bit more often, and blog about not just social issues that affect scientists, but also new science that particularly catches me eye. And hopefully, it will work a bit more symbiotically than antagonistically with this new phase in my life.

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