Finalist #2 of the Book Review Contest
I wonder if someone has a historical trove of instructions to letter writers for tenure cases. When I write tenure letters these days, I am specifically asked to comment on the venue of the publications of the candidate, as well as the quality of the publications themselves. The idea is that prestige of venue is something that is more legible to a Dean or provost or regent while quality is only legible to disciplinary specialists. If this was a change in the 1970s, that would make sense for a rise in importance of prestige of journal, rather than just employer.
The 1970s would make sense as a time for this. I hear that the worst academic job markets before the 2008 financial crisis occurred in the 1970s, as baby boomers were completing their phds, but the universities were all full up with faculty of the previous generation hired to teach boomers as undergrads, so the boomers largely got shut out. (In philosophy, see: http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2011/12/baby-boom-philosophy-bust.html?m=1 )
Interestingly, my personal opinion of Nature and Science is that they’re prestigious places for people who publish really awful work in social sciences and philosophy, because they don’t know how to referee these things. The one paper I think of most that was published in Nature is a truly awful one by Karl Popper and David Miller in the 1980s where they publish their millionth denunciation of bayesianism, on the grounds that probabilistic support of H by E can be factored into the support E gives “H or E” (which is deductive) and the support E gives “H or not E” (which is negative). Thus, they conclude yet again that there is no thing as positive inductive support, and we should all be falsificationists.
[Meta] Could we (somehow) use a Manifold market instead of voting to determine the winner?
> In other words (and getting rid of the old-fashioned capitalization of random adjectives and nouns)
Why did people stop using capitalization for emphasis? If you capitalize according to specific rules, the capitalization is redundant. Only arbitrary capitalization expresses something. Consider for example "Scientific Work", "Scientific Discovery" and "Scientific men" - "Work" and "Discovery" are capitalized but "men" isn't - that suggests a focus on results over individuals. Or consider "Daily Life". The usefulness for "Daily Life" is not treated as something shameful, something that makes science less pure, but a matter of Pride.
Maybe improvements in typography and printing made other kinds of emphasis possible - bold, italic, etc.. Capitalization still is used for emphasis on platforms that allow only plaintext.
>Why doesn’t Making Nature talk about this? One possibility is that the Guardian article is mistaken or exaggerated. Surprisingly, this was difficult to fact-check: I googled around and didn’t really find any other references to Cell having had such a transformative effect on scientific publishing. It could mean that the real effect wasn’t that dramatic — or it could mean that Cell’s impact has been overlooked. I’m tempted to believe the latter, since I otherwise don’t know of a good explanation for Cell’s considerable prestige.
The Guardian's article about Cell is correct, it really was founded with the goal of being exclusive and prestigious. I don't think Cell can be formally proven to be the cause of increasing selectivity across publishing as a whole, but it certainly seems plausible.
"I grew curious about this when I realized that most researchers treat journal prestige as a given. Everyone knows that Nature and Science matter enormously, yet few would be able to say why exactly."
We should be curious indeed when scientists take an obviously non-scientific criterion such as prestige "as a given." While the review delves into *how* Nature came to acquire its prestige, perhaps the deeper question is *why and whether* prestige should play the role it does in institutional science. This question cannot be adequately answered in a merely sociological or historical way.
I'd never heard of Cell when I first came across a paper related to my work in it. The quality of research was just a step above anything I'd seen in domain specific journals. It's the same thing with Nature and Science. They reign supreme because that's where anything worth reading is published. Many pharma companies won't even research a lead compound if the discoverers didn't publish in a CNS journal. There's too high of a risk that the original research was done badly and it won't replicate.
EDIT: I agree with both commenters that I'm being overly harsh. There are some good domain specific journals. There are just A LOT of bad ones.
Darwin's book (perhaps one of the ten most influential books ever published) was called "On the Origin of Species".
Some thoughts as a mathematician:
Pure math has a prestige hierarchy that is somewhat independent of the rest of science, but very comparable. Top math papers are never published in Science, Nature, or (obviously) Cell. My understanding is both that they wouldn't be accepted and that mathematicians wouldn't want to be published there (well, it would be good for tenure, but not for social reasons).
But math has its own set of the top most prestigious journals, which consists of Annals of Mathematics, Journal of the American Mathematics Society, and Inventiones Mathematicae, plus or minus two depending on who you ask. They were established in 1874, 1988, and 1966 (so the 19th century or roughly around the 1970s).
Making a journal more prestigious by being more selective, or creating a new very selective and prestigious journal, is something people try to do, with some success. The key is that you need people to submit enough good papers - just rejecting all papers is neither a sound business model for the publisher nor going to lead to any prestige. This is usually done by getting top people to serve as editors and asking them to ask their friends to submit papers. Having top people as editors sometimes helps to draw submissions all on its own, as does having some kind of positive mission such as a commitment to diamond open access publishing.
Despite the fact that selectivity is generally seen as the key to prestige, some journals maintain large backlogs, which often leads to editors asking reviewers to be very selective. I'm not sure what happens but I guess that reviewers, biased towards their field and with an accurate view of the journal's past quality, don't raise their standards high enough and editors have a hard time going against the reviewers.
The current system where you put your papers on arXiv so people see it and then publish it a journal years later so tenure and grant committees will know how prestigious feels so natural that I have no idea how it came about. It's interesting that there was a similar-ish system in the 1800s, but Nature and Science have switched roles!
I would guess that, what happened in the 1970s is not the specific influence of Cell but rather broader social trends created an opportunity for journals to ride the selectivity => prestige => more submissions train which Cell took advantage of. I would guess the increasing size of academia made it harder to evaluate people based on personal knowledge, leading to greater pressure to use journal prestige as a key factor, and then the growth slowed making the job market more competitive.
In general a lot of facets of society seem to have gotten more competitive, with people doing more and better-quality (at least as legible to an outsider) work to achieve the same jobs.
Interesting review, I didn't know much about the background of Cell!
On the impact of the web: another journal perhaps worth including in this discussion is eLife, which attempts to reimagine the prestigious journal in the age of web browsers and preprint servers. It may not be well-known by the public yet, but it is taken seriously.
Suppose that you wanted to create a new scientific journal. For example, I think that there are some Seeds of Science people around here.
What should be done to make this new journal successful?
This is a very interesting review, and pretty well written, so well done Mr/Ms Author.
I would agree the prestige matters a lot more now than it even did at the start of my scientific career (in the 80s). In those days, it was *starting* to matter where you published, but it still wasn't all that important, so long as you picked a "respectable" journal. You could make different choices depending to some extent on the community that you knew read each journal, and who you particularly wanted to reach. But, yes, one's reputation depended a bit more on stuff like how many people cited you, or invited talks, and less on which journal your articles appeared in. That slowly and significantly changed.
Why so? I agree this is a $50,000 question, and a lot of people have wondered about it. I'll give my own WAG based on nothing in particular other than been around a while.
It's valuable to remember that *before* the Second World War, being a "scientist" wasn't an especially prestigious (or well-paying) career. It was sort of like being a painter, something certain people had a fetish for doing, and what happened in the field was quite interesting to others with similar perversions, but not so much outside of that area. Science did not pay much per se -- most people were hired by universities to teach, and did science kind of on the side, because they wanted to, but it didn't pay, and nobody *aside* from other scientists really cared whether you did it or not. There was no such thing as the government research grant, the securing of which occupies a shocking amount of the modern scientist's time.
The war totally changed all that. It became manifestly clear to all governments that scientific research could pay off big time -- could produce new technology for fighting wars, typically, but also technology that could establish dominance in civilian areas as well. I'm not sure why the war catalyzed the latter as well as the former, but it did. Before the war, technical innovation was something that arose from private efforts and private means. After the war, it was considered an appropriate field of endeavour for government -- government was *expected* to encourage and support technological innovation. The NSF was founded in 1950, NASA in 1958, DARPA in 1958, the NIH was authorized to support research with money in 1944, and so on.
Concomitantly with this there came a giant surge in the public visibilty and prestige of science. Science built the atom bomb. Science gave us rocketships, and lasers and radar, and computers, and penicillin. Wow! The visibility of basic research and the belief that it had a strong impact on everyday life rose steeply in a way that is probably historically unprecedented.
Initially this was probably just gravy for those who were in a position to benefit -- those who were already scientists in the 1940s and 1950s, who had grown up in the old system. No doubt the surge in prestige and money encouraged many people who were already educated (at the undergraduate level) to go further in their education, get PhDs, and get into science -- as it was meant to. But I think for a long time the supply did not grow as fast as the demand, in part because it just takes a long time to mint a new scientist. Someone has to go to college, major in science, then go on to a graduate education. So, starting from an interest at age 15-18, even when a post-doc wasn't de rigeur it still takes ~10-15 years.
However, what *also* tremendously increased post-war was an encouragement by the government for young people to go to college. College enrollments just exploded after the war, thanks to the GI Bill and a steady stream of government encouragement (financial and otherwise) since then. Going to college in 1935 was, again, something you did if you had a yen or were part of some social elite that needed to make contacts within your social class. It wasn't seen as a big career skills foundry until after the war.
Eventually the supply *did* catch up to the demand, and (as is the nature of things) overshot. More and more young people went to college, more of them majored in science, and more of them wanted to be scientists. But as the supply caught up to the demand, supply-side (labor) competition emerged, not surprisingly. Ordinarily this would just result in a decline in wage, but science is unique, in that the salary of the scientist is actually not the biggest component of the labor cost. It's more the cost of the grants he controls, and that he occupies one of a relatively few positions at a prestigious university, and neither of these things can readily change. So in this strange non-free labor market, the result of competition was supply rationing: a greater number of would-be scientists competed for a relatively unchanging number of faculty positions at prestigious universities, and for a fairly slow-growing number of research grants.
Once that competition becomes established, and fierce, then prestige starts to matter more and more. People start scrutinizing the quality of the research you produce, and making judgments, and the prestige of the journal is just one more factor to assess those things.
The timing fits: if the demand accelerated circa 1950, and it took 10-15 years for the supply pipeline to start delivering more, the supply would have started surging in the 1960-65 timeframe, and by 1970-75 competition would start becoming a big factor in the scientific career.
 Parenthetically, it's interesting that the similar surge in visibility and impact of networked computing in the 90s through the present has come mostly from private sources, significantly undercutting the post-war proposition that government can usefully catalyze technological progress. I would not be surprised if there has been a slow decline in the prestige of traditional science for just that reason -- and this may have something to do with the fairly surprising level of contempt shown towards (particularly government-supported) science during the COVID pandemic. Yes, mistakes were made -- but in a previous age they would've been glossed over.
These journals are much like universities. It's extremely difficult to build prestiege with new journals/universities, meaning that those with entrenched prestige can do all kinds of stuff (e.g. Nature embracing anti-scientific woke ideology, the well documented nonsense that takes place on campuses these days) and it doesn't matter because nobody can possibly compete. This is a real problem (if you care about truth rather than ideology).
This review feels like the beginning of a much larger conversation I didn’t know I needed to know about. I don’t really want to read the book but I do want to read more by this writer.
> Leaving aside Cell, a more specialized biology journal that seems to have gotten into the CNS acronym the same way Netflix got into the FAANG acronym
I don't understand this. It sounds like it's supposed to be a slam against Cell, but the way Netflix got into the FAANG acronym was by paying comparable salaries to everyone else in there. The analogue in journals would be that publishing in Cell provides comparable prestige to publishing in Science. How is that a slam?
My vague impression is that articles in Nature and Science are somewhat less trustworthy than in mid-tier scientific journals because Nature and Science like publishing articles that make Big News. But when you publish a lot of "Who Knew?" breakthrough articles, some of them will turn out to be kinda not true.
In fifty years' time, people will be writing about the origins of The Astral Review's utter dominence of the book review journal industry.
If Scott plays his cards right.
I'm on to you, Scott.
This is a superb review: or perhaps I should say superb *essay*, since it mostly felt like an essay on the topic, using the book as the primary but definitely not the only source, rather than a review per se. (Of course, the "essay masquerading as a review" is itself a well-established type of review, including the ones Scott does, so that's hardly a criticism).
But this was extremely interesting. An early front-runner for the top slot, and one that will be hard to beat. Chapeaux!
The first error that jumps out at me: twitter doesn't belong in the discussion at all. It's a deep layer of hell, not any sort of useful information source.
This is a thoughtful, well-written review on a frankly disappointing subject. Reading between the lines, the reviewer has taken a not very interesting or topical book and injected it with as much ACX-bait as possible. Social media! Academic incentives! Status equilibria! Whatever happened in 1970! Huxley!
To be fair it's *good* ACX-bait; the comparison of Nature's early days to Twitter was thought-provoking, and the analysis of its later success in terms of network effects seems on-point. But there's only so much a book review can do without going entirely beyond the material of the book. In the end the review just didn't bring as much to the discussion as I wanted and so I have to rank it behind reviews of more interesting books.
But I still enjoyed reading it, of course. As always, many thanks for contributing!
"A fun puzzle from the social sciences: what happened in the early seventies?"
The year 1968 was widely recognized at the time as marking a momentous change in the culture, with many ensuing changes happening in 1969 (e.g., in the U.S., environmentalism, Women's Lib, Gay Lib, etc.).
Even seemingly irrelevant social arrangements changed rapidly: all-amateur Wimbledon opened itself to professional tennis players in 1968. Even in perhaps the most conservative aspect of American culture -- golf -- the tour golfers self-liberated themselves from the control of the PGA (which is dominated by teaching pros rather than touring pros) in late 1968. (That's why there is a PGA Championship, going on now, and a newer Tournament Players Championship.)
It was the Zeitgeist.
I liked this because I've been interested in prestige lately. It seems like it represents a funny quirk in how laws are made. Like, The People elect Representatives, who appoint Officers, who enforce the laws made by the Representatives or the guidelines made by the Officers. So far it's very democratic. But none of those people have much expertise in the subjects about which they have to make laws / guidelines. So they have to hire Experts. And how do they know which Experts to hire? Prestige.
If The People want different laws, we can switch Representatives, who can replace Officers. But we don't seem to have any way to get different Experts. The formal political process doesn't have a lever with which to affect prestige -- like, Congress can't dock Harvard 500 prestige points for messing something up. And so academic prestige almost sort of seems like an extra, secret branch of government, with tons of power to affect the laws, but no democratic mandate and little accountability. Which is probably good in some ways, and bad in others.
So the question of what prestige is and where it comes from seems really important.
I'd like to point two factors that could contribute to the discussion, since the text proposes two "disruption points" in nature's history. The first, based on the publication speed, is dated from roughly the sime time that industrial printing processes were being stablished in the northern hemisphere. For example: by 1814, the london-basesd german engineer Friedrich Koenig would have presented his steam-powered printing machine, an innovation that would speed up the printing process by making it possible to print more than 400 pages per hour. However, typesetting was still a manual process and would only be automated around the 1890s with the Mergenthaler linotype machine. Even though, newspapers and daily publications were already a thing and I can see how that influenced scientific propagation.
The other point is related to the second disruption moment of the seventies. Perhaps the peer-reviewing process was a direct consequence of studies in the field of philosophy of science by Popper, Feyerabend and, more recently, Thomas Kuhn. All that these fellas had in common was the idea of the non-dogmatism of science, an aspect that would push its affairs away from authoritarian forms of sharing knowledge. This intrusion of the humanities and social studies in the scientific field might have contributed to the rise of the prestige-oriented publications (yet another form of authority, rather based on the network effect and not on the name of the scientist).
P.S. sorry for english mistakes, not my first language
Regarding the importance of the prestige of Nature/Science, I'd say it seems field-specific to me. In my field (climate science), I don't perceive that having N/S publications is rated as highly as implied in this review - it will be seen as a big plus, but it's possible to have papers in "normal" journals that are regarded as highly. N/S papers tend to fit a particular kind of work - one that can fit in a certain length and where there is an exciting-sounding conclusion at the end. Papers with a really nice theoretical discussion, say, may just not fit there but actually be of higher value. There may also be a bit of an art to writing papers that N/S editors will like that many good scientists don't learn, and so their work ends up elsewhere, and it could be as high in quality. If I quickly think of my favourite papers, the large majority are not in Nature or Science.
Error rates also seem to be quite high in Nature/Science. This might be expected as a result of trying to publish exciting, i.e. surprising, results. But also there seem to be very bad mistakes quite often e.g. conflating correlation and causation, and there was a paper a while ago that basically made a big deal out of finding that 'A' is anticorrelated with 'B minus A' - a correction did actually get published for that one, though I don't think the paper was retracted!
Some scientists in my field are even a bit sneery about Nature/Science - one prof calls them "tabloid journals"! So only ever publishing there (even if you could) may not look that great either.
Take a look at the website of Cell: https://www.cell.com/
Not what i would call amazingly aesthetic.
Might this be an opening for someone trying to start a new scientific journal today? Better webdesign?
Two cents from a theoretical physicist: I never read nature. Actually I never read any journal. But I read arxiv every day. I think in my sub field such behavior is the norm rather than the exception. But it does mean that I am relying much more on my own judgement (and that of the grapevine) over the proxy signal of journal prestige.
Wage growth didn't change in the 1970s. CPI diverged from actual inflation due to the end of the gold standard and various changes in CPI calculations that made it into more of a cost of living calculation. CPI is a really bad measure of inflation.
If you look at the average size of a house in the US, the median size of a new home was 1500 square feet in 1970. By the 2000s it was over 2,300 square feet.
This is true of literally everything. People got a ton of new things (microwaves, computers, cell phones, smart phones internet, air conditioning (it existed previously but became ubiquitous, video games, smart devices, video playback devices (multiple generations! VHS -> DVD -> BluRay), CD players, surround sound systems, etc.), more things (twice as many TVs per household, more cars, etc.) as well as massively higher quality things (TVs, cars, better insulation, better windows, home appliances).
Obviously all of this directly contradicts the notion of wage stagnation... because wage stagnation never happened. Wages continued to increase in real terms.
(disclaimer: I have a nature cover credit to my name. Check out 23 Jan 1992)
Like most mysteries, the answer being sought by the reviewer is hidden in plain sight – but it's answer most people will not like...
What happened in the 70s was that, in reaction to the claims/demands of the 60s, science was "democratized". Like most extreme changes, this was a slow burn (Popper is 1934, Kuhn is 1962), but by the end of the 60s we had the following all lined up
(a) many many more people enrolling in the sciences (and college generally)
(b) many, many more institutions serving these students (each with their own profs wanting to be published)
(c) various versions of the claim that science was more or less a consensus delusion rather than actual truth (along with the other dead white male type claims)
So we have two problems.
The obvious problem is point (b), there's lot of stuff being published, and lots of its garbage.
The less obvious problem is (c). How do they interact?
Well, the truth is that science is an aristocratic endeavor. Not an aristocracy of birth, but an aristocracy of taste. To advance science requires a leap into the dark, and that leap is valuable (ie gets us closer to a better understanding) when the maker of the leap sees some non-obvious pattern in the world. Many can read scientific material, a few can understand it, and a very few can see beneath it to patterns that have not yet been noticed.
But it did not fit the times in the 60s (and has not fitted the times since then) to admit this.
Instead we have seen the rise of cargo cult "scientific methods". These are all the nonsense you are well aware of: statistical tests undertaken with no conceptual basis, just pattern-fishing, by people who have no clue about the mathematics of measure theory; claims about how experiments are supposed to be done; and yes, peer review. Peer review is exactly what the superficial scientific democrat wants: it's a "method" so it's open to anyone, and it doesn't privilege being dead or being white or being male. And who could complain about having three experts (experts? well, they have credentials don't they?) look over a paper and make sure that it doesn't include any unjustifiable crazy leaps of faith. I mean, once you allow people to publish whatever random nonsense they simply intuit, you get crazy ideas like relativity or wave-particle duality, and who wants nonsense like that?
So that gets us up to today: A massive self-licking ice-cream cone of "scientists" who keep each other "credentialed" by publishing garbage (which may not actually be wrong, though it frequently is) but is pretty much utterly useless for any and every task. And this persists because, in the name of "democracy" we cannot admit the truth that the number of people who should actually be scientists, and who can make any useful contribution, is vastly less than the population who, for whatever reason, want to do something science-adjacent.
But there are still a few real scientists out there. And they still need a way to communicate the actually important results to the actual other scientist, especially without being tripped up by moron reviewers who simply cannot comprehend that science is about going beyond the textbook, not about reproducing the textbook.
Which is what makes Nature and Science and Cell (and a few other specials publications like PRL) so valuable. They are where the real scientists hang out and interact with each other, trying very hard hard to stay off the radar of the mob and its eternal desire to drag down to its own level anything sublime and superior.
Nature and Science and Cell have prestige because
- prestige (ie something aristocratic that behaves in an aristocratic manner, and is not ashamed of it) is necessary for science to function, and
- they (perhaps by luck, perhaps by seeing what was happening around them in the 60s and 70s) were willing to take on the responsibility of prestige (eg institute peer review if that's what is demanded, but don't let that actually kill what's valuable)
There were (and remain) very much other siren calls out there, easier and ore popular than prestige. You can be an "inclusive" journal. You can be a money-making journal. You can be a politically powerful journal. But go down any of those paths and you will lose prestige. Prestige comes from the aristocrats appreciating that you are performing your aristocratic role appropriately.
When is it that university administration shifted from being done by faculty to being done by full-time bureaucrats? That would explain the sudden shift to wanting a 'measurable' "impact factor" for evaluating scientist's publication history
As you mention, Nature made its name over the years in large part due to publications by well-respected scientists. This is a model substack is pursuing by poaching highly read authors. It gave the paper credibility and high readership. There is also the business side where Nature simply outlived its competitors.