On ambition

In science ambition has always been understood as the intention to do something interesting, either by solving a difficult problem that will provide a general insight into the workings of Nature (gravity, the atomic structure of matter, evolution….) or to create something that will be generally useful (a microprocessor, a steam engine, the Golden Gate or the ability to perform in vitro fertilization). However, increasingly, at least in the life sciences, the term has adopted a new meaning: ‘where you want to publish’. You are ambitious if you want to publish in one of those journals that we shall call now glamour (rather than high impact-see DORA) and you are not ambitious if you want to publish in less glamorous journals. You certainly lack ambition if you want to publish in a journal like PLoS ONE. This attitude places the challenge not in the scientific problem but in the difficulty of publishing how far one has got down to the solution i.e. independently of its real significance the value of the achievement will be given by where it is published. There is danger here, and we are deep into this path.

For most people the challenge is not any more to solve a scientific problem but to get our work past editors and reviewers; and as we all know it is some challenge. By and large, at the moment, scientific discovery is just the token for a publication which holds the key to jobs and reputations. The ‘best science’, as some of these publications want to call what they publish, is determined by the relationship between the author and the editors and whether the author is prepared to jump through hoops, sometimes expensive hoops, that will be posed to them. Quality and significance of content, really, is not the main issue.

Are we really that insecure? Do we need our science branded by the journals we publish in rather than by our peers or the meaning of our work? It could be argued that peer review achieves this, the judgement by peers, but we all know that the process of peer review has become the price we have to pay to have our work published and only rarely helps as much as we would like. DORA, we are told, will turn the focus on the work rather than on where it is published. It will take time for this to become a feature and much will depend on whether the younger generations want to continue weaving the complicated net that we have laid out for ourselves or whether they are really ambitious and prime content over cover.

In the short term, it would be good if we recovered real ambition and rather than bootstrapping sophisticated techniques dressing the product in the manner that the journals ask us to do, we dealt with real problems. At a time of maximal technical possibilities, we are not being very imaginative nor ambitious about the questions that we ask with them.