The science news reported by the mainstream media makes up just a small fraction of research being done. Every day, scientists publish their work in a multitude of journals, but science journalists only really pay attention to the big ones: Nature, Science and so on.
Why? Simply because these journals often publish the best and most interesting research around. It’s not just journalists who think so; scientists agree as well. There is even a measure of a journal’s importance, known as the impact factor, which is based on the number of citations a journal receives. Nature and Science bath have high impact factors.
What about all those other journals? Are they not worth reading? Two scientists from Finland did some research to find out, publishing their paper today in PLoS One. They found that whilst the big journals are often the first to publish breakthrough research, work in smaller journals still contributes to scientific knowledge.
When ranked by their importance, it turns out scientific journals follow a distribution known as the long tail. This means only a very small number have a high impact, with the rest tailing off to not very much. You may have heard of the long tail in the context of online retailers such as Amazon. Though it may stock millions of items, most of Amazon’s profit comes from a small percentage of top products.
The researchers looked at over 15,000 journals using the SCImago journal rank, which is based on Google’s ranking technology. Anything with a rank of 1 or more is considered a top journal, but only 1.6% achieved this. Interestingly, these top journals produced nearly one tenth of all scientific articles.
Even this fraction of new papers is too much for any one scientist to keep up with. The researchers point out that it is “physically impossible” to keep up with the latest research in say, cancer. That would require reading over 11,000 papers every month!
Are there just too many journals then? Surprisingly, no. Only 6% of the journals investigated received zero citations during 2007, the year they examined. It’s true that roughly 40% of citations come from the top 2,000 journals, but that leaves 60% for the other 13,000 plus. Clearly, someone must be reading them.
The media will always go for the big journals. That’s where you get the breakthroughs, the new discoveries, the superstars of science. Next time you read a story from Nature or Science however, spare a though for those scientists working away in the long tail. It may not be glamorous, but it’s certainly useful science.
Michon, F., & Tummers, M. (2009). The Dynamic Interest in Topics within the Biomedical Scientific Community PLoS ONE, 4 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006544