Pop science

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Research nowadays is fixated with the notion of generating “high impact” work. “High impact” work is published in “high impact” journals and funding bodies are looking for “high impact” proposals to support. An appealing comparison can be drawn with the world of music, which has its own synonym for the phrase.

It’s “mainstream”.

By definition, the music charts are dominated by the best-selling and most popular recording artists, but where the two worlds differ is in their treatment of these pop stars. In music, it’s understood that while a credible artist can achieve worldwide success (think Adele, Abba, Mark Ronson), riding high in the charts by itself is no guarantee of musical quality (think Steps, Westlife, Peter Andre). Pop artists are successful because they appeal to the mainstream, irrespective of the quality of their output.

In science, it’s different. If science were music, then it would currently be standard to hail everything that’s topping the charts as automatically being of high quality. A bit like saying that just because James Blunt is number one, he stands on a par with the Beatles. And it all comes back to that phrase “high impact”.

Work is labelled as “high impact” for at least three reasons. It could be a genuinely significant and influential contribution to any given research field, or it could be work that is potentially of wider relevance to fields other than its own. Here the label is entirely merited, as with the Adeles, Pink Floyds, and Amy Winehouses of the recording world. However, work is also designated as “high impact” if it’s likely to be read by a lot of people – in other words, if it’s popular. Like Dido.

As in music, in science there are trends – certain fields will wax and wane in popularity and there will be migrations of both people and money as these shifts occur. Journals, especially for-profit operations, have an incentive to keep their circulations high, and that means hyping whatever is popular – mainstream – at this point in time. No point releasing a dubstep record when everybody’s listening to singer-songwriters at present.

This shifting of taste and popularity is entirely natural, and reflects a healthy and dynamic enterprise that’s undergoing constant evolution (like music). However, calling music “mainstream” isn’t necessarily a criticism – it just means that it’s designed to appeal to a lot of people at this point in time. The “high impact” label in science is however much more problematic, as it suggests that the work deserves special status, when in fact it may just be from a field that’s currently in the spotlight.

Journals, of course, are very possessive of their “high impact” status, guard it jealously, and are only too happy to encourage the notion that work published elsewhere is of lower quality. Ironically, one of the early justifications for the now-notorious “impact factor” was that it would permit scientists to gauge the quality of work not simply by looking where it was published. Over time, the “impact factor” has instead allowed “high impact” journals to consolidate their status. Worse, it’s created a proxy where work published in a high impact factor journal is assumed to automatically be of high quality (it’s often not). The obsession with publishing in “high impact” journals has become so pervasive that if a journal’s impact factor drops, it can result in people refusing to publish there until the metric returns to its previously lofty heights.

But popularity and quality are two different things. There are plenty of artists out there who have sold millions of records (2Unlimited, Boyzone, Scooter), but nobody would claim that they’re making great music. In music, it’s understood that pop music generates the most money and sells the most records, but that doesn’t automatically confer respect. Nobody tries to claim that pop music is by definition better than niche music. And it’s OK to be a professional musician but stay clear of the pop charts and simply do your own thing.

In the same vein, it’s high time that we stopped assuming that work that’s published in a journal with a high impact factor is by definition high impact itself. There are plenty of one-hit wonders, Christmas number ones, and Pop Idol winners, but a genuine crossover hit – the real high impact, high quality stuff – can only come along once in a while, not several times a week. It would remove a lot of undeserved mystique if we referred to certain journals as “mainstream” instead.

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