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Evolution and Publishing Biomedical Research

Twa, Michael D.

Optometry and Vision Science: July 2016 - Volume 93 - Issue 7 - p 657–659
doi: 10.1097/OPX.0000000000000929

Optometry and Vision Science, like many other biomedical research journals, is undergoing a quiet transformation. All forms of publishing have been transforming since the late 1990s when the world-wide web was established for broader commercial use. Traditional newspapers have evolved into hybrid products spanning multiple distribution channels that include web pages, print media, smartphones, and even media streaming services, e.g. Apple TV. Bookstores have moved from independent businesses to big box stores to online retailers that have now hybridized into online independent vendors—and it is far from over. Global expansion in funding for biomedical research has changed the demographics of authors seeking publication, and with this shift comes different cultural practices and expectations that are influencing how science is vetted and published. Research publishing is being reshaped by a number of powerful forces that will continue to change how we publish, archive, search, use, and trust the knowledge derived from scientific investigations.

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The Pace of Production

The pace of modern discovery could best be described as feverish and shows no signs of slowing. In 2014, the doubling rate of global scientific output was estimated as 9 years.1 The number of scientific journals has correspondingly swelled to accommodate this volume. Current estimates place the number of active peer-reviewed scientific journals at approximately 24,000 different titles focusing on almost every imaginable discipline and sub-discipline of science.2 For context, the number of submissions to Optometry and Vision Science has tripled over the past 10 years.

What is fueling this growth? There are many contributors. Academic career advancement in the USA and abroad depends upon scholarly publications. Researchers must publish their work to successfully compete for research funding in a hypercompetitive environment. The current National Eye Institute funding rate for new R01 grant applications has declined nearly 2% per year from 2011 to 2015, and nearly 3% per year over the same period for renewal applications (Fig. 1).3 Likewise, promotions for researchers within the US Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs can be influenced by peer-reviewed publications. To some degree, publishing activity is a reflection of the adage publish or perish, but what is the real product of all this activity? Moreover, what is its value? Does all of this activity really translate to a growth in knowledge? Is this frenetic output advancing science or does it suggest that scientific publishing has been coopted to serve other purposes, e.g. career advancement for individuals or business development as emerging publishers look to expand their portfolios? Whatever the reason, it is producing an information paradox whereby we are swimming in content that does not provide much useful knowledge.



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Global Investments in Biomedical Research

The real growth in Biomedical Research is not coming from investments by the US federal government. According to NIH Director, Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH has experienced a 25% decline in funding over the past 12 years.4 As much as 80% of total public and private funding for biomedical research and development came from US sources over the previous two decades; by 2012, that funding fell to 45%.5 Looking at global trends, from 2007 to 2012, the geographic region with the greatest growth in biomedical research expenditures was Asia. While the USA’s annual expenditure rate was −2% per year, China’s was +33%. South Korea, Singapore, Australia, India, Japan, and Taiwan each grew by more than 5% over this same period.5 These economic realities have significantly altered the priorities and direction of biomedical research, and they are changing the content published in Optometry and Vision Science. For the journal, these changing demographics manifest as new author expectations and different ethical boundaries. It is no exaggeration to say that this global expansion of biomedical research funding is fundamentally changing the culture of science, and our journals are often the negotiating grounds for reconciling established principles and traditions with new cultural expectations.

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Quantifying Impact

The first problem of measuring impact in academic publishing is reaching some agreement on what it means. For many years, academics and publishers have debated how to best measure the importance of scholarly publications. Journals and authors of research articles wish to have an accurate count of citations to their work as a surrogate for impact. Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports and Web of Science has been the definitive source for counting journal citations.6 Thompson Reuters do not include counts for all journals (only those who qualify), and their metrics for counting citations is arguably conservative. This has led to alternative metrics. Elsevier, the largest publisher of scientific research journals, has introduced alternative metrics with the same objective, to allow authors, journals, and editors understand the reach of their work.7 Google Scholar has been counting citations for authors and journals since November 2004 and has the most generous inclusion rules for counts of citations that include journal citations, books, conference papers, and other sources. Google Scholar also covers a wider range of academic disciplines and languages. For comparison, Optometry and Vision Science ranks below Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics in the Journal Citation Reports ranking, but is the only optometric journal listed in the top 20 Google Scholar rankings. Although these metrics attempt to give authors and editors some idea of the quality of a journal and the value of a publication, in reality they capture only a small facet of the problem of measuring impact.

Authors and institutions now have access to a number of services for self-archiving publications. ResearchGate is one of the most popular of these and serves as a community for researchers to comment on publications, discover new publications by people they choose to follow, certify a colleague’s expertise, track their own citations, and articles read. There are other similar services offering online social media experiences for academics, but in this case the content is thematically oriented towards researchers.

As with most metrics in a competitive environment, gaming emerges. One way that authors can boost their citation metrics is by citing their own work. This practice is now more transparent as it is possible to discount self-citations. Increasing the frequency of publication by breaking research projects down into many smaller components (i.e. salami slicing) is another strategy, which has the advantage of increasing output, but not necessarily its quality, which ultimately benefits neither the author nor the journal. Journals similarly benefit from adjusting their mix of publications to try and improve their own citation metrics. By publishing work that is more likely to be cited, e.g. review articles or clinical trials, along with reducing the total number of publications, journals can improve their impact factor. Case reports have a notoriously low citation rate and although they are valued by clinicians, when not cited, these publications count against a journal’s impact factor—a reason why several journals have recently elected to spin-off separate case report publications, e.g. Retina and the American Journal of Ophthalmology.

Newer article level metrics are also becoming more popular. Our publisher, Wolters-Kluwer, has recently added Altmetrics, an article level metric that captures attention through news mentions, blogs, twitter, Facebook, and other media traffic. As media alternatives expand and authors seek better ways to capture the impact of their work on the scientific community and the larger public, other metrics will surely evolve. At this point, there is no end in sight for the evolution of measuring scientific impact. Nevertheless, authors will continue to seek opportunities to showcase their work where it will receive the most attention and the broadest possible distribution. Likewise, journals will strive to limit their publications to the most important work in their respective fields.

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Evolution and Predation

In biological systems, one important role of predators is to thin the herd. Those at the fringes are most vulnerable to attack, and when the targets are plentiful, predators not only survive but thrive. Over the past 5 years, a new phenomenon has emerged—predatory publishing. Sadly, the full range of clever and harmful predatory behaviors are on display and the predators are flourishing. Since 2011, Dr. Jeffrey Beall from the University of Colorado Denver has been tracking the emergence and practices of predatory publishing ( (Fig. 2). The number of potential predators listed has risen steadily, at a rate of about 200/year. How do authors get taken by predatory publishers? Combine enormous pressure on researchers to publish, with well-polished promises assuring successful publication and you have it—an anglerfish dangling false bait waiting for a complicit victim. The consequence may be hefty publication fees for a publication that is not peer-reviewed, not recognized by any of the major research indexing databases, or publication fees that are paid without a publication at all. Most often these operations simply offer more than they deliver—assurances of marquee publications in high-impact journals leading the field that turn out to be false. Their targets are often authors from Asia or developing countries. An unintended consequence of predation is that they tend to strengthen their targets over time. The research community is aware of this predation and becoming more familiar with their strategies. In a 2015 presentation, Donald Smulack, President of Editage, predicted that in 2 years fraudulent research practices, much of it linked to predatory publishing, will become virtually indistinguishable from legitimate research. I hope he is wrong.



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Future Challenges for OVS

At their core, biomedical research journals are a lot like newspapers—they call attention to useful information and new ideas; they promote discussion and debate among the members of their community. Going forward, the Editorial and Publishing staff of Optometry and Vision Science will be working hard to defend and promote the reputation of the journal and the American Academy of Optometry. The trust, reputation, and good standing in our community is our most treasured asset. We welcome the world-wide expansion of the journal and are embracing the many uncertainties related to modern publishing. We recognize that authors now have more choices than ever when deciding where to publish their research, and we will continue to strive to be their first choice.

Michael D. Twa


Optometry and Vision Science

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1. Noorden RV. Global scientific output doubles every nine years. Nature; 2014 [updated 2014. Available at: Accessed: 2016]; Policy, Publishing].
2. Larsen PO, von Ins M. The rate of growth in scientific publication and the decline in coverage provided by Science Citation Index. Scientometrics 2010;84:575–603.
3. Funding Success Rates. NIH; 2016 [updated 2016. Available at: Accessed: 5/30/2016].
4. Fogarty International Center NIoH. US is losing biomedical research leadership to Asia. Global Health Matters 2014;13:3.
5. Chakma J, Sun GH, Steinberg JD, Sammut SM, Jagsi R. Asia’s ascent—global trends in biomedical R&D expenditures. N Engl J Med 2014;370:3–6.
6. Reuters. Journal Citation Reports. Thomson Reuters ISI; 2016 [updated 2016. Available at: Accessed: 2016 5/30/2016].
7. Beatty S. Impact Factor: 4 ways to view and use the 2014 Scopus journal metrics. Elsevier; 2015 [updated 2015. Available at: Accessed: 2016].
© 2016 American Academy of Optometry