October 2010

Time to Degree - Are Changes in Publishing to Blame?

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology publishes three excellent journals: the Journal of Biological ChemistryMolecular and Cellular Proteomics and the Journal of Lipid Research. These journals exist to serve our members (and nonmembers) by providing a quality venue for presentation of their research. Discounted page charges are available as a benefit of membership in ASBMB. According to its new mission statement, “The Journal of Biological Chemistry publishes papers based on original research that are judged to make a novel and important contribution to understanding the molecular and cellular basis of biological processes.” Although this would not likely include a manuscript in the “least-publishable unit category,” the breadth of topics included in this description are likely to encompass the interests of all ASBMB members. As scientists, we hold the power to determine which journals have the opportunity to publish the best science— because we decide where to submit our best work. The ASBMB journals exist for our benefit, and we enhance our community when we publish papers in them.

"The sooner our students can experience the thrill of publication, the sooner they will be hooked."

What can all journals do on behalf of our students? During manuscript evaluation, editors and reviewers should try to use care to not ask for more than is needed to substantiate the authors’ conclusions. When drafting a review, referees should remember that a paper’s first author is likely to be a graduate student; they should temper their language and always include some positive comments in their reviews. We all find it easier to accept a review that acknowledges a paper’s strengths. Doctoral mentors also should teach their students how to review manuscripts— how to be constructive and how to evaluate overall significance. Reviewing papers teaches students a great deal about how to best write them. And, no matter how difficult some reviewer comments may be to digest, I have never seen a manuscript that was not improved upon revision.

Yes, there always is an element of luck in research. Some proteins form tight complexes and some enzymes seem to pop out of E. coli in milligram quantities. That is why we carry out experiments— the outcome is not guaranteed. But the pleasure of making a discovery— and working it out— is at the heart of why all of us chose science. It would be a travesty if tougher biomedical science publishing standards drive away talented individuals because of long doctoral tracks and years of feeling inadequate and/or discouraged. The sooner our students can experience the thrill of publication, the sooner they will be hooked.

P.S. We welcome all suggestions regarding how to improve your online journal experience!


1. Appropriate venues include PLoS ONE, a journal that presents primary scientific research not published elsewhere, performed to a high technical standard, described in sufficient detail and with conclusions supported by the data. BioMed Central also includes this category of paper.

ASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer (pfeffer@stanford.edu) is a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


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REPLY TO MIKE FAINZILBER: My point was that I have seen how students are transformed when their work is published, and that having this experience early on can encourage students to push hard through the boldest and most challenging projects that are so important for our entire discipline. I do not want our field to turn into least-publishable units. But sometimes, a minor characterization can provide key information for others to build major stories from. I am concerned about students becoming discouraged after a long slog; we can't always predict which projects will be impossible and which will be gold mines. Thanks for taking the time to write. -Suzanne Pfeffer


If all first- and second-year graduate students were encouraged to publish a “least-publishable unit” paper, all this would accomplish would be to flood the literature with yet more irrelevant papers that will be completely ignored, while teaching the students how to do mediocre science. Frankly, I am astonished that the president of ASBMB would support such an initiative. 'Twould be far far better to encourage students to aim for the best possible paper, while making it clear that there are clear limits on 'time to degree'. If the hoped for major paper does not materialize within 4-5 years, that is the point to require and help the student to collate their data into a less comprehensive manuscript that can be published somewhere, and then graduate. Mike Fainzilber


This wonderful article addresses a serious issue in science publications. Publications in better journals is a remote possibility from labs with less resources. The demands from the reviewrs and editors are never ending, even when a number of different experienmts performed to derive a single conclusion. How many other ways (experiments) one has to derive similar conclusion? This sky-high demand is driving the cost of research up in terms of materials required and time commitment, when these can be easily spent to advance knowledge beyond that particular conclusion. There should be a limit, such as "reasonably proven" by 2/3 different ways, rather than "more is better", when this "more" adds nothing extra.



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