Commentary: The 99% of scientific publishing

Last week, John P. A. Ioannidis from Stanford University and Kevin W. Boyack and Richard Klavans from SciTech Strategies, Inc published an interesting analysis of scientific authorships. In the PLOS ONE paper “Estimates of the Continuously Publishing Core in the Scientific Workforce” they describe a small influential core of <1% of researchers who publish each and every year. This analysis appears to have caught the attention of many, including Erik Stokstad from Science Magazine who wrote the short news story “The 1% of scientific publishing”.

You would be excused to think that I belong to the 1%. I published my first paper in 1998 and have published at least one paper every single year since then. However, it turns out that the 1% was defined as the researchers who had published at least one paper every year in the period 1996-2011. Since I published my first paper in 1998, I belong to the other 99% together with everyone else who started their publishing career after 1996 or stopped their career before 2011.

Although the number 1% is making the headlines, the authors seem to be aware of the issue. Of the 15,153,100 researchers with publications in the period 1996-2011, only 150,608 published all 16 years; however, the authors estimate an additional 16,877 scientists published every year in the period 1997-2012. A similar number of continuously publishing scientists will have started their careers all the other years from 1998-2011. Similarly, they an estimated 9,673 researchers stopped their long continuous publishing career in 2010, and presumably all other years in the period 1996-2009. In my opinion, a better estimate is thus that 150,608 + 15*16,877 + 15*9,673 = 548,858 of the 15,153,100 authors have had or will have a 16-year unbroken chain of publications. That amounts to something in the 3-4% range.

That number may still not sound impressive; however, this in no way implies that most researchers do not publish on a regular basis. To have a 16-year unbroken chain of publications, one almost has to stay in academia and become a principal investigator. Most people who publish at least one article and subsequently pursue a career in industry or teaching will count towards the 96-97%. And that is no matter how good a job they do, mind you.

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