How journals kill scientific Romanticism

How journals kill scientific Romanticism  

Federico Germani

Federico Germani

Federico is a bioethicist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. His research focuses on the influence of misinformation on public health. He explores strategies to enhance public resilience against misinformation, with a strong emphasis on risk and crisis communication, trust-building, information and media literacy. Federico is the founder and director of Culturico.

The pleasure of discovery is Romantic, and drives students towards the study of scientific disciplines. However, young scientists often experience, quite soon, a loss of enthusiasm and motivation. Digging deeper into the world of scientific publishing, this article reveals how the monetary interests of journals are destroying the Romantic ideas of scientists by establishing an unsustainable system of competitive struggles.

Scientists of different epochs had a Romantic view of discoveries. In this case, “Romanticism” refers to the artistic and literary movement of the 18th century characterized by the primacy of individualistic sentiments of fear, nature, beauty and imagination. These Romantic feelings are best expressed by Friedrich’s outstanding painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818), in which the man, positioned at the center, explores an intricate, fearful and yet exciting world. Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein, Galileo, Newton, Golgi – among others – made important discoveries first and foremost due to their pleasure of discovery.
Nature was seen as an unknown land to be explored, and scientists were trying to dissipate the thick layer of fog enveloping knowledge, to take away the veil of Maya that hides the truth.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1818, Oil-on-canvas, 94.8 cm x 74.8 cm (37.3 in x 29.4 in), Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany

At the present time, this same Romantic idea of scientific progress continues to drive young minds into the study of a small niche of natural sciences such as physics, biology and chemistry, mostly because of those aforementioned feelings of fear for the unknown and contemplation for knowledge.
Though, those same motivated and enthusiastic students often lose – along the career path – their Romantic feeling towards science.
This happens because young scientists soon realize that science is a business, established by a cheaper and more accessible education, which made research a potential career for a broader number of individuals.
Increased competition is therefore at the base of public research as a business.

Research as a business model and the role of scientific journals

Read this article for an in-depth analysis of the topic: “The scientific publishing lobby: why science does not work”.

To fully understand why young scientists become insensitive to the Romantic – and intrinsic – features of science, one has to deeply investigate the scientific business model.
Principal investigators (PIs)* are paid for their research through grants, which consists of private or public investments in which donors decide which research projects are worth investment.
But how does money flow from funding agencies to researchers? Theoretically, grant foundations should actually read research proposals. However, given the large number of requests, they often screen candidates through their academic CV containing a list of articles they have published, selecting those who have been published in journals with high impact factors.
The impact factor is a number that indicates the average number of citations that a particular journal has received within a year. Generally, good or influential articles are cited the most. For instance, the journal Nature, given its extremely high impact factor, aims at publishing research of the highest quality in order to maintain its excellent impact factor.
Simply, research is well funded when one has published in a certain niche of well-considered journals. Similarly, new PIs are hired by Universities via a selection process that is mostly based on their list of publications, rather than teaching capabilities and proposed research plans.
It follows that researchers now have a tendency to focus on journals and their impact factors rather than on the research itself.
Thus, competition for publishing in important journals easily becomes the predominant goal of a scientist, and this struggle to publish consequently results in a drastic loss of enthusiasm.

Why are journals so important?

It was substantially, in a pre-internet era, the only possible output, the only way for scientists to address colleagues all over the world. Journals were the only providers of knowledge, with a respectable business model. Currently, however, anybody can find whatever information online; thus, journals have become an antiquate way to communicate science.
Journals’ business model is very efficient. Scientists are required to pay a price if they want their ideas to be shared to the rest of the world so they pay journals to publish their research. Universities and academic institutions – then – pay to have access to the contents of journals. It might, at this point, sound a little bit crazy: it certainly is.
It therefore appears evident that journals promote the existence of an insalubrious scientific competition, where scientists continuously compete with other scientists to have their work featured in top notch journals that are reserved for just a tiny part of the scientific community.

The most striking consequence – and the subject of this article’s analysis – is that young scientists feel swallowed up in a vortex of wind. At some point they think they are simply playing the individualistic game wanted by journals, favoring and contributing to a system that slows down the progress of our society.
Eventually, once these young scientists’ expectations do not meet reality, they often lose that proud Romantic sense for discovery that initially motivated them to study scientific disciplines. The initial expectation of a scientist is to constantly be at the edge of knowledge, in between what is known and unknown; the reality is that a scientists’ success lies on the rim of having their research accepted – or not – for publication in a top journal.
This system has drastically shifted the mindsets of an increasing number of scientists to focus more on an individualistic approach rather than a communal one.
If this system does not change soon, we will increasingly witness a loss of this original and innate Romanticism that distinguishes science and scientists. The consequences we are already witnessing are a drastic decrease in the quality and reproducibility of research, including a dramatic increase in scientific misconduct, characterized by increased data fabrications and manipulations, which will have strong repercussions on the progress of our society.

* Note: Principal Investigators are generally Professors hired by a certain institution (e.g. a public University). More generally though, they are the leaders of a research group. They are generally established scientists.


Federico Germani


Received: 09.09.18, Ready: 25.09.18, Editors: BK, RG.

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