The case of the Irish Elk, a parable for the weight of the glamour journals

The case of the Irish Elk, a parable for the weight of the glamour journals

Irish Elk 2In one of his wonderful and educational essays, SJ Gould discusses the story of the Irish Elk, a spectacular species of elk that became extinct because……well, it is unclear why but the late specimens did have a very visible trait: enormous –and I mean enormous- antlers; the elk was over 3 meters tall and had antlers 3.3 m across. There have been many theories to explain the mysterious extinction of this magnificent animal but the one Gould discusses and the one I like to think about in certain contexts is that the Irish Elk was brought down by the weight of its own pride. The speculation goes that selection was in action for bigger and bigger antlers which, in the end, brought down –literally- the elk. And for selection, read in many instances, sexual selection. I am aware of the controversies associated with deciding whether selection is involved in a process or not and, more so when sexual selection is involved but, have always been interested in the Irish Elk as a parable from that perspective.

As a practicing biologist these days it feels like groundhog day in certain issues, particularly that of publications/glamour journals/Impact Factors (IF)/evaluations and the like. By now we all agree, more or less explicitly, that the biological sciences (I can only speak about them) are in a crisis because of a change of emphasis: what matters is the publication and not necessarily the research. Of course, there is some correlation between the two and so called high IF publications tend to publish more appealing reports than others, but it is difficult to accept that ‘more appealing’ means ‘better science’. In fact how we measure good science is something that is rarely debated outside the arena of the IF/h-indexes and related metrics and perhaps we should reflect upon this and try to return to value science for its intrinsic value, for the question that the scientist asks. I see few debates about what is a good question, what are the important questions but, in the context of my comments about the “LMB hut” probably this –questions in the biological sciences- is another issue that should go down to the fossil record of the history of science. Be that as it may, in the midst of the latest storm about how to deal with journal glamour (the latest idea to remove journal titles from websites) it is difficult to feel optimistic about any change soon, though it is clear that change is needed and, as I say, not only in our appreciation of the just value of scientific outputs, but about the actual value of the science we do. But…sorry, perhaps inevitably, I digress….allow me a thought.

Maybe the NCS’s (Nature Cell Science for those who are not familiar with the acronym) and the likes, there are some crude imitators around –are like the antlers of the Irish Elk. They are useful in mindless combat, they have a selective value, but as they grow they become more important than other body parts and, above a certain size, they will bring the organism down. I suppose the only response to that would be to grow a body size that keeps up with the size of the antlers. This did not happen in the case of the elk -though their body mass did increase and they were formidable specimens- and certainly cannot happen in the case of the biological sciences. The impression of many is that the kind of pressure that exists to value publications is distortive, creates serious problems for the development of the biological sciences and is certainly affecting the development of careers (the antler v the body and the long term survival of the organism). The question is not as simple as some people would make it sound and this is why nowadays, at meetings, there are entire sessions devoted to discussions of the issues associated with this topic. The problem, I think I have said it before, is that we are running a XXI century enterprise with a mid XX century business model, one that catered for a smaller, more focused community, a content centred enterprise with a smaller constituency. Today there is too much, too much that is good –at least technically sound- and a very large constituency. We need to evolve. Unfortunately the way we are doing it now is by selecting for bigger antlers without thinking about the consequences. There is too much talk about the form (publications) and very little about the content (science) and, slowly we are forgetting what this is about. Look at the indexes of most journals and have a think. The mantra that the science has become the publication is true and, because of its nature, the biological sciences will lend themselves to this gimmick because you can always find a new gene, a new function for a known gene, a new cell, a new drug, a new technique, any of which will be hyped by the impact department of any of ‘those journals’. No wonder some of us often ask if there are any Questions left.

The main problem with, let us call it, the IF question, is that it is breaking up the biomedical sciences into two: those who can afford to publish in certain journals and those who can’t. It is not only about science and ideas, it is about whether you have the stamina and the resources to deal with the whims of editors and reviewers. As it has been pointed out before, the editors have lost the plot and they will ask for bigger antlers (experimental responses to reviewers’ comments) that add very little to the content of the paper, propagate the myth of the specific journal as a tough place to publish and conflate the antlers with the rest of the body. Of course, not everybody will be in a position to respond in kind to the reviewers’ comments, to grow bigger antlers. The consequences of this are dire in the short term though I am convinced that in the large canvas of history the system, like the Irish Elk, will be extinct (don’t forget that this is an evolving system) and in the future we shall look foolish from the perspective of a more sensible science adapted to the times and to the people.

The good news is that slowly, and certainly in Great Britain, I begin to see some sense emerging and while there are still some old fashioned colleagues looking at the publication, more and more are realizing that in this manner you select, mostly, for antler size. If that is what you want, go ahead, grow your antlers and, on the side of the panels and the editors, pick your elks. Content, Science is something else.

NB SJ Gould essay follows an article he published: Gould SJ (1974) The origin and function of the bizarre structures: antler size and skull size in the Irish Elk. Evolution 28, 191-220.  The picture is a modified version of a picture first published by JG Millais in 1897, often reproduced in the web and shown in Gould’s essay: Natural History. 82 (March): 10-19 which you can read in Gould, S.J. 1977. The misnamed, mistreated, and misunderstood Irish Elk. Pp. 79–90 in Ever Since Darwin. W.W. Norton, New York. The person at the bottom of the picture could be construed as a panel member looking for some substance that can keep the elk up.


2 thoughts on “The case of the Irish Elk, a parable for the weight of the glamour journals

  1. “The good news is that slowly, and certainly in Great Britain, I begin to see some sense emerging”

    Do you think the situation is better in GB, or just that this is the case you know more about?

  2. A very good comparison, Alfonso. When thinking about ways to deal with the problem, it might be helpful to have a look at the self-maintaining mechanisms of societal class systems, since this is essentially what the science community has developed into and what allows the antlers to self-promote their growth unrestrictedly.

    As to the lack of sensible questions and visions, I tend to give the example of Tau research which has been funded, primarily, in the context of Alzheimer’s research since 1975. On a tau conference a few years back, it was openly admitted that, in spite of many millions invested, we still have not understood the actual role of tau in neurons in health and disease. In my view, focussing on the tau molecule rather than the fundamental cell biology of neurons and tau’s function within, has been an essential stopper to advance. Accordingly, AD charities have now largely halted the funding of Tau research.

    If we continue in the life sciences to collect a sky full of high IF-decorated molecular mechanisms and genes without weaving them into conceptual understanding at a level that can explain biology and, hence, also disease (and for which we now have the means!), the antlers will bring down life sciences just as it happened to tau research.

    What we need are journals which ask not for new mechanisms but for new concepts and understanding, which encourage us to assemble known mechanisms into higher order descriptions that explain biological phenomena – exactly the kind of science that the “antlers” tend to declassify as “incremental” but which would represent the consequent next step after decades of search for genes and mechanisms.

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