The other day I was part of a rapt audience, listening to the seminar of Dr Big Shot. As Big Shots go, this man was immensely likeable: coherent, humorous, persuasive but – above all – modest. The way he introduced his story was particularly effective, following a narrative formula that, when I started thinking about it, is actually very common.
It goes something like this: a researcher is in the dark, having just discovered that a particular Gene X is probably involved in his pet biological phenomenon. But he has no idea where to start to work out how. So the researcher turns to the literature, does some searches and uncovers forgotten papers A, B and C, which collectively point towards a potential link. The link is followed up and – lo and behold – the secret of the new biology is stripped away to reveal a shining Truth. Cue fame, glory and a high-profile article in Nature.
But what of obscure little papers A, B and C? Let’s look a little bit more closely at them. Are they top-tier papers as well? Actually, no. One’s a classic cloning/sequencing paper from the early Nineties published in Nucleic Acid Research (impact factor 6.88). One’s a small bit of biochemistry on a very bitty, incremental problem that appeared a few years ago in FEBS Letters (impact factor 3.26). And the third contains comparative microarray data deposited with little fuss in BMC Genomics (impact factor 3.76) last year.
I think it’s safe to say our likeable Big Shot would be the first to admit that without Papers A, B and C, his research would not have proceeded as smoothly – and in fact, without Paper B in particular, he might never have made the connection at all. And this is precisely why I worry about initiatives that advocate pyramid schemes to foster the Elite at the expense of the second-tier researchers that underpin them. Of course one could argue that there are thirty-plus years of obscure papers in PubMed for the Elite to text-mine, so failure to generate a future supply of solid but relatively trivial results will make no difference. But that supply won’t last forever, especially as techniques advance and the need for new edifices of knowledge will start eating into the supply of old bricks. When we drive all but the top-tier out of research, who will provide the necessary foundations? The more we uncover about the natural world, the more complex it seems to become. These days, great papers open up more questions than they answer, and the job seems to expand infinitely.
This is why I put my dignity on the line and suggested in public that the scientific profession needs metrics that also reward effort as well as luck. I presume similar passions inspired Stephen Curry and his kids to make a wonderful film explaining that not all scientists are, or have to be, geniuses to contribute. I think we should think carefully before ignoring the efforts of – or worse, doing away with altogether – the host of valuable foot soldiers in the scientific profession.