Scientific academia must acknowledge students

Tess Woosley, Deputy Opinion Editor

Regardless of your major, the chance that you will graduate NYU without reading an academic paper are slim to none. For most science students, the majority of readings in later electives often consist of recently published journal articles, and independent research projects require extensive online searches. But, this is a recent trend — article access used to lie solely under the university library’s journal subscriptions. This shift online has brought useful changes, but the academic world needs to be responsive to current restructuring as new technology and more productive policies arise.

Several recent papers have shown that less-prestigious journals are making headway against the elite. A study published earlier this month by the Google Scholar team showed that the “non-elite” journals, or those outside the top 10, are increasingly cited. This means that highly cited papers, those with the greatest impact, are starting to appear in smaller journals. The study reviewed different fields, including health and medical, computer science and social science. Overall, the percentage of citations in non-elite journals has changed from 27 percent in 1995 to 47 percent in 2013, with the largest changes in physics and math. Although Science and Nature will likely remain among the elite journals for decades to come, the change shows a shift in the way articles are accessed, and possibly even in the way researchers view journal prestige.

As a biology major, this is a positive step forward. The knowledge that prestige now contributes less to which papers are read and cited is especially comforting in an intimidating field where experience helps not only with publication frequency, but also in receiving grants. The National Institute of Health is the foremost funding agency for biomedical research, yet the median age of first-time recipients of their most common grant is 42. In contrast, a study that looked at Nobel Prize winners and notable scientists from the 20th century found that most were between the ages of 35 and 39 when they had the ideas that lead to their fame. Scientific experience is currently well-earned after years of study and work in labs, but the academic waiting game may be blocking out new ideas.

In an Oct. 3 opinion piece in The New York Times, physician-turned-congressional representative Andy Harris blasted both the NIH and the federal government for failing to provide opportunities for young researchers who he feels often have more “innovative thinking.” The NIH has publicly acknowledged this, but is increasingly limited by both a Congress unwilling to fund innovative or risky research and the status quo of academic expectations. In order for today’s students to truly benefit from increasingly open publication opportunities and online resources, they need funding for their ideas. Government agencies, Congress and academia must cooperate in order to ensure the integrity of future research.

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 16 print edition. Email Tess Woosley at [email protected].