On your wavelength

More or more diverse?

Post by Iulia Georgescu

The amount of scientific literature is growing at a staggering rate. In physics alone, more than 19,000 articles were published in 2016 and this is only what is indexed by Web of Science, excluding unpublished arXiv preprints, some conference papers, technical reports and PhD theses. There is little hope that anyone can keep up with what is going on outside their area of expertise and even that is a challenge. Review articles come in handy, but even reading just the physics review articles published in 2016 is hard — there’s more than 860 of them!

The scientific literature is expanding, but is it also becoming more diverse? Not really. A quick look back at the history of scientific publishing will remind us that innovation is not something publishers can really take pride in. The format and type of narrative of the scientific article has changed little since the early days of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, the oldest scientific journal still publishing today. In the more than 350 years of existence, scientific journals have transitioned from print to online. Articles can now link to external content, have some limited interactivity in the figures, and can sometimes include embedded videos, but essentially the working horse of scientific publishing remains the two-column dull-looking pdf, not too different in style and format from the papers published in print in the 19th and 20th centuries. The scientific article of the future – a hub for multimedia resources used to illustrate the narrative – remains a dream, mainly due to the technical challenges involved in integrating all the parts, but also to the inertia of both the academic and publishing worlds.

However, we start to see signs of change. In the past few years we have seen the rise of truly new article types like data descriptors, and software journals are starting to take off. These changes reflect the growing importance of scientific software and data analysis in science and the spreading awareness of the relevance of non-traditional research outputs. Such new formats and outlets are very welcome and as they become more accepted and used, they can hopefully trigger more innovation.

How about reviews? Review articles are a young format, at least when compared to traditional articles – dedicated reviews journals started to emerge in the 1920s. But in almost a century they have not changed much. With the notable exception of Living Reviews – review articles regularly updated by their authors, we have not seen much innovation, at least in physics. Standard reviews are long, authoritative and exhaustive pieces. Shorter reviews on fast-growing fields have only become popular in during the past decade or so.

It is clear that reviews are very useful to keep track of the ever-growing scientific literature. They are a mature and well-established genre but, like for primary research articles, reviews need to diversify to address the changing needs of the physics community. And because the physics community itself is quite diverse and its needs vary from field to field, there are many ways in which new types of review articles can be explored.

One can envision reviews of scientific software, guidelines for data analysis,  forward-looking articles outlining the challenges and opportunities associated with large central facilities or big research projects, brief technical overviews of the state-of-the-art of a particular field, recommendations for methodology or best practices, white papers and much more. Some of these ideas are not new, but they lack sufficient experimentation to know how useful such resources can become and what is the most appropriate style and format. This is exactly what Nature Reviews Physics is trying to achieve: explore new angles and formats to complement traditional reviews.

Nature Reviews Physics is the newest journal joining the Nature Reviews family and will publish its first issue in January 2019. It follows the two other physical sciences titles Nature Reviews Materials and Nature Reviews Chemistry. Whereas the Nature Reviews series and Nature Methods and Nature Protocols are not well known in the physics community, they are important sources of scientific and technical reference for the biological and clinical sciences. Building on the tradition of these journals as well as a powerful Nature Physics heritage, Nature Reviews Physics aims to become a high-quality, trusted source of technical reference, concise overviews and timely comment for all physicists, thus complementing the existing outlets for traditional extensive pedagogical reviews.

Nature Reviews Physics just started its journey and its editors are now exploring the needs of the physics community. Launching a journal is very much like a research project: you have an idea of where you want to go and what the outcomes might be, but you will definitely encounter many challenges and surprises on the way. Will it work? We’ll just have to experiment and see.

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