STAR SCIENCE: ON RESEARCH AND PUBLISHING
MANILA, AUGUST 18, 2008 (STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Raymond R. Tan, Ph.D. - “For knowledge — was it worth such torment?” — from “Roads to Madness”
Previous contributors to this column have long noted the relatively low rates of publication among Philippine researchers, outside of a few pockets of excellence in a number of institutions in the country. Based on recent developments, the Philippines appears to at least be moving in the right direction, as evidenced, for instance, by the infusion of substantial R&D funds into the budget of the Department of Science and Technology. I also sense an improvement in the enthusiasm and morale of researchers I personally know — I may be wrong of course, since my observations are based on a small and probably biased sample. In any case, there is still plenty of room for improvement, and in this article I intend to explore some of the reasons for low publication rates in the Philippines, and to suggest some solutions.
To the global scientific community, journals are the principal conduit for the dissemination of state-of-the-art, peer-reviewed research findings. This is a point I always like to emphasize to my graduate students, who may believe otherwise. Books, in contrast, will often contain relatively dated information. At the other end of the spectrum, papers presented at conferences will often contain relatively tentative results that have not yet undergone the same kind of quality assurance and scrutiny as articles that appear in peer-reviewed journals. This is equally true for work that is disseminated through informal channels, such as those given in public lectures or posted on the Internet. Part of the problem is that access to scientific journals is relatively difficult for individual researchers and institutions alike. Yearly subscriptions for many journals from major publishers such as Elsevier or Springer can run upwards of a thousand US dollars, for anything from four to 15 issues. Individual articles can also be purchased online for about $10-30. Alternatively, researchers may attempt to use generic search engines to sift through the Web for a free copy of an interesting article (which may require countless unrewarding hours in front of a PC), or e-mail the authors and ask for a copy of the paper. Of course, the whole process of literature review would be greatly simplified if a subscription were available; however, I suspect this is mainly an issue of economics for the typical Filipino researcher and institution. The implication of such access (or lack thereof) to quality journals is a serious one. It is difficult to adequately judge the quality, relevance and timeliness of one’s own work without a clear picture of the state of the art from an international perspective, and obviously, lack of such knowledge then hinders one’s ability to get research findings published. And thus it is essential that the cost of access to publications be recognized as an inherent part of research, and be reflected as such in research budgets.
In addition, I think many Filipino researchers tend to be intimidated by the prospect of getting their work scrutinized by a global audience. I remember going through this myself when I submitted my first paper, back when I was doing my Ph.D., to the International Journal of Energy Research. Fortunately that paper was accepted with very little trauma to me, and thanks to my mentors, I’ve since developed thick enough skin to withstand most nasty remarks from referees, and respond with lucidity and composure. The lesson here, I believe, is that any researcher aspiring to routinely publish his or her work must be prepared for such criticism; it is simply a matter of accepting it as part and parcel of the scientific world. Of course, it pays to do scientifically sound, defensible research to begin with.
Some researchers, perhaps, are simply unfamiliar with the mechanics of submitting manuscripts to journals. In the pre-Internet era, the cost of mailing multiple copies of bulky manuscripts with double spaced text might have been prohibitive to those doing research on a shoestring budget. Nowadays, however, most of the major journal publishers provide Web-based portals through which manuscripts can be uploaded, and through which exchanges with the editors and reviewers are channeled. In the case of publishers who do not provide such systems, submission by e-mail is usually the norm. Furthermore, although some journals actually charge authors for printing costs, normally, the big publishers make money from customer subscriptions and thus do not require authors to pay any fees.
Finally, I get the sense that many researchers in the Philippines do not fully appreciate the social value of journal publications as a conduit for public scientific knowledge. This attitude seems particularly prevalent in engineering and technology fields, where prototypes and project reports are often seen as the principal outputs of R&D. This, then, is an issue related to the spectrum of research, which spans the extremes of pure science done simply out of intellectual curiosity on one hand, and on the other, applied science in which work is done with a specific client or customer in mind (whose interests may be directly opposed to public dissemination of important findings). The main value of publishing one’s work is to contribute to the global bank of knowledge, and to make one’s work available for future researchers to use as a stepping stone for making their own contributions. Any practical applications may arise years, or decades, after the publication of the seminal idea — my favorite example being Zadeh’s 1965 paper on fuzzy sets, which after several decades would lead the way to the development of control algorithms for many of the electronic gadgets we take for granted today.
I conclude here by responding to the criticism of people who scoff at the value of scientific papers, typically saying that these simply end up “gathering dust in bookshelves in the library.” My advice to the young Filipino researcher seeking to carve out his or her niche in the world of science is to aim to have his or her best work end up in the bookshelves of the world’s libraries.
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Dr. Raymond R. Tan is an associate professor of chemical engineering at De La Salle University-Manila. He has received multiple awards from the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) for his work on life cycle analysis and process integration at the Center for Engineering and Sustainable Development Research (CESDR). Dr. Tan is also a member of the editorial board of the Springer journal Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy. For his contact details and research profile, please visit www.geocities.com/natdnomyar/web.
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