About forty years ago, I was lucky enough to be involved in organising a scientific expedition to North-East Greenland. Our basecamp was on the Bersaerkerbrae Glacier in Scoresby Land, which at 72 degrees North is well within the Arctic Circle and forty years ago was only accessible in summer when the snow receded. We measured ablation rates on the glacier , counted muskoxen in the surrounding landscape  [see ‘Reasons for publishing scientific papers‘ on April 21st 2021] and drilled boreholes in the ice of the glacier. We performed mechanical tests on the ice cores obtained from different depths in the glacier and in various locations in order to assess the spatial distribution of the material properties of the ice in the glacier. This is important information for producing accurate simulations of the flow of the glacier, although our research did not extend to modelling the glacier. We could also have used our ice cores to investigate the climatic history of the region. The Greenland ice sheet contains an archive record of the climate on Earth for about the last half million years, stored in the snow and trapped air bubbles accumulated over that time period. If the ice sheet melts then that unique record will be lost forever.
The thumbnail image is a map of the depth of ice in the Greenland ice sheet. The map is about five years old and has a wide green fringe along the east coast. Scoresby Land is the penisula to the north of the large fiord in the middle of the east coast. In 1982, the edge of the ice sheet was about 80 miles from the Bersaerkerbrae Glacier, whereas today it is at least twice that distance because the ice sheet is receding.
A few months ago I wrote about how we are drowning in information as a result of the two million papers published in journals every year [see ‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. As someone who has published about 10 papers each year for the last couple of decades, including three this year already, I feel I should provide some explanation for continuing to contribute to the deluge of papers. I think there are four main reasons for publishing scientific papers. First, to report a discovery – a new contribution to knowledge or understanding. This is the primary requirement for publication in a scientific journal but the significance of the contribution is frequently diminished both by the publisher’s and author’s need to publish which leads to many papers in which it is hard to identify the original contribution. The second reason is to fulfil the expectations or requirements of a funding agency (including your employer); I think this was probably the prime driver for my first paper which reported the results of a survey of muskoxen in Greenland conducted during an expedition in 1982. The third reason is to support a promotion case, either your own or one of your co-authors; of course, this is not incompatible with the reporting original contributions to knowledge but it can be a driver towards small contributions, especially when promotion committees consider only the quantity and not the quality of published papers. The fourth reason is to support the careers of members of the research team; in some universities it is impossible to graduate with a PhD degree in science and engineering without publishing a couple of papers, although most supervisors encourage PhD students to publish their work in at least one paper before submitting their PhD thesis, even when it is not compulsory. Post-doctoral researchers have a less urgent need to publish unless they are planning an academic career in which case they will need a more impressive publication record than their competitors. Profit is the prime reason for most publishers to publish papers. Publishers make more money when they sell more journals with more papers in them which drives the launch of new journals and the filling of journals with more papers; this process is poorly moderated by the need to ensure the papers are worth reading. It might be an urban myth, but some studies have suggested that half of published papers are read only by their editor and authors. Thirty years ago, my PhD supervisor, who was also my mentor during my early career as an academic, already suspected this lack of readers and used to greet the news of the publication of each of my papers as ‘more stuffing for your chair’.
Patterson, E.A., 1984, ‘Sightings of Muskoxen in Northern Scoresby Land, Greenland’, Arctic, 37(1): 61-63