The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2019
The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to cancer researcher William G. Kaelin Jr, physician-scientist Sir Peter Ratcliffe and geneticist Gregg L. Semenza “for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability”. The ability of organisms to respond to changes in oxygen availability is of fundamental importance to life on earth. The prize-winning scientists have revealed how cells sense and respond to oxygen by switching genes on and off by oxygen-sensitive post-translational modification and the subsequent proteasomal degradation of hypoxia inducible factors. Among the applications of their discovery is a better understanding of how the body reacts when oxygen levels drop owing to exercise or stroke, and efforts to manipulate the response to slow the growth of oxygen-hungry cancer tumors.
Interestingly, in 2017 William G. Kaelin wrote in a commentary in Nature that many of the papers that he, Semenza and Ratcliffe wrote leading up to their discoveries “would be considered quaint, preliminary and barely publishable today”. “The goal of a paper seems to have shifted from validating specific conclusions to making the broadest possible assertions,” he argued, calling for a return to a focus on quality over impact.
What can be the causes for today’s inflation of impact and claims? One might be the emphasis funding agencies have on impact and translation of the results. Another can be that technological advances have made it easier to generate large amounts of research data, which can be published as online only supplements. Both these factors can encourage editors and reviewers to ask for extra experiments that can be byproducts, peripheral to the main conclusion or targeted to increase the impact.
In his comment in Nature in 2017, Kaelin concludes that he main question when reviewing a paper should be whether its conclusions are likely to be correct, not whether it would be important if it were true. Food for thought!
Have a nice week end!