Alive and Kicking

The publication I launched a quarter century ago has come further than anyone ever expected.

Oct 1, 2011
Eugene Garfield

I am proud that the trade tabloid for the science professional that I founded 25 years ago is still around and still working to inform researchers on topics important to their careers and lives. I think that we’ve made an impact on the life science community and that we can continue to do so in the years to come. But like any sincere parent, I cannot look back and honestly say that all the hopes and dreams I had for The Scientist came true.

When I founded this publication, I imagined it as an extension of the weekly editorials and other features, such as “Citation Classics” and “Hot Papers,” which had been appearing in Current Contents—a still-operating print and online database containing the tables of contents of leading scholarly scientific journals. I felt that there was more to say about the practical issues that confront people who choose careers in science than could be contained in my weekly editorials. My goal was to fill the pages of a weekly (or even daily) newspaper with policy analysis and opinion about funding and ethics, etc. After all, lawyers and physicians had their trade papers. Why not create one for the working scientist?

It was an idea that my dear friend Joshua Lederberg and I had been discussing for more than 20 years. Then, in 1986, we thought the idea’s time had come. But making that vision a reality would prove to be a significant challenge more than once.

The first hurdle came at the very inception when The Economist, which had signed on to be a partner, backed out at the last minute. We had already rented space in Washington, DC, where a full editorial staff was ready to start publishing, and I was suddenly left holding the bag. Our financial advisors and close friends advised me to cut our losses and give up. To continue would be crazy, they said. They were probably right, but I forged ahead.

It’s not possible to put a statistical finger on just why I chose, at various points in The Scientist’s life, to keep on going. Just attribute it to parental love.

In 1988, when I sold control of the Institute for Scientific Information to JPT Publishing, the deal included The Scientist. I was led to believe they would make an earnest effort to make it a success. Within a few months they reneged and gave me the opportunity to buy back The Scientist for $1. Again, financial advisors cautioned against keeping The Scientist alive; again, I chose to ignore them.

In the following years, we chose to focus mainly on the life sciences, and employed brilliant staff members (too numerous to name here).

The Scientist never became the researcher’s daily newspaper, as I had dreamed. But as we continued, our accomplishments mounted. In a time when the Soviet Union prevented the distribution of journals like Science and Nature in the USSR and much of Eastern Europe, researchers relied on Current Contents as well as The Scientist.

Using the National Science Foundation Network, an evolutionary precursor of the Internet, we were the first full-text science publication to be freely available on the web. We covered seminal events in the life sciences: the rise of HIV, the completion of the Human Genome Project, the dawn of cloning and stem cell technologies. And we fulfilled our mission to provoke discussion about issues outside the literature and the laboratory.

I certainly wouldn’t launch The Scientist today. Not because I don’t believe in its goals or in the need for a forum that addresses core aspects of the researcher’s work and life. On the contrary, there is still an important place for a publication that addresses issues such as tenure, science policy, ethics, and funding while covering key research findings and scientists who may escape the notice of traditional scientific journals. It’s just that so many more publications, listservs, and blogs with those same goals exist now than did when we started in October 1986.

For the past 50 years my bread and butter has been devising novel strategies to improve the dissemination and retrieval of scientific information. Out of the work on the Science Citation Index (SCI) has come the field of scientometrics and the ability to quantify the impact of specific papers or journals. The close association of The Scientist with citation analysis leaves little doubt in my mind that the magazine has had a significant impact in its 25-year run. It’s not possible, however, to put a statistical finger on just why I chose, at various points in The Scientist’s life, to keep on going. Just attribute it to parental love.

In the face of Google, social networking, and other technological developments, I think that The Scientist can take great pride in its quarter century of publishing.

Eugene Garfield is the founder of The Scientist. He is also Chairman Emeritus of ThomsonReuters Scientific (formerly the Institute for Scientific Information) and the inventor of HistCite, Current Contents, Index Chemicus, and the Science Citation Index. Read all the commentaries Dr. Garfield wrote in The Scientist from 1986-2002.