I’ve been thinking more about Matters (the scientific journal that publishes “single observations”) in the weeks since my last post and am less ambivalent. Reading Julia Belluz’s article in Vox about “small” science only further cemented the conception of Matters as an appropriate response to an overemphasis on storymaking. Lawrence Rajendran, the founder of Matters, was quoted in the article regarding Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and his publication chances today:
Rajendran notes that Alexander Fleming’s simple observation that penicillin mold seemed to kill off bacteria in his petri dish could never be published today, even though it led to the discovery of lifesaving antibiotics. That’s because today’s journals want lots of data and positive results that fit into an overarching narrative (what Rajendran calls “storytelling”) before they’ll publish a given study. “You would have to solve the structure of penicillin or find the mechanism of action,” he added.
The point stands. Most modern peer reviewers are, however, likely to recognize the importance of a discovery such as penicillin. It might also be worth noting that his initial discovery of the compound in 1929, documented in an article in the now-defunct British Journal of Experimental Pathology, went unnoticed by the New York Times. Furthermore, according to Google Scholar, the article was cited only sparingly in the 10 years following its publication.
A “single observation” with a long lifespan and a story of its own, perhaps.