Tuesday 23 July 2013

Impact factors, and Sherrington re-visited


The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of sub-patterns.”

This is Charles Sherrington’s description of a person waking up, as seen from the perspective of brain activity. Writing in 1942 he used an already ancient image, that of the 1801 punch-card programmed Jacquard weaving loom.  He may also have been influenced by an 1887 paper by the psychologist Fredric Myers, who asked his readers to "picture the human brain as a vast manufactory, in which thousands of looms, of complex and differing patterns, are habitually at work".

Sherrington obviously had not seen an Enigma coding machine, though early commercial versions were available in the 1930’s, and because of war time secrecy had no idea that Bletchley Park was working on the construction of mechanical code-breaking Bombes. Colossus, the first electronic brain, was available at the end of the following year, though that was kept secret for almost 30 years.

All that is probably just as well, because his brilliant metaphor has stuck. While I was still a researcher into the effects of cortical injuries sustained in childhood I found his enchanted loom fanciful, but it catches the reality of myriads of impulses flashing along pathways. The phrase has gained currency because it has been used as the title for neuroscience books, so we know it had some impact.

Impact factors, on the other hand, are baleful gifts. Of course some publications are better than others, and some journals are far better than others, so the calculation of impact is understandable. But once there is an index there is an incentive to game the system. The Spanish proverb says “Once the law is made the loophole will be made”. So, publications become crafted for the requirements of the system, not for scholarly purposes. This leads to countless iterations of the same tired database, so that each mini paper requires readers to wait for the next instalment, each of which boost publication rates. Perhaps this is inevitable in what remains, at heart, a cottage industry. If papers had to be anonymous until they reached a certain level of citations it might cut out a lot of noise.

However, the main reason to quote Sherrington is to show that there are other ways of making an impact. His prose is a delight, and that cannot be said of many scholarly publications today. We are cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in To saucy doubts and fears, as we strip our writing of anything which might show enthusiasm, flair and individuality. Dispassion rules. We have Editors to assuage.

All power to those researchers who can make an impact on our imaginations.

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