A comparison of two high-impact immunology papers published 42 years apartIn the months leading up to my qualifying exam, I had the inexplicable desire to read every research paper that might be relevant to my field of study. As I read, I ventured deeper into the past until eventually I was going through articles that pre-dated my own birth. In retrospect, reading the original 1965 paper that first characterized autoimmunity in New Zealand Black mice did not help with my exam. But it did lead to an interesting question: How have publication requirements changed over the course of the last four decades?
I posed the question to several of the more established professors in the Department. The feedback I received only helped to justify my own feelings of frustration. The field of immunology has shifted towards a more mechanistic approach and requires more techniques, more time, and more effort. Science has become expensive requiring ever elaborate approaches. As Dr. Tania Watts wrote, “…to get a high impact paper in Nature or Cell… [requires] the amount of work that 20 years ago constituted an entire PhD.”
In an effort to scientifically describe these differences, I have decided to compare two high-impact immunology papers published over four decades apart. The first is a highly recognized paper by Miller and Mitchell, published in 1968, that helped to delineate the role of cognate B and T cell help. The paper is one of three published in a series entitled “Cell to cell interaction in the immune response”. The second is one of the most highly cited papers in 2010, entitled, “Autophagy proteins regulate innate immune responses by inhibiting the release of mitochondrial DNA mediated by the NALP3 inflammasome” by Nakahira et al. Differences between these two papers are summarized in Box 1.
There is no denying that high-impact publications require greater time and effort. The complex and interdisciplinary nature of recent publications frequently requires the joint efforts and expertise of many students, post-doctoral fellows, technicians, and professors. The 2010 paper by Nakahira et al. contained twice the amount of figures and six times as many authors. However, let me be clear: although the tools and expectations may have changed, I don’t believe that it was ever “easier” to publish in scientific journals. As an example, in the 1968 paper by Miller and Mitchell, well over a hundred mice were thymectomized in order to unravel the role of thymocytes in immune responses. This is a tremendous feat.
Another interesting difference between the papers was a loss of exposition and supposition. The 2010 paper by Nakahira et al. had fewer detailed description of techniques and less conjecture (Box 2). Perhaps as scientists, we have become more reserved and curt in the presentation of data, wary of overstepping assumption and revealing unpublished insights.
As a final note, it was certainly more difficult to read the paper published by Miller and Mitchell in 1968. Much of the data preceded established theories of immunology. Before I could begin to follow the authors’ logic, I needed to abandon those ideas. It was a noteworthy affair and I challenge you to try the same.
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