Deputy Scientific Director Talks Scientific Publishing, Career Gratification in Interview

09/11/2012

In a recent interview about scientific publishing with the public radio program The Story, Tom Curran, Ph.D., F.R.S., noted that while being published is undoubtedly important, “real gratification from a career in science … is really about helping others.”

Dr. Curran, who currently serves as deputy scientific director of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, was interviewed as part of The Story’s recent "A Word is Born" episode. The episode featured three segments about “the power of language,” including Dr. Curran’s take on whether, and how, scientists are encouraged to “tweak what they’ve learned in order to give a scientific journal a sexier lead,” according to host Dick Gordon.

Asked whether scientists today feel more pressure to “streamline their information” to make it look “sexier,” Curran said he believes “the pressure has mounted over the years, particularly for individuals who want to publish in the so-called ‘high profile’ journals.” While refraining from too harshly criticizing these journals, they can at times be “influenced more by the desire to publish a hot story than anything else,” Dr. Curran pointed out.

Indeed, Dr. Curran experienced this early in his career, when publishing a “very exciting” paper. The editor of the journal with which Dr. Curran was working “recommended, actually kind of insisted” that Dr. Curran and his team remove some complicating data from the paper lest it confuse the journal’s readers. The resulting article gave the field a “simpleminded” impression of the research’s implications, though Dr. Curran was later able to publish all of his findings in another manuscript.

“My approach has always been, you look for those discrepancies, you look for the complexities, because biology is complex, disease is very complex,” Dr. Curran said.

He also cautioned younger investigators against gearing their work toward “finding a headline.” “I like to tell people that the best way to publish an article in one of those top journals is not to try to publish an article in one of those top journals, because if you think if you’re chasing this really hot but simple story, you’re likely to miss the real interesting underlying science,” Dr. Curran noted.

However, for all of his publishing successes, Dr. Curran considers his greatest achievement his contribution to the development of a drug that is now in pediatric trials — Erivedge, which was recently approved by the FDA to treat cancer in adults. During his work on the compound that would become Erivedge, Dr. Curran learned “the more I put own name in the background, the better things moved ahead.”

“And probably that’s my greatest achievement. It’s not the papers that came out … it’s the kid who was treated.”

“I came to the conclusion that the best contributions to my own work came from other people, people who told me an idea or suggested something, and probably my best contributions were suggestions that I gave to others … and it I think this is the hardest part for young scientists … real gratification from a career in science … is really about helping others,” Dr. Curran said.

To listen to the full interview, visit The Story.