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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

May 22, 2022

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]

The world of scientific publishing is organized as a hierarchy of status, much like the hierarchy of angels in the Abrahamic religions. At the bottom are the non-peer-reviewed blog posts and Twitter threads. Slightly above are the preprint servers like arXiv, and then big peer-reviewed journals like PLOS One. Above those are all the field-specific journals, some with higher reputation than others. And at the top, near the divine presence, are the CNS journals: Cell, Nature, and Science.

For an actual hierarchy of journals based on citation data, see this paper, which puts Nature and Science at the top. Might be worth mentioning that it comes from a journal in the Nature Publishing Group family.

Leaving aside Cell, a more specialized biology journal that seems to have gotten into the CNS acronym the same way Netflix got into the FAANG acronym, Nature and Science are very similar. They both publish articles in all scientific fields. They both date from the 19th century. They’re published weekly. They jointly won a fancy prize for services to humanity in 2007. And having your paper in either is one of the best things that can happen to a scientist’s career, thanks to their immense prestige.

But how, exactly, did Nature and Science become so prestigious? This is the question I hoped Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal, a 2015 book by historian of science Melinda Baldwin, might answer. It focuses on Nature, but much of its lessons can likely be extrapolated to Science considering their similarity.