When sequencing genomes is too boring for journals

Sequencing bacterial genomes is now the scope of project routinely undertaken by undergraduates just learning how to do research. What was once an empirical project suitable for a multinational research investment, and has until recently been the mainstay of PhD dissertations, is on the cusp of becoming too trivial to justify a journal publication. David Roy Smith points out the consequences of this shift in the new issue of Frontiers in Plant Genetics and Genomics Smith:death:2013.

Changes in technology always expose the differences between workaday gathering of empirical data and question-driven science. As Smith notes, a lot of genome research has been data-driven instead of hypothesis-driven:

One of the drawbacks of genome papers, however, is that they can create a mindset of sequence first, ask questions later. I once attended a Masters thesis defense where the external examiner asked the candidate why he sequenced the chloroplast genome of this particular species and what hypothesis was he trying to test. The student, looking startled, answered, Because the genome hadn't been sequenced before and we didn't know what it looked like. After the defense, I overheard the examiner in the hallway venting to another professor. We've created a culture of serial genomicists, she exclaimed. Everyone's jumping from one genome sequence to the next, looking to score a major publication.

We’re seeing quite a bit of this now in metagenomics work, where the mere description of microbial species counts and plotting principal components against other samples of microbe communities has been a mainstay of journal articles. There has always been a large role for pure description in science, collection of empirical data as exploration without necessarily being driven by a hypothesis. Exploration, whether it involves new field sites or new examination of laboratory samples, is worthwhile in itself. But we place value on exploration that involves some risk – where learning something new is neither predictable nor easy.