Loss Leaders and Skipping Stones

All businesses require loss leaders. Men’s suits, consumer electronics, software, and yes, academic journals — they all need ’em. Case in point, Nature’s current issue and an article therein about the best way to skip stones.

While Nature does periodically run this sort of article, it’s worth wondering why. After all, it does nothing for their academic bona fides — few to none of the most-cited papers at Nature are this sort of frivolous stuff, and it takes up space that could be more fruitfully devoted to, say, the fruitfly genome.

So why does Nature do it? Well, they will say it’s because a) it’s interesting science, b) it was well done, and c) they aren’t stuffy. All three are true, but it still doesn’t answer the question. There are plenty of other papers that fit the preceding criteria, yet it is infrequent (to say the least) that any of them make the cut at Nature.

The real answer is best seen by clicking here. Running papers like this one in the current Nature issue get the journal press. It is easier and more predictable getting press from running populist stuff about stone-skipping than it is waiting for the New York Times or CNN to run gushy features on “Coherent spin manipulation without magnetic fields in strained semiconductors“. Attention begets circulation — which helps, when you’re trying to increase revenues in the competitive academic journal business.

Meanwhile, hear that sound? It is the snick of success as three French professors lock down a 2004 Ig Nobel prize.