Room for a spanner in the works?

November 24, 2000

The number of materials science journals is growing almost exponentially; 88 in 1995, 111 in 1997, 159 in 1999. How is an educated scientist, with interests that span more than one narrow specialisation, to cope? You can rely on friends who have more time to read than you, or look up only articles that have been cited in other papers, or you can use search engines such as Web of Science combined with alerting services. Most of us use all of the above. But there is value in a journal that you can browse through over a cup of coffee once a week, to catch serendipitous insights from articles that you might not have picked up from any of the above. Advanced Materials was set up to serve this role. It achieves a high impact factor and runs to 24 issues a year (12 print and 12 online).

Building on the success of Advanced Materials , in 1999 a sister journal was started with the title Advanced Engineering Materials. The format is similar. The cover features an eye-catching micrograph of a photogenic material featured in the issue, together with headlines on the theme if the issue has one. Vignettes of each article, often with an accompanying micrograph follow, making the issue browser friendly for those reading the printed copy as well as those accessing it on the web.

The German print run then has eight pages of editorials, articles and news from the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Materialkunde (DGM), which cooperated in the publishing of Advanced Engineering Materials . But the journal itself is in English. Advanced Engineering Materials carries international news from industry, academia, government and research foundations, book reviews and a conference calendar, as well as essays and correspondence.

The core of the journal is the scientific section that contains three types of article. Review articles are intended to give a peer-reviewed general overview of a particular field, providing the reader with an appreciation of the importance of the work, a summary of recent developments, and a starting point in the specialist literature.

One issue carried a major review by Dov Sherman and David Brandon about the mechanical properties of hard materials and their relationship to microstructure. The desire to reach a broad readership occasionally gets the better of the editors; a review entitled "Nanoceramic toys" contained nothing about toys, not even for grown-ups. Research news articles are intended to inform non-specialist readers of developments in materials science and technology.

Finally, the editors invite communications: "unsolicited short reports of outstanding novel findings that also have important and general implications for specialists working in other fields".

For me, these communications are the most exciting part of Advanced Engineering Materials . I am struck by their high quality and low quantity. In some issues, the number of communications is perilously small (the first two issues of 2000 contain only one between them). I particularly enjoyed a communication by Olujide Olurin, Norman Fleck and Michael Ashby on joining metal foams with fasteners.

But why the need for special issues? The Cambridge University engineering department features quite prominently, afforded a special issue on porous metallic materials edited by John Banhart, Norman Fleck and Michael Ashby. This and other special issues provide a good way to publish key papers from an international meeting, but they scarcely betoken a journal overwhelmed by contributions with "outstanding novel findings". We have all seen journals that struggle similarly; some colleagues tell me that they consult Journal of Vacuum Science and Technology for good conference proceedings, but never for regular papers.

There is a deeper problem here. When I was a schoolboy, I regularly went to the activity called "engineering", where we were taught how to use a lathe by the school "engineer". I made myself an adjustable spanner, followed by a drill press powered by a salvaged fridge motor, which boasted a professional Jacobs chuck. I had a classmate whose father was a professor of engineering at Cambridge, and he was incensed that the school should so deliberately obfuscate the meaning of engineering by using it to describe training in metalwork.

It seems that the publishers of this journal have also misunderstood the meaning of engineering, though they may have been misled by popular use of "engineering materials" to mean materials whose primary engineering applications arise from their mechanical properties. They have almost gone so far as to restrict engineering materials to metals, though there are occasional communications on ceramics, and I found a review by Karl-Heinz Haas on hybrid inorganic-organic polymers using organically cross-linked heteropolysiloxanes and a research news article on metal/polymer interfaces.

Have the publishers got into a muddle? Is this really a house magazine of DGM, or is it truly a flagship international journal? If it is the latter, and if they are really aiming to pick only the best of the submitted publications, then why do they need a special issue on materials science research in Erlangen? The confusion may become even greater when a new sibling, Advanced Functional Materials , has its coming-out party in February 2001. It will cover the same range of topics as Advanced Materials , but will be devoted to full-length papers. The level of research activity in materials will continue to grow, and a well-structured family of journals along the lines of Advanced Materials could make a wonderful contribution. Wiley-VCH will do a service to the whole international community if they succeed.

Andrew Briggs is professor of materials, University of Oxford.

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