15

It seems as though everyone in academia is trying to publish stuff, regardless of whether they actually have something meaningful to say. The journals generate more noise every year. I understand that papers count for promotion and review, they mostly get counted but... There is room to question the actual motivation to publish.

What is your primary reason for publishing? How much of it is related to making a meaningful contribution to science/knowledge/understanding, and how much is for other reasons/purposes (tenure, CV, fame, pressure, etc.)?

  • 2
    This question seems to be looking for a series of opinions from a series of answers. Seems like it should not be a question (perhaps a wiki) or perhaps it should be changed it something along the lines of "Why do academics publish" which would support answers which include detailed research. – earthling Dec 30 '13 at 6:03
  • Rather than vote to close, I have edited the question to focus on the question which is most appropriate for Academia. SE. Feel free to edit again, @A.G. – J. Zimmerman Dec 30 '13 at 13:26
  • Look at people blogging, participation in academic Q&As (e.g. MathOverflow), open-source projects, etc; if such informal communications are uncommon in a given community, you can safely assume that publications are motivated mainly by career, not - genuine willingness to share knowledge. (Think: if someone is willing to help people only when is being paid, it does not mean that someone is an altruist.) – Piotr Migdal Dec 30 '13 at 14:58
  • The main answers to the question in the title are given in the last sentence of the question body. Any attempt to decide which is primary is very subjective and differs from person to person. – David Ketcheson Dec 30 '13 at 22:56
  • There seems to me to be a big difference between why do academics publish and why do YOU publish. The first can be answers with "facts", while the second will be a list of opinions. – StrongBad Jan 3 '14 at 9:53
4

The first question is a relatively simple problem.

Researchers have the utility of:

  • some research being published in some rated venue: which will award them points according to some criteria.
  • some research being cited, which will award also points according to some other criteria.
  • some research being purchased: which will award some sweet additional income.
  • some research being read: which doesn't award any points per se, but helps to create some buzz around it, get cites, funding, etc. This requires the research to be published before.
  • "making a meaningful contribution to science/knowledge/understanding".

Look at the last bullet point, the rewards come from the inside of the researchers in that case, no raise, no money, no external reward. This means that if people focus on that too much they may not make any progress in their careers and they may actually fail in the search for funding or even a job. Therefore, successful people will have a strong interest/utility on the other points, the last one may or may not be important for them, but definitively secondary. They may say it's the primary goal, but they won't act like that, or they will fail. I'm an introvert and this sucks, but that is how the system is, it's mathematical.

The points and external rewards are very important. They may be important to finish a MSc or a PhD, to get a post-doc position, a job in industry, a tenured position, a raise, a project, funding, etc. But we are not done yet. They do also have resources to get some attention:

  • social networks (twitter, linkedIn, etc.)
  • blogs
  • conferences
  • journals
  • books
  • etc.

Do you remember the last point?, blogs seem to be perfectly suitable to making this kind of contribution, but they are not peer reviewed and they don't award any points, therefore, they are used like twitter. Get buzz, get attention, then link the paper so that people can read it. You can even summarize the paper in the blog so that people can cite it without actually reading it, which is wrong on so many levels that actually some of them cancel each other and happens to be right in some levels, at least IMHO.

Finally have some pieces of research that they can split like salami or maybe put together as a compilation to create a book, or they can even try to split, publish in conferences, then put together as a journal, then join with even more stuff and write a book.

So basically in the end researchers try to publish the research using the resources available trying to maximize the utility of their research, effort, time, publications, etc. Those who do it right (not focusing on the last point of the utility) get to do more and more research, and so the academia system works, and so it is driven.

Basically this is a problem of cybernetics. This is an emergent information system that is mostly driven in that way, with those dynamics and that convergence. Maybe we would have a better system if it was explicitly engineered and not emergent, but as usual, the ones that have the most power to change it are the ones that are most favored by the current system. There is always some strength in the stability of the status quo.

About the second question, the answer for me is "no". I guess that's why I'm here writing with a pseudonym.

6

In the words of Lichtfouse (2013) a research article is above all a communication tool and its purpose is to transfer scientific information from one individual to other individuals.

Publishing a paper is for me the way to show that I am doing research and sharing it with others. But, it is clear that I also am pressured into publishing because promotions and the ability to attract funding relies on publications as a primary evaluation tool. So although I do not publish with the expressed intent of attracting more funding or my own promotions, I am well aware of the spiralling development that is ongoing. I do want to mention that publishing something primarily gives me personally a sense of achievement, that my research is good enough to pass the scrutiny of peers etc. As with, I surmise, mostly everyone else, I thrive from doing a good job and getting a sense of accomplishment. Publishing does that for me.

Whether or not people read my research can be answered by yes and no. Everyone does not read my papers but some who do not should and some who reference my work, really ought to read it, again. On the whole, I think papers get the attention they deserve, some get more and some get less attention than I think is fair. But, since my work gets referenced reasonably often, I think over and under referenced papers average out.

The "pressure to publish" is definitely there and I believe that universities and funding agencies should try to improve the way they evaluate research so as to avoid "salami slicing" and other types of publishing effects. But, how such a system should look is difficult to say although many indices such as the h-index can be used. Since there are no perfect systems, it is perhaps more important to look at the ethical aspects of publishing and make awareness of and discssion on publishing issues better.

Lichtfouse, E., 2013. Scientific writing for impact factor journals. Nova Publishers, New York.

2

Yes, promotion-and-tenure motivations are strong, but it would be misguided to think that such cachet is the sole impetus for publishing. Even if relatively few people read the final result, there's a lot to be said for the publication process: comments from referrees, questions from conference attendees – these provide valuable feedback that can lead to new insights or help you gauge how much your overall research efforts are of interest and use to others in the field.

It's one thing to have a hunch that your research is signficant; it's another to have that verified by selection committees and the peers in your field.

-1

A list of recent publications is the most serious document to prove the competence in science. And, very often, no competence - no job.

A professor that has no publications for several years may at the end lose the position. This is a reasonable requirement, as it forces to stay up to date with the knowledge. Otherwise the quality of teaching would drop because alternative ways of discarding low competence professor (like group of students requiring to replace him) are way more difficult and problematic.

Also, publication is a normal, usual way to recognize the PhD work. It may be possible to get PhD without publications but this is usually understood as a sign of unsuccessful work that puts shadow on both student and supervisor. Nobody wants.

Finally, some systems like European may require a scientist to change the institution periodically, providing mostly temporary positions as long as you are not a professor yet. If you have finished a two year post doctoral position without a paper published, that is the end of you scientific carrier - you will not get the next one.

Unfortunately this also means that scientists try to publish something often even when they could generally work for several more years to make a better publication instead.

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