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I was discussing this topic with an older professor of mine who had published more than 90 papers and couple of books in his field. The papers are highly specialized and half of them are with different co-authors from the same or a different field.

Since he has so many papers, I asked him if he was able to remember and / or explain all of his published papers to a random guy or student on the street if he's asked to do so. His answer was, of course, 'not really'. Since his papers were highly specialized and he tends to change his research interests over time, his memory of the papers tends to fade. He'd still be able to remember and explain the methodology and results of any of the published research, but not in detail or without first re-reading them.

My question is, how much is expected from a scientist to remember from his papers? If you get asked to explain some of your papers, what of the following would you do:

  • Just explain what's in the abstract (if you remember), or
  • Tell them to just read the paper themselves, because 'everything is there'
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    I would expect a person to explain as much as he remembers, leave, get his notes / diaries / lab journals, and email you the details. This said, I'm not in the stage of having published too much, so I won't post this as an answer. – svavil Sep 30 '17 at 16:20
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    I thought the whole point of writing it down was so we didn't have to rely on our demonstrably terrible human memory! – corsiKa Oct 1 '17 at 17:47
  • @corsiKa the fact that the paper is written doesn't mean that a discussion with the author cannot be helpful -- to understand faster, or gain some insight about what is not in there (ideas that failed, and why, for instance ). That's one of the reasons people give talks. – Clement C. Oct 2 '17 at 2:51
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    Intelligence is knowing where to find the answers, even if it is in your own previous work. – krillgar Oct 2 '17 at 18:40
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    @corsiKa Reminds me of Henry Jones (senior) – Tobias Kienzler Oct 3 '17 at 7:01
76

People usually do not ask: "explain this paper" they will read a paper and may ask a more specific question about a part they did not understand.

The professor may or may not be able to answer. If he wants to, he can look up the paper or the answer to the questions asked. His experience and knowledge will probably help him to find the answer faster than the person who asked the question. If he does not want to, or cannot answer the question because he forgot, does not have time, or for any other reason, the person asking is simply out of luck: they will have to ask someone else or do research themselves to find the answers they are looking for.

Nobody can remember all the details about 90 highly specialised scientific papers, especially if they involved lots of work by different authors that may have been done decades ago. Professors and other scientists are human beings: they forget things and make mistakes just like everyone else. This is not a problem.

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    In addition, Professors are often not the people who actually do the work and spend months or years on that specific topic. Some PIs with big groups sometimes push out more than 2 papers a month, no way to know everything in detail right from the beginning. – DSVA Sep 30 '17 at 16:51
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    Perhaps it is idealistic on my part, but papers that require explanation should be published. What are we supposed to do when the authors die? – emory Oct 1 '17 at 11:30
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    @emory Spend centuries trying to find the proof he chose not to disclose in the margin, obviously. – JiK Oct 2 '17 at 11:31
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One of the main reasons for writing a paper is that you no longer need to remember what's in it, because you can go back and read the paper.

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    Is that really one of the main reasons for writing a paper for some people? It's certainly a benefit, and a reason to write notes, but it's never been a reason me to actually write a paper for publication. (I have however wanted to write up something quickly before I forget.) – Kimball Sep 30 '17 at 22:59
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    @Kimball: It's certainly an important reason for me. I mean, it obviously isn't why I go to the trouble of polishing it and getting it published, but whenever I figure something out I get worried that I will forget it if I don't write it down. – Andy Putman Oct 1 '17 at 1:27
  • @AndyPutman And if we merely write it down without publishing we may not be able to find it, or we will find some erroneous draft version. – Keith McClary Oct 2 '17 at 4:30
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    Heck, I can’t remember half the stuff I wrote in my PhD thesis. I’m probably the only person reading it semi-regularly, to look up how/why I did specific things. – Konrad Rudolph Oct 2 '17 at 11:01
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    @KeithMcClary: I don't think that's true for most people. I'm not exactly the most organized person in the world, but my papers are organized in such a way as to make me able to easily find the most recent version of any of them (and I can't imagine someone who is able to function in academia for a long period of time who hasn't found a system that works for them). I publish my papers for a variety of other reasons -- peer review, getting raises/grants, making sure my work is permanently archived in libraries and available to future scholars, etc. – Andy Putman Oct 2 '17 at 15:59
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One of the reasons I write papers is so that I don't lose insights that I worked hard to discover! I certainly cannot reproduce from memory the technical details of my papers except for the most recent ones (though I generally can remember the basic gist of them).

I actually write a huge number of notes to myself that I never publish or distribute. I put a lot of work into figuring out other people's work from my own point of view, and if I didn't write it down that effort would be wasted.

I periodically get emails with questions about my older papers, and I generally have to spend a bit of time re-reading them before I can give an intelligent answer. I've also had the following common experience many times. Someone (say, one of my graduate students) asks me a question. I'll get excited and we'll talk for a while without answering it. A few hours later, I remember that I once wrote a paper answering it!

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