Arunn's Notebook

Should an academic publish less?

Arunn Narasimhan

Publish less, only then senior academics will regard you as a scholar worthy of their peerage. Did Einstein publish more? Did Feynman? What about Prandtl? Or Homi Bhabha or Abdul Kalam… This advice persists.

Should the rest (or majority) of the competent mortals and aspiring professing academics who are capable of generating useful and insightful ideas also publish less? Which of their ideas and importantly, at what quantity of publications-per-idea, they should refrain from publishing?

Let me begin the discussion from another perspective.

Recently a large portion of former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's PhD thesis was found to be plagiarized, which resulted in the withdrawal of his doctor title (and of course, his resignation). Abi had picked up on this issue and linked to follow up news and commentary, as it concerned higher ed.

To prevent such, if not the political, at least academic fiasco in the future (the thesis even lend to copy-paste artsy delights), the Robert Bosch Foundation had formed a panel of experts who now have come up with a list of seven suggestions for improving research conditions.

The original paper with these suggestions in German can be downloaded here (PDF). Thanks to Bee, we get the gist of the suggestions in English at her blog. Relying on her translation let me pick (on) one of the suggestions relevant to our discussion.

1. Mitigation of publication flood

The number of publications around the world should be reduced (relative to the growing number of scientists) and thus - against the economic interests of publishers - also the number of journals. This is the only way to ensure that this important basis for assessing the quality of research will again consist of reflected and carefully evaluated results. And only then researchers will be able to again take sufficient note of relevant results and findings from their field.

Publish less is good advice provided, what less is published is well worth it.

In his Writing a Paper (2004) [pdf], Whitesides asserted famously thus: If your research does not generate papers, it might just as well not have been done. "Interesting and unpublished" is equivalent to "non existent".

Being the living person with the highest H-index in chemistry, perhaps he can make such an assertion. What I understand from his statement is, don't do useless research. Try to do interesting, hence publishable research. Observe this interpretation doesn't impose anything on quality or quantity. Do publishable (hence cite-able) research in your time frame and publish them as any number of papers.

With this logic one could readily see the act of doing publishable research is self restraining based on the individual researcher’s judgment. What may not result in fruitful results would be abandoned in advance. Research that is to be published is pursued until it is published.

As an academic, there is nothing wrong in being prolific. It should be an end in itself. As an academic, one of my objectives is to generate as many ideas as possible in my field of interest. Communicating it to peers through publications is a must. Judging whether every idea of mine is worth reporting, need not be part of the act of generating and reporting it. That is why we have a peer review process in place (how to do this better is a different issue).

Yes, some of these publications (ideas) would remain un-cited and un-used. But they form part of the sincerity of some academic who had taken the necessary steps to circulate it in the marketplace of ideas. Pre-empting the usefulness of an idea –- thereby, trying to publish less -- is futile. How are we to judge the use of a new born?

That all of our academic ideas in each and every field of interest (scientific, in this context) should result only in the creation/invention/manufacture of some daily life products is held only by simpletons. I give grass, you give milk; for each grass, (ac)count the milk produced; the rest of the cow is dead meat incapable of milk products, a deterrent that should be axed in the next research budget cut.

Prolific publication or publishing more could become bad only if that activity becomes a means to an end. Like bean counting for some professional or personal gain including awards and project funding. This is when such committees of experts (who are experts in publishing less, I presume) are required, ironically, as a means to promote better research.

Even in this situation, the publications are done in peer reviewed journals. They cannot be dismissed outright as “just publications”. That not only slaps your fellow academics -- the authors, the peer reviews and the editors -- but also ridicules one essential avenue for acquiring scholarship, the hallmark of an academic.

The better way is to simply reduce the instances of bean counting the research publications as a means to professional or personal gain. Generating and publishing knowledge chunks is for scholarship. What further gain should be sought by the publishing act?

If that is an extreme, then reduce the number of journals (in respective fields) where a researcher could publish to claim merit. The proliferation of journals may be controlled by publishers, but the anointment of quality can be done by local academic peers responsible for judging tenure or an award or research funding.

Yes, this process is subjective. Any judgment has a subjective component. To reduce the frustrations involved and for healthy academic (research and publication) growth, the judgment criteria should become transparent.

For instance, a local tenure evaluation or faculty search committee of experts can decide using their own subjective standards, on what are those quality journals worth publishing in each field of study. But, they should make the list public well in advance, say, in the departmental website.

© Arunn Narasimhan | Original version written ~ 2011 | Last revision on Apr 01, 2012

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