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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Publish or Perish?

Here I sit with my feet up thinking deep thoughts and some fool tells me I have to publish if I want to get paid. Curse you, Robert Boyle (1627–1692)! Don’t they know that publishing takes time away from thinking deep thoughts? After all, thinking deep thoughts is the sole reason for theoretical physicists to exist. Aw well, I suppose, I must. But things were different before Robert Boyle. Alchemists were very careful about who would learn their secrets. A lot of the information was passed down orally to apprentices or written in code. After all, if you had learned the magic incantation for turning lead into gold, you did not want your competitors butting in and driving up the price of lead. But that all changed with Robert Boyle. He started the trend of publishing his results so others could build on what he had done. Also perhaps because he could not, himself, understand what his assistant, Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703), had done and thought that others perhaps could if he made the results available. Thus he published and started a trend.

Since the time of Robert Boyle, publishing has become the standard by which scientists are judged. One needs at least one publication for a Ph. D, 15 to 20 for a permanent job (in my specialty), and one very good one to get a Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, publishing does not directly correlate with how much you get paid. Now, my father cut down trees for a living and was paid for each ton of trees trucked to the pulp mill. Perhaps it could be similar with scientists: pay them by the ton of paper consumed rather than produced. At the end of the year, weigh up the paper used to publish their work and pay accordingly. A good journal would then be one that had a large circulation and used a lot of dead trees.  Of course, then you might get a bunch of really prolific writers, but a lack of deep thinkers.  And never mind electronic publication—that throws a whole new element in. Guess we’ll have to throw the paid-by-the-ton scheme out the window.

The world of electronic publishing leads to an interesting digression: What is a publication? Everyone agrees that words printed on dead trees and circulated form a publication. But what about words that never appear on dead trees? With even Newsweek becoming an electronic only publication, I guess that electronic publications must be considered legitimate. Going further, what about preprint servers like arXiv? It seems to me that arXiv largely replaces the need for the traditional journals. I always took the point of view that I would put my papers on arXiv so other scientists would read them and then submit it to a regular journal so I could put it on my CEV as a peer-reviewed publication. I also used that electronic archive as my main source of information on what was going on in my field. The archival, printed journals I rarely looked at. If we had a rating and peer-review system for papers on the electronic archives we could safely do away with the traditional journals. However, my boss does like to brag about the number of laboratory papers that make the cover of Nature.

But back to the main point, publishing is important. The first reason is that while publishing  a lot of papers does not necessarily indicate that one is making a major contribution, no papers probably does indicate that one is sleeping rather than thinking deep thoughts. Thus, papers published should be considered the first indication of scientific productivity—and a baseline for your supervisor to keep paying your or not. The second reason (and the one that Boyle initiated when he didn’t understand his assistant’s work) is that peer review, in the broad sense, plays a major role in error control. It is one’s peers that will ultimately decide if one’s thoughts are deep or shallow, on track or not. The only way one’s peers can critique one’s work is if it is published and made available. The third reason is that science progresses by building on what has gone before, and to this, we must thank Boyle. It is the published journals and the much-maligned archival journals that keep the record of what has been learned. While much that is published can safely be forgotten, the gems, like Einstein’s papers, are also there.

So if you wish to flourish as a scientist and not perish, it is best to publish—but only good papers, as to not bog down the archives or kill too many trees. As for me, I wonder if I can count these blogs as publications on my CEV. That would give me an additional sixty publications. Probably not. Anyway when I retire in a few years, I will have a CEV burning party so it really does not matter.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

  • Xezlec

    Why on Earth hasn’t somebody set up an internet-based peer-review system yet?! Seems like surely that would have happened by now!

  • I really do not know. It would make the traditional instantly obsolete.

  • Uncle Al

    when I retire in a few years, I will have a CEV burning party” Carbon footprint! The US 2009 burned 2.02×10^10 gallons (7.6×10^10 liters) of jet fuel. Asian and African kerosene lamps burn estimated 7.7×10^10 liters/year (Technologies and Innovations for Development: Scientific Cooperation for a Sustainable Future Springer, 2012 ISBN 2-8178-0267-5, p. 308). Only the US is destroying planet Earth with Greenhouse Effect/Global Warming/Climate Change.

    Choose your burn site wisely.

  • Thanks, I will have a CEV shredding party instead so the paper can be recycled.