A few months ago I wrote about how we are drowning in information as a result of the two million papers published in journals every year [see ‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. As someone who has published about 10 papers each year for the last couple of decades, including three this year already, I feel I should provide some explanation for continuing to contribute to the deluge of papers. I think there are four main reasons for publishing scientific papers. First, to report a discovery – a new contribution to knowledge or understanding. This is the primary requirement for publication in a scientific journal but the significance of the contribution is frequently diminished both by the publisher’s and author’s need to publish which leads to many papers in which it is hard to identify the original contribution. The second reason is to fulfil the expectations or requirements of a funding agency (including your employer); I think this was probably the prime driver for my first paper which reported the results of a survey of muskoxen in Greenland conducted during an expedition in 1982. The third reason is to support a promotion case, either your own or one of your co-authors; of course, this is not incompatible with the reporting original contributions to knowledge but it can be a driver towards small contributions, especially when promotion committees consider only the quantity and not the quality of published papers. The fourth reason is to support the careers of members of the research team; in some universities it is impossible to graduate with a PhD degree in science and engineering without publishing a couple of papers, although most supervisors encourage PhD students to publish their work in at least one paper before submitting their PhD thesis, even when it is not compulsory. Post-doctoral researchers have a less urgent need to publish unless they are planning an academic career in which case they will need a more impressive publication record than their competitors. Profit is the prime reason for most publishers to publish papers. Publishers make more money when they sell more journals with more papers in them which drives the launch of new journals and the filling of journals with more papers; this process is poorly moderated by the need to ensure the papers are worth reading. It might be an urban myth, but some studies have suggested that half of published papers are read only by their editor and authors. Thirty years ago, my PhD supervisor, who was also my mentor during my early career as an academic, already suspected this lack of readers and used to greet the news of the publication of each of my papers as ‘more stuffing for your chair’.
Patterson, E.A., 1984, ‘Sightings of Muskoxen in Northern Scoresby Land, Greenland’, Arctic, 37(1): 61-63
Rose Eveleth, Academics write papers arguing over how many people read (and cite) their papers, Smithsonian Magazine, March 25th, 2014.
Image: Hannes Grobe, AWI, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons.
Good point about worthless publications. To my shame Google Scholar records 363 of my publications, but 163 have not a single citation! I can slightly justify this by imagining that a few other people did indeed read (or hear) the uncited work and benefited from it while not finding the right occasion to cite it, but I’m not really able to convince myself about this.
An interesting analysis. I have just done the same calculation and my percentage of uncited publications is 34% compared to Peter’s 45%. Google Scholar picks up a lot of junk at the bottom of the list which has not been peer-reviewed and, or are short abstracts presented at conferences that no one would cite. Maybe the latter is more common in Peter’s field than mine?
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