The Guardian recently published an essay by Timo Hannay, titled “Stop the deluge of science research”, though the URL suggests the original title was “Why we should publish less Scientific Research.” Hannay argues that the literature has become unmanageable and that we need better tools to structure and filter it so that researchers can find what they are looking for. Ie, he doesn’t actually say we should publish less. Of course we all want better boats to stay afloat on the information ocean, but there are other aspects to the question whether we publish too many papers that Hannay didn’t touch upon.Here, I use “too much” to mean that the amount of papers hinders scientific progress and no longer benefits it. The actual number depends very much on the field and its scientific culture and doesn’t matter all that much. Below I’ve collected some arguments that speak for or against the “too much papers” hypothesis.
Yes, we publish too many papers!
- Too much to read, even with the best filter. The world doesn’t need to know about all these incremental steps, most of which never lead anywhere anyway.
- Wastes the time of scientists who could be doing research instead. Publishing several short papers instead of one long one adds the time necessary to write several introductions and conclusions, adapt the paper to different journals styles, fight with various sets of referees, just to then submit the paper to another journal and start all over again.
- Just not reading them isn’t an option because one needs to know what’s going on. That creates a lot of headache, especially for newcomers. Better only publish what’s really essential knowledge.
- Wastes the time of editors and referees. Editors and referees typically don’t have access to reports on manuscripts that follow-up works are based on.
- If you think it’s too much, then just don’t read it.
- If you think it’s too much, you’re doing it wrong. It’s all a matter of tagging, keywords, and search tools.
- It’s good to know what everybody is doing and to always be up to date.
- Journals make money with publishing our papers, so don’t worry about wasting their time.
- Who really wants to write a referee report for one of these 30 pages manuscripts anyway?
- Results pressure. Scientists need published papers to demonstrate outcome of research they received grants for.
- CV boosting. Lots of papers looks like lots of ideas, at least if one doesn’t look too closely. (Especially young postdocs often believe they don’t have enough papers, so let me add a word of caution. Having too many papers can also work against you because it creates the appearance that your work is superficial. Aim at quality, not quantity.)
- Scooping angst. In fields which are overpopulated, like for example hep-th, researchers publish anything that might go through just to have a time-stamp that documents they were first.
- Culture. Researchers adapt the publishing norms of their peers and want to live up to their expectations. (That however might also have the result that they publish less than is good for progress, depending on the prevailing culture of the field.)
- PhD production machinery. It’s becoming the norm at least in physics that PhD students already have several publications, typically with their PhD supervisor. Much of this is to make it easier for the students to find a good postdoc position, which again falls back positively on the supervisor. This all makes the hamster wheel turn faster and faster.