Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Do we write too many papers?

Every Tuesday, when the weekend submissions appear on the arXiv, I think we’re all writing too many papers. Not to mention that we work too often on weekends. Every Friday, when another week has passed in which nobody solved my problems for me, I think we’re not writing enough papers.

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.
No, we don’t publish too many papers!
  • 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?
Possible reasons that push researchers to publish more than is good for progress:
  • 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.
All together I don’t have a strong opinion on whether we’re publishing too much or not. What I do find worrisome though is that all these measures for scientific success reduce our tolerance for individuality. Some people write a lot, some less so. Some pay a lot of attention to detail, some rely more on intuition. Some like to discuss and get feedback early to sort out their thoughts, some like to keep their thoughts private until they’ve sorted them out themselves. I think everybody should do their research the way it suits them best, but unfortunately we’re all increasingly forced to publish at rates close to the field average. And who said that the average is the ideal?


Daniel Lemire said...

I have been part of a committee in recent years made of senior folks. All of them have published 3 to 10 times more papers than I have.

At some point, the meeting coordinator asked all of us how many papers we have published. I do not recall my exact answer, but it was something like 35. There was a pause and I was asked to give the number again.

So there is definitively an expectation that 35 papers or so is astonishingly low. Given that I am in my early 40s, this gives you some idea of the expectations in my field.

Of course, the number of papers is the very least of my worries. I am not too sure why anyone would care about the number of papers I have published exactly. (In truth, I do not know if it is 35...)

Kay zum Felde said...


I think you're right about the individuality of the author(s). And one should try to publish papers which are presenting something important. On the other hand, authors live from incremental steps. Often the devil lies in the detail. This last statement leads to incremental steps.

Take care

vmarko said...

Hi Bee,

"Results pressure. Scientists need published papers to demonstrate outcome of research they received grants for."

I think this is the main reason for overproduction of papers. All other criteria could find some natural equilibrium between quantity and quality. But people who give us money always favor quantity over quality, and there can be no real equilibrium.

Unfortunately, I see no solution to this issue.

Best, :-)

Zephir said...

Do we write too many papers? Yes, we must stop the avalanche of low quality research, Half of academic studies are never read more than three people, why we have so much Duh science? Nope, only 1% of scientists manages to write more than one article per year.

So where the problem is? In overemployment of scientists - we have too many of them, given the scope of contemporary research, the utilization of which advances the capabilities of human society by many years. Ironically enough, just the areas of research which are most important with respect of future progress today are most ignored with physicists and effectively maintained with amateurs only (cold fusion, magnetic motors, scalar wave research, etc.). For physicists it's apparently much more acceptable to observe, how the various nations are fighting for residuals of oil than to deal with research, which seemingly contradicts their pet theories.

L. Edgar Otto said...

Perhaps it is a thought that impressed me in simpler times: "If there are so many more billions of people why are there not proportionally so many more Einsteins?"

"If we value the idea of IQ, even an exceptional person would be humbled by how many millions have a few more points above them."

"We reach a point where enough of a paper should justify the funding as a measure of progress, but one should not divulge all or they lose the ability to eke out further funding. At a certain point in say a popular science book the last chapter usually ends in hints of future speculations that may hold useful discoveries."

"Given likely universal sentience throughout the universe other than for historical reasons why would any civilization make so much of their achievements of the day? In fact where is the truly first for any paper? Perhaps the lizards of Sirius accidentally wrote it a million years ago anyway."

"Einstein's first paper was accepted despite no documentation, well there was not any."

"Text books shrink over the years for ideas and long passages of history to say one or two lines. Is it possible there is just too much for us now to read as all papers become abstracts of abstracts and so on... Still, not that long ago one could make a living writing say another take on the life and work of Whitman and assure tenure in the English department."

"Perhaps it really does take a collective to publish a great idea as complex as to what it takes to say someone invented television. Gone are the days a handful of researchers can independently invent crystal classification or non-Euclidean geometries. Or as Lincoln said, 'it is too costly for any one nation to build a project as great as the LHC'."

"Fame is so fleeting but not just a problem of scientist needing to survive with freedom to inquire. As we are influenced by the media we can never surpass the first impressions of our heroes, even if we in fact have done so. Now this dims with time. Unless you are off the bell curve (in either direction) one sees cultural figures pass away in the news and some are older than you and some are younger, by a few significant years,a decade or so that tends to define a generation. We get out of sync with the culture. We get distracted by war or disease. We accumulate too much space junk, or what we need to keep mostly is lost, maybe a tenth kept like of Leonardo's books of which in his time he was certainly a genius. Perhaps it is a sociology question after all where the solution is lacking here we so drunk on our great successes, and replication."

"Then again some science answers are there taking too long to apply even without testing as there is nothing else for cures. So in a way it is the science itself that may lead the way for answers. I notice the math prizes also were given to those who try to promote the sciences for whomever."

"It is all too easy to turn fundamentalist, a favorite style of music (change of taste may be a bad sign of mental health radically or in old age). I mean we tend to be seduced by a great big book or the growing legend of say a saint or Napoleon."

"I cannot say more at this point lest I add a short chapter on pure speculation."

Uncle Al said...

The Equivalence Principle is a selectively defective postulate. No published hectarage can repair an axiomatic system from within. Look in from the outside. Chemistry births six tests of vacuum chiral anisotropy toward matter (hadrons). Two rotational spectra experiments are 10^(-15) difference/average mass-sensitive in existing apparatus. Rerunning exquisite SF_6 rotational spectra is literature pollution.

The best parts of this universe are hyperbolic.

L. Edgar Otto said...

I am not sure of that Uncle AI,

The best part of our observable universe in that we can touch it so to speak is when we can touch the hyperbolic part and perhaps no further.

So nature experiences so to speak the Equivalence Principle as selectively defective, sort of things hidden or perhaps sort of quantizied. 2 and 6 are after all the dominoes with faults in the arrangement... the only two.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Too many researchers and “models”, too few finders and problem solutions in fundamental science. They just search and search, speculate and speculate, publish and publish, and problems still persist and persist, accumulate and accumulate. Ever “darker” Universe introduces the new Dark Ages in science…

And as (mutually) "recognised" researchers receive their comfortable incomes (and some even multimillion prizes) just for having tried (thank you for being here!), it means that if a real problem solution suddenly appears, despite all efforts to stop it, then it cannot be accepted as a major threat and practically impossible thing. “The structure of scientific revolutions” is so alive that no revolution is possible any more, however necessary it may seem.

Therefore some scientists begin to sing sad songs, others tell fairy tales about “parallel universes” and other supernatural mysteries on the media, and yet others spend public money on travelling from one “very important” feast, sorry, “conference” to another. Life is not bad for a scientist, under the very strict condition that no real problem solution can be found in his/her numerous papers (and the more numerous are papers without real problem solution, the better is the researcher’s life). They told you to search, not to find, so shut up and calculate.

Now what about megaprojects, all scientifically wrong from the beginning, involving thousands of people, whole institutes and experimental factories, infinite fluxes of papers and… the future of humanity buried under all those piles of wasted resources? All those “quantum computers” (that evidently cannot compute anything), those “dark matters” and “hidden dimensions”, those “new particles” that cannot exist in principle and are not needed, those “nano” word plays and “bio” promises of eternal youth, that “artificial intelligence” which should reside by now in a desk-top computer (due to the huge power boost)… Promises, ambitions, publications, billions, references to past successes… and nothing else, only technological, purely technological, empirically driven progress (basically limited as such, of course, and eventually dangerous).

Another way exists, of course, with all its real problem solutions and real human progress, but if no one else is interested, then, of course, nothing will change until the already growing wars, economic, biological and technological disasters will end the show in their own way… Just keep publishing, and singing, and telling magic stories.

L. Edgar Otto said...


Unless we have a more elegant theory how else can inquiry proceed? The problem as I see it is that we make simple problems overly complicated so we waste a lot of human brain power, and by necessity. Even the new speculations become overly complicated as well expected results of our big technology projects.

But there is the usual society vs science over the safety of half blind research. This now divides scientist themselves (PBS news) as to if we fallible humans should be developing viruses in the lab that may escape such as Ebola without safeguards. Is this a limiting of inquiry or prudence? I think it would be nice if we had a more comprehensive theory of the genome that it could be done in simulation even if any unknown virus may arise so we thus generate a vaccine- on the other hand most anything can be made in a small laboratory.

This question is also the one that asks is there a minimum scale distance... yes or no or both a lot can be said for streamlining and simplifying our general theory say for better simulations...and better math to show for example that of the 196884 dimensions of the Monster Group we are simply seeing this space or volume at our human scale of low dimensions. Partitions work likewise as well our ability to do partial differentials and so on... in this sense the maximum symmetry is the minimum 8 or 16 dimensions simply.

johnduffield said...

Very interesting, Andrei.

hush said...


Confession time.

I am scare to death of the information ocean.
I love swimming.
Still, too many people drown there.

I have always managed to make my way back to the shore. I do remember close calls and self doubt though.