New meaning to "publish or perish" – an opening for Open Science?

The saying “publish or perish” is well-known in academia, and typically both actions refer to the same subject – you, the aspiring/struggling grad student/post-doc/fellow/assistant professor. A recent correspondence in Nature puts a new and bracing spin on the phrase.

I think at some point most academic researchers have experienced the conflict that can arise when it is time to write a paper. On the one hand, you’re getting a chance to reward those months or years of hard work with some exposure and a line on your CV, and invest in the potential for future collaborations. On the other, maybe you’ve just gotten started on a really promising or exciting research direction, are in a groove, work-wise, and to have something like writing suddenly vying for your attention just means that both activities suffer. You feel that you can’t drop what you’re working on to write the paper, but the paper writing is distracted and unfocused because you’re still trying to conduct research half the time (and thinking about it more than that). But we march on to these two seemingly competing drummers, fueled somewhat by the vague hope that our work, once it is in the public domain, will also contribute a drop in the bucket that is scientific advancement of our species.

But what about other species? In conservation biology, “publish or perish” can take on new, and frighteningly literal, meaning. Time spent working on publications is time taken away from research on ecosystems and endangered wildlife. In the meantime, earth’s natural resources and diversity suffer. To prevent this from happening, the authors of the letter suggest (only slightly ironically) the adoption of a new impact factor:

This impact factor would be based on an estimation of how much worse the conservation status of an endangered species or ecosystem might be in the absence of the candidate’s research. It would select for targeted investigation that should help to fill in ‘the great divide’, and would exclude opportunistic ecology papers claiming to be of conservation significance.

Even if this proposal was made half in jest, it does highlight some important questions. The first sentence essentially asks: how much faster could research be conducted (and, by translation, medical or scientific advances be developed) if there was less emphasis on publication? The second sentence is quite a bit more complex, since it seems it would bring in value judgments on the worth of specific research questions – something that would be hard to define objectively and is easily influenced by prevailing trends, funding, and big talk.

So let’s talk about the first idea – that the pace of scientific advancement suffers from the emphases placed on publication. Obviously, research needs to be disseminated if it is going to contribute. But here is where Open Science comes in. Suppose Open Science and Open Notebook Science became the norm rather than the burgeoning, but still fringe, movement that it is now. Two big questions immediately come to my mind: Would publication matter as much as it does now? Would research proceed faster? I say no and yes.

With most, if not all, of your methods, data, and results made public, formal publication would not be necessary for others to learn of and benefit from your work. Peer-review may become an intrinsic part of the entire research process. Of course, a formal summary of your work adds great value and would be indispensable for someone searching for information on your field of study, but much of the pressure to publish could be alleviated. Add to that the increased exposure to the entire community and you get enormous potential to speed up your research in addition to research in general. You can learn what is working and not working in your experiments, get useful feedback and suggestions, and meet people who may be able to help you, all on a much faster timescale. At the same time, new ideas may be spawned, collaborations fostered, and interesting connections made between concepts.

Obviously, the future of Open Science is not going to be as rosy as that, at least in the early stages of its evolution (issues like patenting and privacy are valid and worth lengthy discussion in their own right, but are beyond the scope of this post). In fields like conservation biology, however, the shadow cast by “publish or perish” has terribly real implications, and the move towards Open Science will help to lift it. Can anyone really argue that Open Science is a bad thing?

One Response to New meaning to "publish or perish" – an opening for Open Science?

  1. Jean-Claude Bradley says:

    You raise some very important points that all stakeholders in the scientific process should be thinking about.

    One of the things that I notice that you (and many others) do reflexively is use the word “publish” when you actually mean “publish in traditional peer-reviewed journals”.
    Any form of disclosure to the public is a form of publication, whether on a blog, wiki, conference proceeding, or even verbal presentation. If you doubt that ask your institutional attorneys if the patent system considers your blog post a public disclosure.

    In fact a blog or wiki or Open Access journal can probably be considered MORE of a “publication” than a traditional toll-access journal because it reaches more of the public.

    But I do know what you mean – what form of publication “counts in the current academic merit system”. Well, until the word spreads about the value of Open Science (and more specifically Open Notebook Science), keep pumping out those traditional reports. It may mean that you have to hunt for more enlightened publishers (hint : PLoS-ONE) but they are out there.

    Remember that the problem of communicating science to those who can use the information is a completely different problem than proving your academic worth. It may require creative ways to move in this new direction, like letters from people who have used your Open Science work and can attest to its value.

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