In our recent discussion of modes of publication, Joseph Wilson wrote, “The single best reform science can make right now is to decouple publication from career advancement, thereby reducing the number of publications by an order of magnitude and then move to an entirely disjointed, informal, online free-for-all communication system for research results.”
My first thought on this was: Sure, yeah, that makes sense. But then I got to thinking: what would it really mean to decouple publication from career advancement? This is too late for me—I’m middle-aged and have no career advancement in my future—but it got me thinking more carefully about the role of publication in the research process, and this seemed worth a blog (the simplest sort of publication available to me).
However, somewhere between writing the above paragraphs and writing the blog entry, I forgot exactly what I was going to say! I guess I should’ve just typed it all in then. In the old days I just wouldn’t run this post, or I’d postpone it, but my “on deck this week” feature is serving as a bit of a preregistration, so I feel I should write something on the topic even if it’s not as thoughtful or elegant as I was hoping for.
So, in brief . . . I don’t need publication for my career but I like to publish things anyway. Why? Here are some reasons, in no particular order:
1. Getting more readers. Sure, more people read this blog than read a typical journal, but with journal publication I might reach some people who don’t read this blog and don’t follow Arxiv, for example (not that I usually put my papers on Arxiv, but I probably should, as that’s a free way to get yet another stream of readers).
2. Longer-term readership. Most blog hits happen on the very first day, and if someone doesn’t check the blog on the day that some wonderful paper appears, they’re out of luck. A paper in a journal is sitting there for a long time, it gets cited, linked to on Google scholar, etc etc. When I write a paper I’m aiming for lasting impact, not instant attention.
3. That feeling of closure. On another blog, organizational theorist Balazs Kovacs was derided for writing that “The main reason that I love getting a paper published is that then I can close the process and move on to other new and exciting projects.” Setting some of his specific proposals aside, I see where he’s coming from. It’s good to feel that a project is done.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this is such a good motivation (even though I myself feel it). When I look back on various 5-year-old or 10-year-old or 20-year-old projects that I just wanted to get done, just to get the projects out of the way, I realize that the final products are not so wonderful and in retrospect maybe they could’ve been left unpublished.
4. That stamp of approval. The Nuts paper will appear in JMLR. People can now implement the algorithm themselves if they’d like, secure in the knowledge that it’s been vetted by JMLR referees. OK, the vetting is not always so great—as we all know, mistakes do get into the published literature. But from our perspective as the developers of an algorithm, we thought it worth it to put in the effort to get that official status.
5. Wikipedia requires a published reference. This one’s gonna sound pretty silly, but . . . we wanted to put Stan in Wikipedia. But to do this we need a published article on Stan. Not just a published article that uses Stan (believe it or not, these already exist) but an article about Stan. So Bob wrote something for JSS.
6. Playing the game. I don’t need career advancement but students and postdocs do. So it makes sense to publish for their benefit. Also I should have some minimum number of publications that I can mention in progress reports for research grants and visiting positions.
7. Discussions. If you publish a discussion paper in a journal you can get thoughtful comments from leaders in the field. For some examples, go here and search on *with discussion*.
8. Getting on the agenda. Nowadays I can do this one more easily by blogging, but in past years, back when journals were printed and appeared in everybody’s mailbox on a regular basis, the right article at the right time could get a lot of attention. (The goal, of course, is not the personal attention but rather whatever it takes for people to take the time to look at your paper.) Every once in awhile this still happens, for example I think the Girolami and Calderhead paper on RHMC got extra attention for appearing in a journal, compared to just floating around on Arxiv, and a few years back my Struggles with Survey Weighting and Regression Modeling similarly appeared in the right place at the right time.
9. Responses. If we see something published that’s interesting or bothersome, and we have somewhere to go from there (whether it be a criticism, a refutation, or an improvement), we’d like to publish this in the same place, to reach the people who are (or should) be most interested in the topic. Unfortunately this is not always possible, but still I try (although not as hard as some people do).
10. The requirements of publication generally improve a paper. Not always. Sometimes there is awkwardness in writing for the reviewers rather than for the readers. But in most cases we get useful comments from reviewers, and the steps we take to make our papers better can make all the difference.
Are those reasons enough to go through the bother of publication? Sometimes. Often, it seems. Or maybe I still publish mostly out of habit.
P.S. I think some readers missed the point of this post. It was not my intent to defend journal publication or the current system of journals. Rather, I was just trying to lay out, as clearly as possible, my own motivation for continuing to bother submitting papers to journals, given the nontrivial efforts of submissions and revisions and the unclear gains from publication. I do have some reasons for publishing. That doesn’t mean that the current system is so great, I’m just explaining how I operate within it.
P.P.S. More here.