What Is the Purpose of Scientific Publication?

There has been a lot of discussion in the science bloggysphere about this post by Joe Pickrell (and see his related post for background) which discusses possible ways to improve scientific (that is, technical, not popular) communication. It’s interesting, but it seems separated from what scientists use papers for (as currently construed).

I’m not convinced that the de facto purpose of publication is (note: is, not should be) is to communicate results to other scientists. Realistically, when someone publishes a paper, is she thinking, “Now all my colleagues can hear about my research!”? Or is she really thinking, “I’m that much closer to getting my R01 grant renewed”? Obviously, papers are useful, especially for older projects (or those belonging to dead scientists…). But, if you’re like me, you probably have a stack of unread papers, or a folder of pdfs (or both) that you never get around to reading. It’s not a very good system to disseminating information when you get right down to it.

But where publication, as it exists today, is critical is in the funding process. Most funding agencies will only view ‘legitimate citations’, both in terms of justifying your work as well as establishing productivity, as those papers that are published in peer review journals (until recently, even papers in press didn’t count–they had to be published). If we want to move towards a better publishing model–and I would argue that should include considering new formats–then we need to get funders on board with various proposals, or else those proposals will not get very far.

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4 Responses to What Is the Purpose of Scientific Publication?

  1. Joe Pickrell says:

    For what it’s worth, about six months ago I posted a preprint (version 2 is on the arXiv here) describing a new method in population genetics. In that time, the software has been downloaded ~300 times, and I’m aware of ~10 papers submitted or in press that cite the preprint, which has still not been formally published.

    So I agree that my main argument is that preprints are good for “science” rather than “scientists”. But I’d be willing to make the argument that they’re pretty good for “scientists” too.

  2. And don’t forget university administrations, and tenure and promotion committees. Although if funding agencies change, those will follow obediently.

  3. Drugmonkey says:

    What I’m thinking first is “Take that, you critics of my last R01! I WAS RIGHT, MUPPETHUGGERS!”. Only then do I think about the *next* grant review…..

  4. Janne says:

    “But, if you’re like me, you probably have a stack of unread papers, or a folder of pdfs (or both) that you never get around to reading. It’s not a very good system to disseminating information when you get right down to it.”

    I’d like todisagree just a little bit, and say that your unread stack (and mine) is testament that the paper is actually a very good format for sharing results with our peers.

    The reason I have an unread stack at all is because I can determine from a quick glance at a few standardized sections whether a paper is interesting or not. I don’t have to actually read each and every one just to find out if it’s for me. And while stack is largely unread, I don’t actually need to read it all to know vaguely what I have there. Even when I want to get the information in a particular paper, the formulaic writing, the rigid sectioning, the dull figures all help me find the information I want without,again, having to wade through the entire paper.

    It does take training and experience to learn to read a paper. But once you do it really is a remarkably effective vehicle for rapidly filtering the deluge of results. I’d say the paper is a pretty good format.

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