Publish & Perish: Lessons Learned
(E-mail to a colleague on yet another rejected paper, his first after
perhaps 20-30 published.)
I am sorry to hear that the JGR paper was not accepted. I am not too
surprised. But I do believe the paper is new and significant and worth
publishing in some form. I have a number of observations that I think
support your contention that things have changed. Here's a partial listing:
The article in EOS (fall 1997) says it more bluntly. We are in a shrinking field with
diminished resources and it is impossible to objectively review a peer's
work since everyone operates as if it is a "zero-sum game", that another's
success is my failure. Peer review, if not completely bankrupt, is rapidly
becoming so. The very worst that sociologists say about the "hard
sciences" appears to becoming reality, that we meet in exclusive little
clubs and define what the admission criteria and "official story" will be,
independent of any objective "scientific method". How can we avoid this
- More LPU (least publishable unit) papers with minimal contribution
to the field have diluted the importance and swollen the journal.
The driver is naturally tenure with no easy alternative solution.
- This forces the editor to be more discriminating and "grumpy".
Faddish papers are easily published (ENA's for example), whereas
unfaddish papers (MeV Helium for example) are perceived as stale
(See the article in Dec 97 Physics Today).
- "Grumpiness" is inversely proportional to perceived prestige and
ultimately, money. E.g. the editor will handle some people with
kid gloves and others will get roughed up (you and me for example.)
- Therefore, those in positions of power and prestige can, almost
always, get their work published. I know of a paper that had 6(!)
negative referees, none positive and was still published in JGR
because of the support of such a prestigious person.
- If you have never had a paper rejected before, it shows that either
you have a "prestigious" name recognition, or you generally write
relevant papers. Unfortunately, these elements in your favor are
not enough anymore, in addition you must be fashionable and
somewhat hyperbolic ("first measurement!", "discovery!",
"breakthrough!") [Featured speaker, GGS Science Working Team
Meeting, November 4, 1997]
Along those lines, I have put my rejected paper on the WWW. We can start
to collect these and make them available. I will make a $100 bet that
the average scientist will find the rejected articles (and especially
the referee reports) more exciting than the original journal.
- Write impassioned letters to the editors, so that they are made
fully aware of the pitfalls. Encourage them to be bold and
decisive but moderated with compassion. Expect "objective"
critiques on referee reports. Insist that the editor apply
objective criteria. (e.g., the article by Parker.) Volunteer
to referee the refereeing.
- If dialogue with the editor is impossible, perhaps because they are:
- inundated with turgid prose and Russian papers,
- Then take one of the accepted alternate routes
- publish in PSS, or JATP or Icarus, or Radio Science
Eventually, these other journals will become more significant than
good old blue JGR.
- Put the paper on the WWW. Maybe even put the referee reports
on the WWW.
- Start your own journal, or preprint service.
- Change the title and resubmit it.
Thomas Kuhn began this sociological deconstruction of the hard sciences,
which until then, had enjoyed a privileged position as high priests of
the religion of science. This privileged class, like the medical doctors
before them, have abused their power and prostituted their profession,
and so lost the confidence of the public that increasingly supported
their extravagent lifestyle. We will not regain that status while
bickering over the dry bones cast in our direction. We may never regain
that status as our culture lurches toward a postmodern, postrational,
postscientific worldview. Therefore it is senseless to pine for the
halycion days of yesteryear.
My suggestion, is to gut your paper of anything that smacks of "old
data". Remove redundant adjectives and adjectival nouns, and strip the
paper to the bare essentials. Then trumpet those essentials. Make
hyperbolic statements. Its like a job interview, one has to sound
very humble about one's incredible potential. Its going to sound like
"tabloid journalism", which is what one of my referees said about
it. But it will keep the editor from putting you in the "rejected"
stack. Then when you tone it down, you are perceived as responding to
the referees, (after convincing them that it was new and important),
so they are forced to accept it because you resolved all their
differences. We live in difficult times, and steering through the
shoals of aggressive referees and indifferent editors is a skill that
I still haven't learned. But I firmly believe that unless WE BELIEVE
we are doing something significant, we shouldn't be publishing
anyway. Write the way you feel. Make sure that the issue is focussed
on significance. When you are doing what is right, then damn the
torpedoes. Full steam ahead.
It would be unfair of me not to mention that this topic has many other
views, with much more experience than my paltry participation of 10 years.
There are entire websites directed to the subject of jobs and paper
quotas. Here are a few:
Young Scientist Network, and,
as well as recent
articles. Physics Today, Dec 1997 addresses the issue of fads in science.
Eos, fall 1997 somewhere, has a long article by Eugene Parker on the
publishing perils of pauline. A previous article in Eos (also fall 1997)
discusses the breakdown in peer review. A recent (Dec 97) Eos article takes
issue with the way science and politics interact concerning the
Global Warming summit, which brought me to the conclusion that we live in a
post-scientific era. The most important criteria in these debates appear to
me to be personal stake and age. If the debater is tenured, s/he supports
the system, arguing that the system has always been this way but scientists
are just being more vocal today, etc. Age also matters but it takes about 20
years to equal tenure, e.g., a 50-year old may sound like a 30-year old
with tenure. An interesting study was published in EOS, showing that post-docs
are the most cynical category of scientists, with a cynicism proportional the
the length of time that they have remained post-docs.
Your feedback is encouraged. With your permission, I'd like to post it.
Mail can be sent to email@example.com
(but first edit out the asterisk because of spamming problems).