Publish & Perish: Lessons Learned

(E-mail to a colleague on yet another rejected paper, his first after perhaps 20-30 published.)

Dear S------,

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. "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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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]
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 nightmare?
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.

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.
- rob


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, (WebTalk) 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 r*
(but first edit out the asterisk because of spamming problems).