Academic publications and what is wrong with them

The most basic academic currency are your publications. While you can’t (or shouldn’t) trade them, they are the way of how other researchers keep track of you and keep score. The higher your score, the higher you are in the pecking order, of course.

A publication has two aspects to it that determine its value:

  • publication outlet and
  • number of citations.

The publication outlet is where you publish your article. The more prestigious the outlet, the higher the value of your article. Prestige is typically measured using a metric called impact factor, which is a measure of how often articles from this outlet are cited. So basically the company you get defines the value of your article.

A benefit of prestige is that reviewers at high-profile journals are usually competent. While not universally true, in my experience there is much less variation in review quality when compared with lesser events.

First problem: Popularity of research topic

Most overlook the significance of popularity (of topic) though. Time and again I have seen Ph.D. students strive and publish in top journals, who chose a topic off the beaten path, where equally competent Ph.D. students who chose a mainstream topic suffered and withered i.e. got their paper rejected.

The more densely a research topic is populated, the more vicious reviewers can get, and the more Is to dot and Ts to cross. In some cases the barrier may become insurmountable: If you don’t cite a reviewer’s papers, and they don’t tell you but keep asking for proper references, for example, you may end up in a death spiral. A good editor should step in but often doesn’t.

Second problem: Purpose of publication

Another thing wrong with publication outlets is how they overload two different aspects of publishing in one decision (accept or reject). Sometimes, research does not play out, and you don’t get good results. You may have done excellent research, but simply were unlucky. Traditionally then, you have little to publish.

I think this is wrong, and we need publication outlets for work that serves to demonstrate the research skills (by way of peer review) of the authors so that Ph.D. students can get their stripes this way even if their research topic did not deliver the expected breakthrough. We owe it to the next generation of researchers to enable their career independently of good or bad luck in research results.

Citations, the great equalizer?

In the long-term, all that counts are citations of your work, though. That’s at least the idea. However, we most likely suffer from hindsight bias: We don’t see the breakthrough research that was poorly presented and not well understood and hence remains hidden somewhere while the original authors moved on. I have no solution to that, sadly.

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