Junior researchers: Fewer papers would scotch early careers

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Daniel Sarewitz argues that the pressure to publish is fuelling irreproducibility, but we disagree that the solution is to publish fewer papers (Nature 533, 147; 2016). In today's competitive arena, asking this of scientists — particularly junior ones — is to ask them to fall on their swords.

Investing more effort in fewer but 'more complete' publications could hold back early-career researchers, who already face fierce competition. To generate a first-author publication, graduate students on average take more than a year longer than they did in the 1980s (R. D. Vale Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 1343913446; 2015). Introducing further delays for junior scientists is not an option as long as performance is rated by publication metrics.

In our view, publishing less is not a feasible or responsible way to improve data quality. This would be better achieved by increasing the transparency of peer review and by introducing alternative metrics as indicators of reproducibility. Science's goal is to share as much information as possible — not to withhold it.

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  1. The Future of Research, Abington, Massachusetts, USA.

    • Gary S. McDowell &
    • Jessica K. Polka

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  1. Report this comment #68267

    Richard Ebright said:

    Wrong. All publications, by all researchers, at all career stages, should be complete stories.
    No-one benefits from publication of "minimum publishable units."

  2. Report this comment #68269

    Bill Connelly said:

    Completely agree with McDowell & Polka. Moreover, no story is a complete story. Anything remotely worth publishing asks more questions than it answers. Indeed, I would argue that publishing so-called "complete" papers often works against the goal of science. How many important results are incompletely reported in large papers? How many significant findings are lost in supplemental results of large papers? I see no issue with splitting a research project into three, clear papers, rather than publishing one monster.

  3. Report this comment #68273

    Vitaly V. Ganusov said:

    The argument that junior scientists need many papers to get grants and secure jobs cannot be the solution if these are unreproducible papers. The solution should include change in the system that values quality over quantity. Many steps have been taken, for example, NIH now requires list only 4 best papers to indicate expertise and achievements in a particular area. As a member of several search committees at UTK I can say that the number of publications for a candidate plays only a moderate role in our discussions of who to select for interview; one of our recent hires had about 5 solid papers. I don't have data but I believe that this is the path for many other departments and universities. Also, would one want to work in the department that looks at quantity over quality? The fact that it takes longer to publish a first paper is not surprising given advances in techniques and general need to better understand mechanisms underlying a phenomenon. This cannot be viewed as a limitation. I would argue that this also may come from the fact that we are not teaching well how to ask "good" questions, which require a reasonably small number of experiments to answer. See paper by Platt in Science (1964).

  4. Report this comment #68915

    Sarah Rain said:

    I think that ultimately, science can be rescued if researchers can be directed more toward solving real world problems rather than pursuing the beautiful lie. Sarewitz argues that in the future, the most valuable scientific institutions will be those that are held accountable and give scientists incentives to solve urgent concrete problems .

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