Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Better Living Through Least Publishable Units

In recent weeks I've been on a committee that selects a recipient for one of the highest awards in a field related to my own, and it's been very interesting to observe the dynamics of the committee and also to reflect on the careers of the very successful nominees for the award. I suppose I am a "diversity" member of the committee. No woman has ever won this award, and I think only one has ever even been nominated. Many other members of the committee are past winners of the award, so as you might imagine, their opinions carry a lot of weight. And then there's me.

It will surprise no one that recipients of the award tend to have vast numbers of papers, even if the total is inflated by lots of Least Publishable Unit (LPU) papers such as "Results of My Experiments with Material X", followed by "Results of the Same Experiments with Material Y", and let's not forget the papers with multiple parts, like "Part I: My Data" and "Part II: Now I Am Going to Think About my Data."

And then there is the phenomenon of giving someone an award because he got some other awards which he got because he got some other awards and so on to infinity. Even if the early awards were well deserved, it's surprising how long you can coast on that without doing anything more creative than edit books of other people's original articles (a useful and necessary thing to do, I admit).

This recent committee was quite divided between one group that wanted to award someone with a War-And-Peace length CV with some important papers and a fair number of LPU's, and another group that favored someone who had fewer papers, but a large number of his papers were creative and had a high impact on the field. That is of course not an objective description, and it reveals what my (losing) choice was.

Many of us know colleagues who "shingle" publications by publishing more than one paper on something that probably could be just one paper, and often this practice is spoken of with contempt. Yet, publishing LPU's clearly hasn't harmed some prominent people. You wouldn't be able to get a job today if you had a CV full of LPU's and shingled papers, and you most likely wouldn't get promoted either. But perhaps there is some point at which the shear number of papers starts to impress people. I don't completely understand this phenomenon.

Is this another depressing and cynical post? I guess, but I will say that I am at least slightly optimistic that these old-style committees, awards, and such will change in the not-so-distant future.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm in a field (statistics) where it isn't that rare for one unit of research to yield two papers. If you develop a new technique for some application, there is often both a paper for the statistics community (talking about the new technique) and the applications community (talking about the results of the analysis).

It also gives collaborators excuses to trade off being lead author:).

Dave Bacon said...

Lee Smolin, in his new book "The Trouble with Physics" argues that the decision faced by your committee is rampant throughout all parts of physics and that it leads to a very risk adverse scientific community.

Anonymous said...

I am a 3rd year postdoc, and I've just started noticing this more and more often - pairs of nearly-identical papers, with permutations in author order.

I don't know what to say. Do I have to do this too?

Female Science Professor said...

Sometimes there is a good reason for having multiple similar papers, as anonymous comment #1 notes. Another reason that is well justified is when the first paper on a topic is in a short format journal -- Science, Nature, or more specialized journals that focus on short communications -- and this is followed up by a paper with more data, images, and discussion. Even so, there are many examples of related papers that could have been integrated into a single paper.

Pam said...

It's becoming more and more difficult (in my field) to publish lengthier papers - partially due to cost, but more due to the fact that so many journals are reducing the word limit for manuscripts. I don't really like it - and prefer to submit (and publish) longer, and more comprehensive (and therefore fewer) manuscripts. Where I'm located though, it's a numbers game (like at alot of places) and it sure doesn't help come review time.

Anonymous said...

I love doing research in my field, but I dislike many practices in academia. This is just one of them. I think we are coward because we do not even dare to face many challenging research puzzles but let people create an artificial definition of success, which you can not achieve without sacrificing integrity.

Female Science Professor said...

Pam has a good point. Some journals I send articles to charge a lot in mandatory page charges for articles over a certain length. In some cases this is a reasonable 20 manuscript pages, but in some cases it is more like 10-12 pages, which is hard to do if you want to sufficiently document your research with data tables and images.

Maxine said...

Did you see the Correspondence letter by Professor Annette Dolphin in Nature the other week (24 August I think)? Let me know by email if you'd like me to send you a copy (assuming your comments captures my email, if not it is:
MAXINELCLARKE (AT) GMAIL (DOT) COM

Maxine said...

PS Just saw the comment about page charges. In my experience (from "the other side of the fence" of being a journal editor), if an author cannot offset page charges against her grant/funding, she can ask the journal to waive the charges. I believe that most journals will do this.

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