King Process

This post is a sequel to yesterday’s input. If you haven’t checked out the link, I highly recommend you do so before reading on:

Today, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague. As it happens, we were discussing about journal submissions, rejections, revisions, the tediousness of the whole process, and all that stuff. Interestingly, many young scientists – at least in my circle of acquaintances – are very critical of the publishing culture. Nevertheless, they strive for publications in good journals. Isn’t that paradoxical and inconsistent?  Yes, it is… because “that’s the way the game works and you can’t deny it”.

In my opinion, the fundamental problem of the “hunt for top journal papers”-culture (that’s all so present in many scientific disciplines) is that it puts the process at the center of attention and thereby neglects the substance. Instead of fostering idea-driven, creative and novel research results this culture promotes incremental, polished studies. Furthermore, it fosters a culture of secrecy, suspicion and competition instead of openness, trust and cooperation. Several times, I have noticed that other researchers were very closed and reluctant when talking about articles they’re having under review (coming up with silly arguments like: “research is a shark tank and others might steal my ideas”).

Researchers now write to be accepted in top journals. They align their “interests” to match these outlets and their methodological and thematic spectrum. The researchers become good at playing the game, whose rules are set by the journals and their review process: include the master 3 references, drive home the research gap, have the counterintuitive edge, shine with an amazing and novel data set, don’t make conclusions that go beyond the data etc. The best ones become excellent at playing the publishing game, but on the road the purpose of the game gets lost. The masters of publication know all the magic tricks, lead their trumps at exactly the right time, have a tremendous knowledge about their “opponents” (i.e. fellow researchers). But why are they playing? Aren’t they more and more playing for the sake of the game itself? (because being immersed in the game is FUN; it’s something that Bourdieu captured well with his concept of “logic of practice”) In short, the process and its rules become the holy grail, and the content becomes secondary.

Would scientists do the same research if it weren’t for the journals? I highly doubt it. More room (and acceptance) for self-publication as well as alternative forms of communicating findings would lead to more creativity in science: “Why not try an alternative method of data analysis? Why not go for a less conventional interpretation in terms of theory? Why not collaborate with “outsiders”? Why not try out less established forms of visualization? Why not be more speculative? Why not say: We don’t know this and haven’t found out yet… are you interested in collaborating to answer the question together?” In a less journal-driven culture all these questions should become more prevalent. Many scientists, but especially the junior ones, would be bold enough to ask these questions and answer them. They would go ahead and experiment more.

Sure, a substantial part of scientists does have clear interests and finds ways to follow them beyond the publication pressure. Sure, not all journals are  as incremental and polished as described. However, many of the best ones are… and everyone strives for the best ones.


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