04 June 2021

Experiments doesn’t always lead to papers

Drugmonkey tweeted

Telling academic trainees in the biomedical sciences to put their heads down, do a lot of experiments and the papers will just emerge as a side-product is the worst sort of gaslighting.

He’s right, as he often is, but it bears examining why that’s the case.

First, not all experiments should be published. Experiments can have design flaws like uncontrolled variables, small sample sizes, and all the other points of weakness that we learn to find and attack in journal club in graduate school.

Second, even if an experiment is technically sound and therefore publishable in theory, it may not be publishable in practice. In many fields, it’s almost impossible to publish a single experiment, because the bar for publication is high. People usually want to see a problem tackled by multiple experiments. The amount of data that is expected in a publishable paper has increased and probably will continue to do so.

The bar for what is considered “publishable” is malleable. We have seen that in the last two years with the advent of COVID-19. There was an explosion of scientific papers, many of which probably would not have been publishable if there wasn’t a pandemic going on. People were starved for information and researchers responded in force. You have to understand what is interesting to your research community.

Third, experimental design is a very different skill from writing and scientific publication. 

Fourth, it’s not a given that everyone feels the same drive to publish. Different people have different work priorities. For instance, I saw a lot of my colleagues who had big labs groups with a lot of students who churned through regularly. Those labs generated a lot of posters and a lot of master’s theses. According to our department guidelines, theses were supposed to represent publishable work.

But all of that didn’t turn into papers consistently. I think people got positive feedback for having lots of students (and looking “busy”) and came to view “I have a lot of students” as their personal measure of success. Or, they just got into the habit of thinking, “I’ll write up that work later.” “Or just one more experiment so we can get it in a better journal.”

I had fewer students and master’s theses written than my colleagues, but I published substantially more papers. I say this not to diss my colleagues or brag on myself, but it’s a fact. I made publication a priority.

Publishing papers requires very intentional, deliberate planning. It requires understanding the state of the art in the research literature. It requires setting aside time to write the papers. It requires understanding what journals publish what kinds of results. Just doing experiments in the lab will not cause papers to fall down like autumn leaves being shaken loose from trees.

No comments: