That’s the thrust of an interesting editorial in Nature Medicine: what would you do if you could publish only 20 papers throughout your career? And how would it affect research productivity, scientific publishing, tenure review, and a host of other issues? More after the jump…
The editorial suggests this model for publishing:
These are the basic rules: whenever you get your first academic job (that is, the first lab of your own), you get 20 tickets. Every time you publish a paper, you hand over one of them. Once you run out of tickets, your publishing days are over. As simple as that.
If we adopted this model, many articles reporting incremental advances would no longer be written, and many specialized journals would disappear. And with far fewer papers to read, each one reporting a much more complete piece of research, search committees or funding bodies could directly evaluate the work of a given scientist, instead of (as is often the case) leaning on surrogate indicators such as a journal’s impact factor or number of citations.
They mention, of course, issues with this–would “seminal” papers be exempt, for example? What about review articles? Obviously this isn’t something that could be implemented anytime in the near future, but it nicely folds together discussions of access to scientific findings and issues swirling around “publish or perish” (leading to publication, as they mention, of the “minimal publishable unit’ of data for a paper). While the idea is interesting, they don’t mention a big con I see: getting quick access to new research findings in one’s field. While the minimal publishable unit may result in smaller papers with lesser individual impact, it also allows others to more quickly learn about ongoing results, rather than waiting 4 or 5 years for the publication of a huge, all-inclusive paper. In this day and age, would it even be possible to wait for this type of thing? If some maximum publication number was adopted, would that lead scientists to release their data as they analyzed it, rather than save all of it up for a big publication?
There’s a lot of agreement that the current system has lots of problems–but it seems that something like this is just as open (if not more so!) to abuse.