How much $papers is a scientist worth?

Money-paperPapers are symbolic coins that scientists use in exchange for resources. It is not a bad system, but inflation is corroding paper’s exchanging power, leading to aggressive and unethical forms of symbolic-capital accumulation. We should start to think of ways of revaluing papers. 

I. A necessary evil

Pressure to publish is everywhere in  the academic scientific world. Sometimes it is diffuse: the scientist knows that more and hotter papers raise his or her chances of getting access to funds and positions.

Other times, the pressure is explicit: in China and Iran, scientists get paid when they publish papers. In Croatia, to be eligible to an entry-level professorship, scientists must have published a certain number of papers. In Saudi Arabia, a paper is worth a grant to attend one or two international conferences depending on the impact of the journal were it was published. In Brazil, the number of papers together with the quality of the journals are among the criteria used to rank scientists by the main national funding agency.

No, you are not going to read another scientist whimpering about publication pressure. On the contrary, my opinion is that this pressure is, overall, in the right direction, creating objective and accountable ways of stimulating, evaluating and ranking scientific work.

If you think that the evaluation should be based on the quality of the work, rather than on quantitative criteria, you may convince me if you can just outline another way of objectively evaluating and ranking hundreds of scientists within the same sub-area, disputing funding from a national agency, and not burning the budget only doing that.

Not that evaluation systems based on number of papers and other quantitative parameters are beyond criticisms. Many of their features overly stimulate misconduct or aim at wrong targets. Just to give one example among many, it was recently revealed that there is a black market in China where people pay to have their names in papers.

II. It’s the economy, stupid

Papers are coins in the academic science market. They are used in exchange for funds and academic positions. But the market is going through an inflation process. The amount of papers to get the same quantity of resources is raising year after year. This means that a single paper as currency unity is loosing value. The consequence is that scientists naturally try to work less per paper published. Even worse, they may attempt to accumulate papers through fraud, plagiarism and other unethical ways.

I am not in position to tell what is causing this inflation, but it is possibly related to the large growth of currency supply (more and more papers are published) in the context of modest economical growth (funds and number of academic positions stay approximately constant).

The growth in the currency supply has been stimulated by an arms race between funding agencies and scientists. Agencies asked for more papers, scientists answered by publishing in “easy-to-get-accepted” journals. Then, agencies started to demanded higher level journals, scientists complied, but splitting what would be a single paper in multiple shorter publications. Then, agencies started to look at citation indexes. Self-citations exploded. Then, agencies looked at the number of citations discarding self-citations, societies of mutual citations were formed. I am afraid of what is coming next.

But these are things to be (strongly) adjusted, not to claim that the system is completely wrong.

The German Research Foundation, for example, is in the right direction when it asks scientists to cite a maximum of two of their papers per year of requested funding when they write a project. This naturally revalues the paper, as the applicant knows that it may be a better strategy to focus on the publication of few, but excellent papers. A system using stochastic allocation of resources, as I discussed in a previous post, would also help to revalue the paper, for very similar reasons.

To finish this post, let me just point out that the analysis of science as a market where symbolic capital is accumulated and exchanged for resources goes back to Pierre Bourdieu. Scientists tend to look with suspicion at sociology of science. However – discarded the anecdotal post-modernist relativism of some schools – to understand the social relations within the scientific field is a powerful way of seeking for better and  more efficient manners of organizing the scientific enterprise.


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More about science production in the Much Bigger Outside:

Publication is a sensitive issue in science. Take a look at these recent posts from other blogs:

Want a first glance at Bourdieu’s work? Try: “The Forms of Capital” (1986).

Post-modernism? Watch the video:

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Categories: Science Policy, Scientific Culture

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3 replies

  1. The rise in papers is almost exclusively due to the rise in number of researchers:

    In fact, productivity per researcher has declined somewhat, according to this paper.

    Thus, if anything, if these numbers are correct, there is deflation in per capita papers, not inflation. How dies this change your assessment?

  2. The number of papers per unit of resources is still increasing, which is inflation. But the distribution of papers is irregular. I don’t know the numbers, but I bet that we will find that a relatively small number of authors concentrate most of papers. We are just discovering the inequality in the $paper market.

    But I do not want to stretch this argument too much. Especially because for brevity, I used paper as unit of symbolic capital in a loose way. We accumulate symbolic capital via many other ways like citations or invitation to conferences.

    Even papers have different “face values”: a Nature will value more than a Journal of Chemical Physics. Maybe the impact factor (IF) is just the exchange rate in this market. And as any exchange rate, it does not have a solid value, only that value taht the economic agents agree.

    A bit of the mystery of why scientists still look at IF, even that it has no prediction value for the quality of the paper (as you discussed in your recent post), maybe there: we just agree that 1 Nature = 10 J. Chem. Phys.


  1. 11 Ideas to improve peer review – Part I | Much Bigger Outside

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