Should all theses be publishable?

wizard_green_terraceCommonly, research institutions require that applicants to a doctorate degree must have an amount of peer-reviewed publications in the thesis’ field. Such requirement is being extended even to lower levels, as for master degrees. Then, there comes the question: should all theses be publishable?

A couple of weeks ago, Anderson–an old friend physicist–and I were discussing one of those immensely boring issues, which only academic minds dare to mind about while drinking beer on a Sunday evening: should all theses be publishable?

More specifically, we were thinking of the theses that people are supposed to write to be awarded a doctor degree (sometimes it is also required for a master). We were wondering on how common it became that research institutions require that the content of the thesis were also published in peer-reviewed specialized journals.

Partially, the justification (fair enough, by the way) is that it is part of the training of a high-level scientist to be able to communicate ideas through specialized technical journals; and that means to be able to write papers and get them published.

Moreover, just as much individual researchers are under publication pressure, institutions–in their competition for resources and ranking status–are under pressure too. To transfer part of that burden to graduate students feels natural.

Finally, in many places, the doctorate evaluation is made by a small community of closely related peers. To require publication of the academic work not only in a thesis but also in recognized journals counteracts the negative effects that this familiarity may cause.

Anyway, Anderson made the point that someone may work hard and competently for a few years and accumulating a sort of knowledge that’s not publishable in conventional journals. The kind of knowledge that would be publishable only in a thesis. Then, in this case, the thesis should be evaluated by itself, without resorting to the re-publication in a specialized journal.

In principle, I didn’t agree with him. If the researcher produced any original research worth awarding him or her a doctorate, it should be always possible to find a journal where those results would fit in.

We could imagine an extreme case of someone who spent three or four years investigating a certain topic and only got negative results. Even in this case, if the work was technically correct and original, these results would be of interest for the specialists in that field. Many would be glad for the maps to avoid falling in the same traps.

In the few weeks since that discussion, I realized that I might not be right (I’m never wrong, though). There are cases where we may not expect publications beyond the thesis.

There are some obvious cases, as industry-supported research or security-sensitive areas. Doctorate applicants working in such fields are commonly guided by rigid non-disclosure and quarantine rules. The best research institutions know well how to deal with that.

Less obvious is instrumental research. In several occasions, the applicant may be developing equipments or computational tools for the usage of the research group.

It is not uncommon that those instruments are not really original, but they still need advanced scientific and technical knowledge to be developed. By the end of the project, the researcher may not have any original results to publish, but still he or she may have gained deep understanding of the instrumentation. The person, we may say, masters that field.

This kind of instrumental research may be specially important for young researchers at master level, where creativity, discipline, and discernment–skills that depend on the personality–may be more important than originality–a skill that depends on experience and time to be built.

Instrumental research is an opportunity for the young researcher to develop skills in areas such as electronics, programming, or optics, which may be extremely valuable later in his or her career.

It may even be of economic interest for the host institution to stimulate that research: a home-made spectrometer may, for instance, cost a fraction of the price of a brand equipment.

I’m no specialist in scientific education and policy, but my feeling on this matter is that too rigid rules about publications may be counterproductive, especially by moving young researchers away from areas that could offer a great background for them to build their expertise.

Before finishing, let me just make a warning: if you are applying for an academic degree and your institution requires from you one or more publications, you don’t discuss this requirement, you carry it out. You’re not in position of discussing rules, are you?


More posts about scientific work?

Categories: Science Policy, Scientific Culture

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3 replies

  1. Nice post. Based on my own experience here it goes another reason, reason I don’t completely agree, given to me by former supervisors to not to publish all my results obtained during my Ph.D. and that is “Group standards on quality of research”. At that critical point when you finish your degree and want the best for your career I joined one of the best research groups in my area because I knew I would learn more than in other places. It is true that at that time I was not that aware of the importance of publishing (to get grants, and even future academic positions…), because my only driving force was learning and learning more and better than others (if possible). And I learnt my lessons in the hard way, when after half of my time as PhD was gone, I had plenty of results (interesting to my criteria) and my supervisors refused to publish them to the point I had to change my research topic several times until my research finally reached the “Group standards on
    quality of research”.

    The outcome of all these is:

    -that I got only 2 papers during my PHD,

    -because of my low outcome (publications) I have been denied several positions and fellowships/grants in academy

    -I have seen some of my discoveries published by other groups in average-good journals (below my former group standards). That hurts (a lot)

    -Although it is not fair to blame my lack of success in academy to what it happened if my PhD. I do believe my former supervisors policy closed doors in my career

    What it is also true is that:

    -My research has been published in highly ranked journals and I have always worked in very ambitious and innovative projects

    -I have been awarded with positions/fellowships/grants where it was much more important the originality of my research than the number of publications

    -Some doors were closed in academy, some windows are now opening in industrial projects.

    If you ask me I could have published more, I would have learned the same and I would have added a few more opportunities just by being a bit more “loose” with the “Group standards on quality of research”.

    • Thanks, David, for sharing your experience. You touch a point I missed in the post, which how much young researchers are evaluated for their publications to get new positions. I can tell I do that myself when looking at an applicants CV, although knowing that’s not really fair or very useful.

  2. We should all agree that number of publications nowadays matters a lot, although also a lot of factors make part of it: number of people involved, relevance, paper, first writer, etc.. To find a job/post doc, is the number of publications the most important criteria ? In my opinion, when students publish, or better, when their names appear in a paper, do they even understand the basics of that research. I talked to some of these guys, and they have no clue what happened. One carried out some molecule optimization, prepared a sample, and voilà: paper. He/she is already in front of you in terms of CV. I deviate a bit from the topic, but since it was raised by David, I thought I’d send my penny. Btw, great blog.

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