Friday, October 28, 2011

Research Publication
A Modest Proposal


I love doing science. But some things I love doing less than others. Rewriting papers is one of them. Editing and resubmitting a paper is to research what a wisdom tooth extraction is to a long summer weekend; all things considered you'd really rather be doing something else.

It takes a lot of time to write a long-form paper. The text may go through several revisions over the course of months even before the initial submission, and be picked-over several times by all the authors. The total time we spend may easily be a month or two. Extensive edits or a resubmission can double that time. And a lot of this work is almost invisible; we're debating commas, or precise wordings, or the order of arguments for a minor point in the text.

But very few people will actually read your paper in such detail. Most people who see it will just browse; we all "read" — that is, quickly check the summary and figures — a lot of papers, but we focus in detail only on a few. Some estimate that the average number of serious readers of a paper is around 5. And this probably follows a power-law distribution, where a small number of papers get many hundreds or thousand of readers while most papers get almost none. If your paper isn't in a top-tier journal you can probably assume your serious readership is 0-5 people.

We spend a months worth of work or more on tedious polishing. Meanwhile, almost all of our readers will simply skim the abstract, check a summary of results, look through the bibliography and then move on. Only a very few people — and perhaps nobody — will actually want to know about our work in detail.

So perhaps we are all spending our time on the wrong thing. I suggest we stop publishing painstakingly polished 20 or 30-page masterpieces. Instead we publish just a 2-3 page text with an abstract, a to-the-point summary of methods and results, and the bibliography. That will satisfy the vast majority of our readers, and will in fact make it easier for them to find what they want.

Then we meet by video-conferencing with those few who want to know all the details. If we save a month of work by not writing the long-form paper, and a one-hour conference takes a total of three hours with preparation and setup, then we could meet with fifty separate groups and still save valuable time. More likely, as we saw above, only a few people would ever want to discuss the details with us, saving us most of that month of project time. And those that want the details will get something better than a paper: they get the undivided attention of the researcher that did the actual work, and get precise answers to their specific questions.

We record the sessions and put them online. In the near future we'll have automatic transcription of each session as well. That will save the details for posterity and will satisfy most people looking for details, so only those with new questions and novel insights will want an in-person discussion. The just-the-facts summary and the accumulated, searchable discussions will hold far more detail, reasoning and justification of the work than any static paper could ever be able to.

Ok, so perhaps the idea isn't perfect. But it sure looks good to me while I'm sitting here editing a paper…


  1. This is one of the best ideas I've heard in a long time, made all the more practical with the proliferation of ways we can connect online.

    This will never happen of course, because papers tend to be the 'currency' by which we are measured, not just the universities who employ us, but our peers as well.

    Even if no one reads them.

  2. It's not really meant as a serious proposal of course; though that kind of one-on-one presentations could really help make many new research contacts.

    It jsut struck me that I work so hard to convince a small handful of people, when I could actually talk with them — and many more — using much less time and effort doing so.

  3. I agree, it sounds like an excellent but unrealistic idea. It would surely be much more fun. But can you imagine the kind of video conference discussion e.g. the faster-than-light neutrino paper would generate? :)

    It does indeed feel like wasted effort to write papers that hardly anyone reads.

  4. OK, so it doesn't scale :)

    But I've thought a bit more about this, and ignoring the written paper thing, I would actually like a situation where people could call up paper authors and expect to be able to book a quick online discussion about their work. It would be a very good way to make personal contact with people, and with videoconferencing it wouldn't be a very large imposition on your time. And you'd certainly learn a lot more, going both ways, than with just the static paper.


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