My most important work is not what I’ve always thought

Image: This mobile, hanging in my office, was given to me by my friend Mary Harris when I got tenure.  It’s driftwood from the Skunk River in Iowa.  I’d just gotten tenure, and it’s made of dead wood – get it?

A rather poorly-executed and very poorly-communicated study made a big splash last week, with the claim that half of all ecologists “drop out” of the field within just 5 years.  The many, many flaws in this way of measuring and communicating people’s career trajectories have been thrashed out in other places, so I’ll just note for the record that by the paper’s critera, I myself have “dropped out” of the field.*  You see, the study chose a set of 9 ecology journals, and defined a “dropout” as someone who hasn’t published in any of those 9 journals in the last 3 years.  My last paper in the target 9 was in Ecography in 2014; apparently the 14 papers I’ve since published in other journals (not to mention the book I’ve published) have no bearing on my abandonment of science.

A lot of the criticism of the study (including the criticism I just leveled) has been about the idea that contribution to the field can be captured by repeated publishing in the same set of 9 journals.  This criticism is, of course, entirely deserved.  But in another way, it spectacularly misses the point, distracting attention from a more subtle but much more important problem with the study’s concept of contributing vs. “dropping out”.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, because I’ve realized for a long time I had it wrong too.

You see, I once thought that my most important contribution to the development of my field was my publication of peer-reviewed papers.  Those represented the new things I’d puzzled out about nature, and by publishing I was adding those things to our global storehouse of knowledge.  That, I thought, was what it meant to contribute to the field.  That so many of us obsessively track publication records, citation counts, and their bibliometric kin suggests that my thinking on that is widely shared.  But it was wrong.

My papers are certainly one way I contribute to progress in my field, but they’re not the only way; and lately I’ve become convinced they’re not – by a long shot – the most important way.  To put it even more strongly: I could not publish at all and still be making major contributions to my field.  From this perspective, the problem with the dropout study isn’t that it asks about repeated publication in the same journals; it’s that it depends only on publication in the first place.  Publication just isn’t the only important kind of research contribution.

If other things are at least as important as my publications, what might those be?  Well, I do a lot of other things that generate progress in my field – albeit indirectly.  I serve on a couple of journal editorial boards.  I’ve been Chair of my Department and I’ve been Dean of my Faculty (and it wasn’t great fun, but you should consider doing it too).  I’ve mentored grad students whose papers haven’t, or won’t, included me as a coauthor.  I’ve published a writing book, the purpose of which is to help other scientists publish their work more easily.  I’m VP (and President-elect) of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution.  (Other folks will have different sets of such non-publication activities, of course.)  Any, or all, of these might be doing more for progress in my field than my own publications are.  Here’s a rough calculation of why I’m quite sure this is true, at least, for The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.

This is not a comfortable realization to make, I have to admit, because it seems like suggesting that my papers – those papers I sweated and struggled to write and to publish – aren’t all that important after all.  But that’s not quite right.  Sure, nothing I’ve done has singlehandedly upended the field – which of us can point to that paper? – but I’m proud that some of my papers have citation records that suggest they’ve mattered.  (Not all of them, I have to admit.)   So it’s not that my papers have been unimportant; it’s just that other things have been more so.  As I’ve gotten deeper into my career, this has become more and more true.

The study that sparked my post used the term “dropout”, and that word choice got a lot of well-deserved criticism.  But there’s a more familiar term that I’ve used far too much over my own career: “deadwood”.  As an early-career researcher, I was given to characterizing more senior faculty who no longer published much as deadwood, suggesting that they were coasting on tenure without contributing much of anything.  I now understood that some of these folks might have been coasting, but plenty of others had simply reallocated their efforts away from their own publications and into the systems and structures of science that allow everyone else to publish.  That’s not deadwood at all.  I’ve made some of this reallocation myself – not abandoning work to publish my own research, by any stretch, but spending more time on the indirect ways of moving my field forward.  It’s a feature, not a bug.

So: “dropout” or “deadwood”: whichever term you like, please like it a little less; or at least like it in a more nuanced way.  We are all more than our own papers – and thank goodness for that.

© Stephen Heard  December 17, 2018

*^Something that will surprise my grad students, my other coauthors and collaborators, my grant funders, and the Chair of my department.  At least, I hope it will.


9 thoughts on “My most important work is not what I’ve always thought

  1. John Pastor

    I agree that all the other things you’ve done have been important contributions to the field of biology in general. But let’s not forget that you would not have been able to sit on editorial boards, serve as Dean of Faculty, etc, etc (to say nothing of being hired in the first place and thus be in a position to do these other things) if you had not published papers, some of which have been widely noticed and have changed how people think about things.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Good point, John, and something I should have put in the post. This is one reason that a lot of the *other* impacts come later in a career. I definitely wouldn’t have realized, early in my career, that those papers had two purposes: a direct one, in producing knowledge; and an indirect one, in setting up the possibility of other impactful activities later. Interesting perspective!


  2. M. Abas Shah

    I wonder if it is alright for a scientist not to do and publish original research at any stage of career.I think original research defines our being as a scientist. So deadwood or not, original research should carry most of the weightage while assessing contributions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Artem Kaznatcheev

    I think it is important to consider many different ways of contributing, and so I applaud this post. However, I find it strange that even the indirect things you listed, you still tried to ground fundamentally in paper publication: not your own in the ‘indirect’ case but that of others. This seems to be a backwards aspect of modern science.

    It depresses me greatly that so many people do research to publish papers, not publish papers to share research. I feel like papers are meant to be a means to communicate, not an end in themselves. But nowadays they are treated as an end. It is especially depressing when I see applications for small grants where the desired result is “to publish in an international venue” and not to learn something. This should never be the aim of our research.

    Papers in themselves are useless if they only lead to more papers. But of course, papers are easy to count.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Good point, Artem. I plead sort-of-guilty. Ultimately, of course, the object is “increasing human knowledge and its application”. I guess I’m arguing that I should care more about my total effect on human knowledge than about my own direct contributions to it. So I moved the focus from *my* papers/citations to, implicitly, *total discipline* papers/citations. Would it be even better to avoid that metric altogether? Perhaps, but I don’t know how! But certainly there are other outputs. On Twitter, David Shorthouse suggested ‘adding specimens to natural history collections, or identifying ones already there’ – that’s knowledge that may or may not lead to papers. I’m sure you can think of more.

      On publishing to spread the word about research, not doing research to produce papers: couldn’t agree more!


  4. Pavel Dodonov

    And, of course, teaching! When we teach we are also forming new scientists (not all of our students go into science, of course, but teaching is an important part of forming new scientists). And blogging as well, as it helps scientists do better science. It’s hard to quantify how much these actitivites contribute to the production of knowledge, but I think they’re quite relevant.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Marco Mello

    Good point! A multidimensional career tends to be happier and more prolific than a unidimensional one. The same goes for life. Anyway, it looks like a general trend that people start a career with a focus on its main activity (in our case, reporting discoveries in papers), and later move to managing the system and keep it healthy for the next generations.

    “In the circle of life
    It’s the wheel of fortune
    It’s the leap of faith
    It’s the band of hope
    Till we find our place
    On the path unwinding
    In the circle, the circle of life”


  6. taxanama

    By this logic I am murdered. I run an enterprise and still manage to contribute to science by publishing without grants and teach ecology online to overseas universities without getting a penny. Though, I haven’t read their paper yet (about too), I must say why PNAS agreed to publish such paper.
    Years back during my PhD studies I was taking a course called communication in science and the teacher was advocate of no flaws in peer-review system. Oh boy I had such hard time in that class showing cases after cases of dumb papers in highly prestigious journals. Maybe I am diverging but my blood boils sometimes.


  7. Pingback: Recommended reads #142: back to work edition | Small Pond Science

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