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.