This article is part of our Back to School series, covering basics of publishing in all parts of the cycle.
After years of dead ends, failed experiments, and a newfound caffeine addiction, you’ve finally had a scientific breakthrough in the lab. Congratulations! Now what? If only you, your adviser, and a select few colleagues are aware of your Nobel Prize-worthy discovery, did it ever really happen?
Philosophy of publishing
This philosophical question is the subject of a play called Oxygen, written by renowned chemists Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann in 2001. The play contemplates the following question: if a “retro” Nobel Prize in chemistry were to be awarded for the discovery of oxygen, who would receive it? The scientist who first observed its existence (but didn’t publish the results)? The scientist who first published the discovery (but didn’t quite understand or believe its full implications)? Or the scientist who finally put all of the pieces together into our current understanding of the phenomenon? In a perfect world, these accomplishments would all be achieved by the same person; however, this isn’t always the case. Although the play never explicitly answers the burning question of who would merit the prize, the importance of publishing is extremely apparent in the modern world.
Participating in the conversation
Publishing your work for the advancement and general knowledge of the scientific community is as important as the research itself. Why? In general, science just wouldn’t work if everyone kept it a secret. Learning from the successes and failures of others is a crucial step in promoting the growth of science and technology in an ever-changing world. Publishing new work not only shows the world what you’ve accomplished but also opens the door to new ideas, applications, and perspectives that you may have never considered. In particular, the scientific literature provides a wealth of knowledge that often serves as the starting point for researchers about to embark on a new topic or idea.
Publish failures, too
Even if the outcome of your research wasn’t what you expected, publish it! Did you know that the inventor of the reusable adhesive in sticky notes was actually attempting to develop a strong, permanent adhesive? His accident created a solution to a problem that nobody knew existed. Your “failed” experiment may also have alternative applications in a completely different or unknown field. Along those same lines, don’t be afraid to ask questions and to look at an old problem in a new light. The so-called experts of a given field often overlook minute details that they take for granted. Sometimes, a fresh set of eyes is all that’s needed to ask the naïve question that gives new life to a project.
Early and often: The CV game
Though the notion of sharing ideas for the good of science is a nice sentiment, there are, of course, some less romantic motives behind publishing. Resume/CV building, particularly in academia, is a highly motivating factor for publishing early and often. In fact, depending on the current stage of your career or the types of jobs you wish to pursue, this may be your sole reason for publishing. The number of publications on a resume/CV is often used as a tool to measure how researchers stack up against one another. Whether this provides an accurate assessment or not, this harsh reality places a huge amount of stress on today’s researchers that can often hinder their creativity or lead to lower-quality publications. While it may seem like a numbers game at times, it’s important to realize that a few high-quality papers in reputable peer-reviewed journals will have a greater impact than a plethora of mediocre work that nobody will ever see.
Another major motive behind publishing early and often is the urgency of publishing your work in an effort to avoid being “scooped”. Reading a hot-off-the-press article from another researcher on the same problem that you’re on the verge of solving (or maybe you’re even just a day behind in the publishing process) is a scientist’s worst nightmare. Although this unfortunate situation is often unavoidable, there are some ways to mitigate it. Instead of waiting until you have all of the pieces together for a single comprehensive paper, consider publishing a communication of preliminary findings that states your intentions for future work. This approach can be particularly useful when working on a hot topic in the current literature. While there are other avenues to protect your intellectual property, such as patents and invention disclosures, these processes are often complicated and time consuming and may not be appropriate, depending on the nature of your work.
With that said, publishing in high-impact journals is not always an easy task. Persistence is key. Don’t be discouraged by reviewers’ opinions of your work. If your paper is rejected, carefully consider the comments and suggestions of the reviewers to decide whether or not this journal is still the appropriate forum for your work. If it is, be open to changes or additional work that may help your manuscript fit their mold. If not, find a journal with a slightly different scope/readership that may be better suited for your particular field or topic.
Own your career
Whatever your motivation to publish, don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Be passionate, be persistent, and be open to change and new ideas. Although the 18th-century scientists portrayed in Oxygen lived long before the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded in 1901, their legacy lives on today. After all, taking ownership of your work for the advancement of your career and personal recognition is always a rewarding feeling, but making a meaningful and longer-lasting contribution to science is really what it’s all about.