Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Stench of a Paper Mill

How many of you out there have ever driven through a town that has a paper mill as one of its primary industries? If you have, you know the distinctive smell of the methyl mercaptan emanating from the mill that makes you feel kind of sick as you speed out of town. The conspiracy theorist in me makes note of the fact that one of the biggest speed traps in Arkansas is right outside of a town with a booming paper mill. If you haven't had the pleasure of smelling a paper mill, just think of decaying matter or swamp gas, and you are in the right ballpark.

By now, some of you are wondering if I haven't been sniffing too many of those chemicals. However, those of you who have been with me from the beginning know how I despise the low level of information that it is found in most scientific papers today. I found the same stench of decay in this 2001 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The article is about how to bulk up a Curriculum Vitae (CV) for those academics striving for recognition and tenure. The article states that the creative researchers pad their paper count by changing the parameters on their graphs. This is definitely a creative way to scam the system of "publish or perish" found in many university environments, but it also reeks. According to the article, if I have a theoretical idea, an experimental way to test it, and a comparison of the experimental results with the theoretical predictions, that is worthy three separate publications (and at least of couple of citations).

To me, these are three aspects related to a common set of information and would make AN excellent paper. I am willing to consider exceptions to this if it takes several months to years to perform one or each of the three phases (theory, experiment, and comparison). However, if you are publishing 57 articles (19 as the lead author) in a single year, I don't believe you would find your way into my exemption category. [By the way, I have electronic copies of all eight of the peer reviewed journal articles that bear my name. I would be happy to share them and discuss the information content of any of them.]

I have a few thoughts/questions for aspiring young scientists that are quite different than those presented in the article. First, do you really have a grasp of your chosen field if you are just throwing stuff out there to see what sticks? Next, are you being considerate of the peer review process (someone has to read and evaluate your submission) by bombarding the system with papers that are marginally within the MPU for the journal? Finally, do you think the wretched smells of an academic paper mill will be safely left in the lab when you are challenged about the quality rather than quantity of your research effort?

1 comment:

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