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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Academia in Summertime | Main | Rimonabant Arrives »

June 28, 2006

Part Nine Hundred and Forty Two in a Series. . .

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Posted by Derek

Some people don't seem to believe it, but you definitely can publish too many papers. The problem is, the surest ways of publishing a lot of papers are to not do many things that are interesting or unusual, and to break everything down into tiny pieces. The first requirement is there because unusual results take time - time for you to believe them in the first place, time to replicate them, time to try to explain and extend them. And no matter what, eventually they aren't unusual results any more - they may still be interesting or useful, but the surprise has worn off, as it has to. So there's no one, really, who publishes a lot of fascinating unexpected stuff all the time, because it just can't be done.

The second requirement is the least-publishable-unit problem, which many people succumb to. After all, if you've got some red-hot results, why wait for the full paper? Bang out a communication before someone scoops you. Trouble is, people bang out communications all the time on things where being scooped is the last thing that could ever happen. As I put it once, many of these things could only get scooped in the sense of someone cleaning up after their dog. Short papers don't stick in the memory very well, either. If the stuff never gets condensed and systematized - that is, written up in some full papers - it's hard to get enough attention for it even if there is something worthwhile stretched across the publication list. It would have had a bigger effect were it not so diluted.

Even famous scientists have fallen into this trap, and I would like to adduce the late H. C. Brown as a shining example. Who, during the 1970s and 80s, did not groan on seeing yet another paper from Professor Brown? Variation after variation on his boron reagents poured forth, each with slightly different characteristics and reactivity, later superseded by other variations in the endless series. And the thing is, there are a number of real advances in there - the man didn't get the Nobel for nothing. But there's an awful lot of work that has, to put it kindly, not stood the test of time. Not everything he and his group did was worth being published.

So if a Nobel laureate can tarnish his reputation by acting like his own printing press, imagine what it does for less famous authors. Be quiet, you feel like whispering to them, be quiet until you've got something to say. . .

Comments (12) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. eugene on June 29, 2006 9:14 AM writes...

Surely, this doesn't apply if your communications are JACS and Angewandte communications?

Some help on this one?

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2. Milo on June 29, 2006 10:41 AM writes...

I wonder if there is a connection between academic tenure/promotion and the least-publishable-unit problem? (there is sarcasm in there!)

If there was not so much pressure to bang out paper after paper, I suspect that the overall quality of the papers out there would improve. As you said, good results take time.

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3. Derek Lowe on June 29, 2006 10:44 AM writes...

Well, it's hard to sustain the sort of ugly publishing behavior I'm complaining about with only JACS/Ang. level papers. I had in mind more the kind of people who infest the lower-level journals, because you can't publish ten or twenty papers a year anywhere else. No one can do that much good work.

And even some of the people who only publish at the top level (but only in communications) would do people a favor to summarize in a full paper every now and then. . .

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4. Palo on June 29, 2006 10:49 AM writes...

I'm not sure I agree. I'd like to see everything published, and fast. If anything, the press-journal model is getting anticuated. Short or long papers are only remembered by their contributions. The famous Watson & Crick Nature paper is a short and thin in data paper. And yet, it might rank as the most important paper ever. In the age of information technology, at least for public research, everything should be out there as soon as possible. Of course, I don't want to see an electrophoresis gel without an explanation of what it means, but whatever might arouse the interest of other people and contribute in moving ideas forward should be out there. It's the most efficient way. It is very arrogant of us to believe that after our first observations we are the best people to find the right answer to the big picture, and soon, or even to find the best answer at all. We have the technology to communicate everything meaningful instantly, and to give the chance to others to expand our work. It would make the job of reviewers easier too. Less experiments to judge, instant feedback. It is a anachronism to keep waiting for months writing a long manuscript, waiting for the darn reviewers to read it, make changes and, a year later, someone in a lab in Michigan will read it. Someone that might have had a smart contribution to add to your work, a contribution he could have been made 9 months ago, or someone who was doing exactly those experiments and now finds out she wasted a year of work.

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5. enzgrrl on June 29, 2006 11:05 AM writes...

In contrast to Watson and Crick's brevity, the seminal work of Jacob and Monod was published as a single paper of 30 pages or so, describing a relatively complete body of work _and the logic behind it_ in fascinating detail. Maybe both are valid: short communications for truly novel discoveries in a crowded field, and well-constructed chapters for pioneers who have the luxury of leading the field by a wide margin.

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6. secret milkshake on June 29, 2006 3:11 PM writes...

Another example (of useful but groan-inducing papers): Katritsky's benzotriazoles.

Churning out not-so-earth-shattering short communications helps primarily your students and postdocs - they have to find a job and having lots of publication counts.

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7. Canuck Chemist on June 29, 2006 7:43 PM writes...

I tend to lack the time (and the attention span) to read full papers, unless it's something which involves some chemistry I'm really interested in trying. So I don't really mind the communications, especially since I would say that there are certainly some less than generally useful full papers in JACS these days. But I agree, it is very helpful to have full papers which summarize the very useful methods for which there are dozens of publications. Hartwig had a nice account recently in Synlett on his cross-coupling reactions.

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8. Richard Friary on June 29, 2006 8:17 PM writes...

Writing full papers accompanied by experimental procedures is a burden spurned by some academics, notable among them Woodward and Stork. The former, for example, never found time to edit, or even to approve, a manuscript detailing (in some 100-200 pages) the total synthesis of Cephalosporin C. To deny such chemists brief communications might impoverish the rest of us.

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9. Harry on June 29, 2006 8:57 PM writes...

Oddly enough, this very afternoon, I happened to pull up a paper by H. C. Brown on hydroboration-No. 61 in the series.

The only change from No. 60, as nearly as I can tell is the substitution of Borane/DMS for Borane. I never really checked, but I do wonder just how many papers of hydroboration ended up in the series?

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10. Cryptic Ned on June 30, 2006 2:32 PM writes...

This doesn't happen too often in biology, but whenever there's a new organism discovered, scores and scores of papers appear demonstrating that the randomavirus B protein predicted by genetic sequence to be a homolog to randomavirus A glycoprotein X is, in fact, the randomavirus B homolog of glycoprotein X, and therefore should be referred to as "glycoprotein X" instead of as "predicted open reading frame 42".

I've noticed that over the past 7 or 8 years Pesnicak, Cohen and associates have seemingly entered a project to use the exact same assay to characterize every single Varicella-Zoster virus protein with respect to whether it is necessary for establishing latency in the cotton rat dorsal root ganglia model, and to publish a J.Virology paper on each one of these proteins. They do other stuff too, though.

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11. eugene on July 2, 2006 10:35 AM writes...

More publications with small iterations does help out all the grad students and post docs. They get publications from a famous lab. And not many people in industry who hire them are likely to have read any of those papers in detail, or to know what they are about. A good candidate (or talker) can give an exciting one hour talk on almost anything.

Of course, this doesn't help the less famous people who cannot publish as often since their results are more scrutinized for novelty. Thus, when it's time to get a job, they are doubly punished for not having as good a pedigree and for having less publications than the famous lab candidate. But once again, if they are a good talker, then they can prove that they did something extraordinary.

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12. pharmachick on July 6, 2006 9:29 PM writes...

Couldn't agree more with Eugene. This proliferation of publishing is a combination of LPU and promotion/tenure, "getting-the-students-and post-docs-out-and-up" and justifying funding. By the way, by "funding" I mean academic grants AND assigned funding to your Pharma/biotech department. Particularly in the absence of lead compounds that become blockbusters - if you can throw out a patent or a paper (or 6) the funds diversion decision was at least somewhat salvageable.

In addition, Eugenes somewhat left-of-center bit about the good talker made me laugh - I had/have no pedigree to speak of and used to say "if only I can get an interview and get a foot in the door I'll talk my way into the rest" .... and now I'm busy proving I can back up the gift of the gab which also means getting students and postdocs out and up and coming up with lead compounds and publishing and ... oh no this is becoming circular.....

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