Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Do Scientists Sometimes Publish Just To Be Cited?

Speaking of the Hořava gravity excitement, Luboš Motlhad this to say about four months after Hořava's initial publication:
Fifty papers have been written about the Hořava-Lifshitz gravity (NYU about it). Aside from the first author - Petr Hořava - and the most recent group of authors, everyone in this list seems to have gotten carried away...

They knew that someone would refer to them, whatever they write, so they often (incorrectly) connected the new bandwagon to their older work and/or offered solutions that would only be interesting if the theory actually worked...
So Motl seems to be implying that, outside of a few important papers like the one from Hořava, some scientists published papers largely to catch a bandwagon wave that was sure to bring lots of citations, even if the work was not high quality.

I'm not going to speculate whether or not this is true.  However, it raises an interesting question: Do scientists sometimes publish papers because it is a good opportunity to generate citations, even if the quality of the paper is not that great?

I guess even scientists are human.  That said, I'm not sure it is the ethical thing to do.


  1. I think anytime you link rewards indirectly to results, you'll get something like this. To motivate good science, rewards are linked to publication. Publication does not always ensure good science (apparently) so there you are. It's like Wally coding himself a mini-van.


  2. Stan, That comic is too funny.

    Yes, the "reward" system in science has it's pros and cons.

  3. Dear Joseph,

    the figure "fifty" in my original text has been inflated to over "two hundreds" by now.

    Don't have any doubts about the "yes" answer to your title. I have met - and interacted - with hundreds of physicists: grad students, postdocs, junior professors, senior professors. It's quite an ensemble to analyze the community's modes of reasoning and to make some generalizations.

    There is the wisdom "publish or perish" that a substantial portion follows. And when it comes to "what should be published", of course that "what will be cited" is an argument to consider for many - and probably most people. A relevant question is whether there exist any counterexamples at all. You know, people may publish both kinds of stuff - what they find personally important, and what they think will be followed and/or cited by others.

    When I was in this business-as-usual, I was surely one of the most separated ones from this kind of reasoning, but even I was not fully separated. It would be dishonest to claim that such reasoning has never affected my focus. These are really existential considerations for many people, it's highly correlated with fun, and so on. The interest from others does matter although it's not the only thing that matters.

    Also, I want to stress that this mechanism doesn't always have negative consequences for the science. In fact, it usually has positive consequences. When science works well, of course that most of the "bandwagons" are actually very useful, creative, and lead to genuinely valuable results. It's just like markets. People want to have a profit - but they create value as a byproduct.

    Sometimes they don't. And in some subset of the cases when they don't, you can see that the "quality" and the "thirst for citations" were detectably different drivers, and it was the latter, not the former, which was manifestly followed by the majority of the bandwagon.

    Of course, you don't want to throw away the whole institutionalized science because of this "moral imperfection". Such things are bound to happen. Most people in science probably view science just as their career, a form of business. And that includes most of those people who pretend to be "seers". You must still carefully calculate the total quality that a discipline produces, and if it produces enough for the funding etc. it's getting (and you should rationally judge yourself whether you have the ability to see the right answer), then you should forgive the people for behaving in the obvious "existentially driven" way.

    Best wishes

  4. Thanks a lot for your in-depth comment Lubos. That was very insightful.


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