What are scientific papers for?

Writing scientific papers and publishing them in academic journals is an essential part of the activity of a researcher. ‘Publish or perish’ is truer now than ever, and an extensive publication list is essential for anyone wanting to have a career in science.

But what are these papers actually for? What purpose do they serve?

I can think of two main purposes (which aren’t entirely mutually exclusive): one is to disseminate knowledge and ideas; the other is to confer status on the author(s) .

The academic journal began hundreds of years ago with the aim of achieving the former through distribution of articles in print form. Nowadays the distribution of research results is achieved much less expensively largely through online means. Nevertheless, journals still exist (largely, as I see it, to provide editorial input and organise peer review) .

Alongside this there is the practice of using articles as a measure of the ‘quality’ of an author. Papers in certain ‘prestigious’ ‘high impact’ journals are deemed important because they are indicators of status, like epaulettes on a uniform, and bibliometric data, especially citation counts, often seem to be more important than the articles themselves.

I thought it was just me getting cynical in my old age but a number of younger scientists I know have told me that the only reason they can see for writing papers is because you need to do it to get a job. There is no notion of disseminating knowledge just the need to establish priority and elevate oneself in the pecking order. In other words the original purpose of scientific publications has largely been lost.

I thought I’d test this by doing a (totally unscientific) poll here to see how my several readers think about this.

15 Responses to “What are scientific papers for?”

  1. Of course, people who champion measures like citation counting (and its various derivatives) might well argue that it offers a way of allotting value to papers based on the “disseminating knowledge” view rather than the “gaining status” one.

    Years back Tim Radford of the Guardian used to have a kind of set-piece argument where he said that a scientific paper, in his view, achieved its key purpose for a scientist’s career the minute it was published in a journal (basically the ‘publish to get on’ agenda). He used to contrast this with journalism or popular science writing (and blogs??!) whose purpose (he said) was to be *read*. In this view, an article that no-one wanted to read was a failure in pop sci, but arguably a success in traditional science.

    Now, most (esp older?) scientists probably wouldn’t agree with that view of traditional scientific publishing – we’d say a paper needed both to be published, and also to be read and cited, the latter being some sort of index of a piece of work’s influence in the field. So perhaps we’re too mean about citation counting? At least it somewhat tells you whether your work has been useful to others in the biz (‘disseminating knowledge’).

  2. Francis Says:

    Although much dissemination of research is undertaken on-line and at conferences, you need a permanent record of the research results (and their interpretation), and its hard for me to think of a better way than journals. I just gave someone a reference to a paper from 1995 which impacts directly on their current research. In 15 years time will there be a better way to access results from 2020?

  3. It depends on what exactly one means by a scientific paper. If it means publishing in a “real” journal, I’d say “To confer status on the author(s)” (which is how I vote). Disseminating information can be just as well done with arxiv preprints (or similar) and in my cynical old age, I’m seeing less and less value in (current form of) peer review.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      “Disseminating information can be just as well done with arxiv preprints (or similar) and in my cynical old age, I’m seeing less and less value in (current form of) peer review.”

      If it is just on arXiv, then it has not gone through peer review. Caveat lector.

      • Even if it has, the reader should beware. Many papers go through peer review and are still full of errors.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Sure, but usually there are fewer. Also, keep in mind that most stuff at arXiv is of reasonable quality because it is intended for a journal.

  4. I think the main purpose is the communication of results, with the status stuff ancillary (and misused by administrators). After all, why would already-famous scientists continue to publish?

    • telescoper Says:

      Why do billionaires keep trying to make even more money?

      • Francis Says:

        Would it not be the case that most of the famous scientists will likely have postdocs and/or graduate students who would often lead papers? So the dissemination of research results is not just important to the famous scientist.

  5. Since I dropped out of my PhD I’m not sure my vote actually counts, but I’d like to suggest that this question may be more problematic.

    During my masters degree I made a point of daily reading the arXiv (I didn’t follow any journals because all papers that were published also were put in the arXiv, at least in general relativity). That was until I realised that no professors had an habit of reading papers, published or preprints.

    Most professors told me they simply didn’t have time to read papers, that teaching, supervising grad students and administrative responsibilities left no time to spare, which I certainly understand. They told me they rely on friends who would send relevant papers their way.

    Maybe I misunderstood the state of affairs, or maybe this is a problem of brazilian physicists, but it seemed to me at the time that the real issue with journals is that almost nobody is reading them.

  6. bygone daze Says:

    Most academic types (physicists too) NEED to publish in order to get promoted…it’s the rule. It’s a professional balance…enjoying writing as scientific endeavor and using those pubs as medals on the lapel? At many universities admin needs a limited number of metrics to determine who gets tenure since they are comparing promotions in psychology, languages, biology, art, math, dance, phys. ed., poetry., engineering…..and physics. Who checks the quality of the work? Certainly not admin, in general – it may be too much work. We all trust the professional honor system, and the “word on the street”….yet these can be prone to bias. Everybody wants more, but somehow it all holds together. Is it sustainable?

  7. I would hope that the main point of a scientific paper is in the content. If that is not relevant, it doesn’t matter how, where and why it is published.

  8. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Of course some criteria are needed in determining whom to hire, and these should be relevant to the position. If it is a research position, then papers in sensible journals. What else? If someone wants to write papers only to get hired, and as an unwanted by-product real knowledge is produced which advances the field, then I see no problem in that.

    The sad thing is when a paper on arXiv counts for more than one in a prestigious journal. Sic transit gloria mundi.

  9. My own motivation to publish usually comes from suddenly understanding something I have long struggled with (not sure why I assume everyone else is equally challenged). It doesn’t have too much to do with career as the managers in our college pay no attention to publications

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