Good ≠ Publishable
© 6 Jun 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Conflated concerns in academia.


There is a difference between good science and publishable science. Good science uses sound methodology, recognizes its own limitations and possible alternative explanations, and applies proper analysis. Publishable science is also at least tangentially novel, acknowledges the work of the big names in related fields, is on a topic that the community currently thinks is valuable, and is written in the accepted style of the field.

One of the oddities in science today is that the only“‍Only‍” is hyperbole here, though I can’t think of a counterexample. way to be rewarded for good science is to publish it. Parallel discoveries, works by outsiders that can’t cite the fields’ cannon, and widely novel work that ventures into new territory are all kept at bay by the restrictions of the publication market. Peer review and publication is a greedy market: unless you serve the wants of those already in the game, you aren’t allowed to play.

A friend of mine recently suggested to me that, in the ideal world, the review of scientific quality and the review of suitability for publication would be distinct activities. He also proposed how making that separation would allow improvements in the review process and result in better judgments of scientific quality. It was an interesting thought, but it left me with a lingering question: can the system change, and would the change actually be superior?

Winston Churchill famously observed that something can be the worst except for everything else—that is, that the best need not actually be good. Conflated concerns are inevitable; we must combine them or ignore them. And the simple greedy approach, whether in capitalism or academia, has the advantage that the collective influence of individual desires does usually point toward the good of the whole, if not in the most direct route.

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