Is it really as bad as they say?

It’s been a little while since I attended A.J. Leggett’s March Meeting talk (see my review of it here), and some part of that talk still irks me. It is the portion where he referred to “the scourge of bibliometrics”, and how it prevents one from thinking about long-term problems.

I am not old enough to know what science was like when he was a graduate student or a young lecturer, but it seems like something was fundamentally different back then. The only evidence that I can present is the word of other scientists who lived through the same time period and witnessed the transformation (there seems to be a dearth of historical work on this issue).

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It was easy for me to find articles corroborating Leggett’s views, unsurprisingly I suppose. In addition to the article I linked last week by P. Nozieres, I found interviews with Sydney Brenner and Peter Higgs, and a damning article by P.W. Anderson in his book More and Different entitled Could Modern America Have Invented Wave Mechanics? In his opinion piece, Anderson also refers to an article by L. Kadanoff expressing a similar sentiment, which I was not able to find online (please let me know if you find it, and I’ll link it here!). The conditions described at Bell Labs in David Gertner’s book The Idea Factory also paint a rather stark contrast to the present status of condensed matter physics.

Since I wasn’t alive back then, I really cannot know with any great certainty whether the current state of affairs has impeded me from pursuing a longer-term project or thinking about more fundamental problems in physics. I can only speak for myself, and at present I can openly admit that I am incentivized to work on problems that I can solve in 2-3 years. I do have some concrete ideas for longer-term projects in mind, but I cannot pursue these at the present time because, as an experimentalist and postdoc, I do not have the resources nor the permanent setting in which to complete this work.

While the above anecdote is personal and it may corroborate the viewpoints of the aforementioned scientists, I don’t necessarily perceive all these items as purely negative. I think it is important to publish a paper based on one’s graduate work. It should be something, however small, that no one has done before. It is important to be able to communicate with the scientific community through a technical paper — writing is an important part of science. I also don’t mind spending a few years (not more than four, hopefully!) as a postdoc, where I will pick up a few more tools to add to my current arsenal. This is something that Sydney Brenner, in particular, decried in his interview. However, it is likely that most of what was said in these articles was aimed at junior faculty.

Ultimately, the opinions expressed by these authors is concerning. However, I am uncertain as to the extent to which what is said is exaggeration and the extent to which it is true. Reading these articles has made me ask how the scientific environment I was trained in (US universities) has shaped my attitude and scientific outlook.

One thing is undoubtedly true, though. If one chooses to resist the publish-or-perish trend by working on long-term problems and not publishing, the likelihood of landing an academic job is close to null. Perhaps this is the most damning consequence. Nevertheless, there is still some outstanding experimental and theoretical science done today, some of it very fundamental, so one should not lose all hope.

Again, I haven’t lived through this academic transformation, so if anyone has any insight concerning these issues, please feel free to comment.

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8 responses to “Is it really as bad as they say?

  1. Though a post doc, I do feel that the research environment nowadays differs greatly from the past. The reason, I guess, is not simply about publishing or perishing. Rather, I think it is because there is too much supply of scientists and they are not equally valuable. The scarcity of social resources becomes more than ever pronounced in our generation. We are all, valuable and not-so-valuable, forced to fight for the resources by publishing. Even worse, very often the not-so-valuable wins the battle, because they know the tricks. The most valuable focus on their work and are not good at the tricks. These real workers become fewer and fewer. Finally, we fall prey to bureaucrats who come up with all kinds of numbers to gauge us, under the disguise of public accountability! We are much less certain of our own merits. We are losing ourselves. The single problem is, there are too many scientists and we are not so much treasured than old times.

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    • Thanks for your comment. You are quite right that this is a large contributing factor to the difference between the past and present status of science. It seems like this one is a difficult one to fix, however. One could suggest cutting the supply, but there are many other jobs out there for science PhDs. It is largely within the academic sector that there seems to be an oversupply.

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  2. I apologize for this late comment, but I just found this post and I thought that I could like to add the perspective of someone who cannot be considered as “junior” faculty anymore, and for whom the years spend as a postdoc and graduate student are getting farther and father away in time, although still not far enough to have completely forgotten the concerns that often haunted me during that time.

    It is for this reason that I cannot help sympathizing with many of the perceptions expressed in this post. Like the author, I also had the hope that, upon landing on a tenured position, I could devote myself to “long term projects”, rather than thinking about what is feasible and can lead to quickly publishable results. The hard truth was quite different. In my case, landing in a tenured position was an exhausting experience of wrestling with the “Publish or Perish” paradigm while trying not to go take the easy path of churning nonsense papers or “milking the cow to exhaustion”. By the time I landed in a tenured job (a full time research position at a research institute, without any formal teaching duties), I was burned out. For a few years, with a few exceptions, I continued to produce papers a little bit by inertia, not really looking for new challenging problems (I also wrote a review article, which was well cited).

    Getting married and all the responsibilities that came along, put new pressures on me. Eventually, for various personal reasons, I moved out of my comfortable research position to take up a full Professor position with full teaching duties. Ever since climbing the Academic ladder to the top, the idea of devoting myself to “long-term projects” has become more and more remote. I (We) have become masters of the “feasible”. There are some good aspects to this, like seeing your own graduate students mature through the publications they produce with you, etc. But it has nothing romantic about it, and it is a completely different world from the one that Leggett and others of his generation could experience. Unfortunately, those days are gone and they will never come back. Virtually, no one is safe anymore, in any level of the Academic ladder (not even those in the protected environment of research institutes with no teaching duties, as I can confirm every time I visit my previous institute).

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    • Thanks for your comment. May I ask why it has become difficult to commit oneself to a longer-term project now that you are tenured?

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      • Oh, there are many reasons: One of them being that you have to take students to be successful faculty member. Then your student’s pressure to “publish or perish” becomes yours. Or you assume that,you have to do the best for them to have a successful career, so you cannot embark them in risky long-term projects that will lead very few or no publications at all. Connected to this, it is the funding issue: Long-term projects yield no publications and these days no department chairman will support a faculty member who has no publications for a while (unlike Ken Wilson’s case, who had the luck of having a department chair who understood the importance of what he was doing and knew who good he was and always stood by him).

        Another reason is that, in a tenured position, you have many other duties besides research, like teaching and administration, so your time is more limited (not to mention that once you are married and have a family, you have other obligations too that probably did not exist if as a graduate student, even if you were married at the time).

        Taking all this into account, even if I have not embarked myself in risky longterm projects, I have taken many risks since becoming tenured compared to other colleagues. In these 8 years, I have switched fields, and I have tackled problems that were completely outside my initial expertise. I can say I have been more or less successful, but this has come at a high price in terms of number of citations and future career opportunities. These days having a good “track record” where your stick to one (sub)field and go deeper pays off, much more than trying to wander randomly from field to field. Of course, there are still good exceptions to this rule, but they are becoming more and more scarce, like an “endangered species”.

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  3. Thanks for your comments — it’s illuminating to hear the situation from the other side.

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  4. I think these elder statesmen are correct. A dramatic transformation, for the worse, has occurred in science. There is an objective way to test this. Make a comparison between the publication lists [and citations] at the time of hiring of a sampling of people for each decade to those today.
    My random samplings show there is a dramatic difference.

    http://condensedconcepts.blogspot.in/2015/07/what-is-good-publication-rate.html

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    • Thank you for your comment. The more I think about these issues, the more concerning they seem. A lot of graduate students I knew in school (I suspect) left physics, not because of lack of talent, hard-work, etc., but because of this culture. In fact, the best ones left and have become successful in other realms.

      Also, thanks for sharing your post. It seems like in the pre-internet world, the concept of “cluttering the literature” had actually been a legitimate concern for scientists! Now, there is no such thought, and it becomes increasingly difficult to discern signal from noise.

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