Publish or Perish?

I’d like to add a short post about writing and publishing papers. The phrase “publish or perish” is commonly heard because there is some truth to it. According to Wikipedia, the phrase dates back to the 1930s and 1940s.

There are some advantages to having pressure to publish. By encouraging scientists to write and publish their research, they and their work become more widely known, including among their peers. As scientists, we enjoy and are excited about working on research and publishing the interesting and new results, and putting the papers out helps to advance the field.

When considering scientists for academic posts (or for research grants), it can be a difficult and time-consuming process. That’s unavoidable, especially when numerous people will apply for small numbers of jobs and grants. One clearly quantifiable metric by which academics are judged is the number of papers they’ve published (and another is the size of grants they draw in). As pointed out by this recent New Yorker blog, both the amount and style of writing are related to the constant pressure to publish and the tough academic job market. In addition, the job market now appears two-tiered, with part-time and adjunct faculty working long hours for lower pay (see these NY Times and Salon articles). I plan to talk about this issue further in another post.

There are some major disadvantages to the publish-or-perish culture. One problem is that it doesn’t leave time for long-term or risky research on controversial topics. It also doesn’t allow for exploring new ideas, issues, or collaborations that might not pan out and result in something publishable. Nonetheless, these things are good for scientists and they are good for science, and when they are successful, there are huge rewards or discoveries. For example, Peter Higgs, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who was one of the discoverers of the Higgs boson, says that no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough. The publish-or-perish culture is not just dominant in the physical sciences, but also in the social sciences, humanities, and law.

A related issue is that of “luxury” journals like Nature, Science, and Cell. According to the Guardian, Randy Schekman, the Nobel prize-winning biologist is now no longer publishing in these journals because they distort the scientific process. He writes: “A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong.” These journals have become brand names, and they prioritize publishing provocative results–perhaps before they’ve been sufficiently tested and vetted by editors, peer reviewers, or the authors themselves. The result is that the journals have a reputation for publishing results that are often wrong. Scientists know this, yet publishing in these journals still carries prestige.

In addition to publishing papers and books, scientists work on other important things that should be valued too. Key among them is teaching, of course, as well as participating in outreach programs, mentoring students, communicating with journalists and policy-makers, and other academic service to the community. These activities are not as easily quantifiable as scientists’ publications, but we should make the effort to recognize this work.

More from the AAAS meeting

The second half of the AAAS meeting in Chicago was interesting too. (I wrote about the first half in my previous post.)


Probably the best and most popular event at the meeting was Alan Alda’s presentation. You’ll know Alan Alda as the actor from M*A*S*H (and recently, 30 Rock), but he’s also a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He gave an inspiring talk to a few thousand people about how to communicate science clearly and effectively in a way that people can understand. He talked about how one should avoid or be careful about using jargon. Interaction with the audience is important, and one can do that by telling a personalized story (with a hero, goal, and an obstacle, which develops an emotional connection), or by engaging with the audience so that they become participants. It’s also important to communicate what is most interesting or exciting or curiosity-piquing about the science, but in the end, the words you use don’t matter as much as your body language and tone of voice. It’s also good to develop improvisation skills, so when a particular explanation or analogy doesn’t appear to work well with the audience, you can adapt to the situation. He referred to the “curse of knowledge”, such that as scientists we forget what it’s like not to be experts in our particular field of research. That can be an obstacle when interacting with most segments of the public, Congress members and other politicians (most of whom aren’t scientists or haven’t the time to become familiar with the science), and even with scientists in other fields. Most of all, one needs to be clear, engaged, and connected with one’s audience. Finally, Alda told us about the “flame challenge
–challenging scientists to explain flames and other concepts for 11-year olds to understand. (The kids are also the judges of the competition.) If the video of Alda’s talk becomes available online, I’ll link to it here for you.

I attended an interesting session on climate change and whether/how it’s possible to reduce 80% of greenhouse gas emissions from energy by 2050. As pointed out by the chair, Jane Long (who is one of the authors of this report), our energy needs will likely double or even triple by then, while we must be simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. Peter Loftus discussed this issue as well, and showed the primary energy demand as well as energy intensity (energy used per unit GDP) have been rapidly increasing over the past twenty years, partly due to China. But to obtain substantial carbon reductions, the intensity needs to drop below what we’ve had for the past 40 years! We need to massively add to power generation capacity (10 times more rapidly than our previous rates), and it might not be feasible to exclude both nuclear and “carbon capture” in the process. Karen Palmer gave an interesting talk about the importance of energy efficiency as part of the solution, but she says that one problem is that it’s still hard to evaluate which policies best promote energy efficiency as well as ultimately energy savings and carbon emission reductions. Richard Lester made strong arguments about the need for nuclear power, since renewables might not be up for the task of meeting rising energy demands in the near future. This was disputed by Mark Jacobson, who pointed out that nuclear power has 9-25 times more pollution per kW-hour than wind (due to mining and refining) and it takes longer to construct a plant than the 2-5 years it takes to build wind or solar farms. Jacobson also discussed state-by-state plans: California benefits from many solar devices, for example, while some places in the northeast could use offshore wind farms. In addition, such offshore arrays could withstand and dissipate hurricanes (depending on their strength), and WWS (wind, water, solar) could generate about 1.5 million new jobs in the U.S. in construction alone. Different countries have very different economic situations and carbon footprints, so different solutions may be needed.

I caught part of a session on “citizen science” (see my previous post). Chris Lintott spoke about the history of citizen science and about how the internet has allowed for unprecedented growth and breadth of projects, including the numerous Zooniverse projects. Caren Cooper discussed social benefits of citizen science, and Carsten Østerlund discussed what motivates the citizen scientists themselves and how they learn as they participate. Lastly, Stuart Lynn spoke about how the next generation of citizen science systems can be developed, so that they can accommodate larger communities and larger amounts of data and so that people can classify billions of galaxies with the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, for example.

Finally, there was another interesting session on how scientists can work with Congress and on the challenges they face, but more on that later…

Reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting

I’d like to tell you about the AAAS meeting I’m attending. (Look here for the program.) It’s in Chicago, which is definitely much colder than southern California! I know it might sounds strange, but it’s nice to experience a real winter again.

There were some astrophysics sessions (such as on galaxy evolution in the early universe and dark matter particles) but that wasn’t my focus here. I took some brief notes, and this is based on them…

There were a few sessions about science communication, outreach, and media. These are very important things: for example, according to Rabiah Mayas, the best indicator of whether people participate in science or become scientists as adults is the extent to which they engaged in science-related activities outside of school as kids. One person discussed the importance of fact-checking for producing high-quality and robust science writing, but it takes time; one should note that peer-review in scientific research is supposed to perform a similar purpose, though it can be time-consuming as well. In any case, many people agreed that scientists and journalists need to interact better and more frequently. (As a side note, I heard two high-profile science journalists mispronounce “arXiv”, which is pronounced exactly like “archive”.) In addition, it’s worth noting that smaller regional newspapers often don’t have dedicated science desks, though this could provide opportunities for young writers to contribute. There was also an excellent talk by Danielle Lee about “Raising STEM Awareness Among Under-Served and Under-Represented Audiences,” who talked about ways to take advantage of social media.

There were interesting presentations about scientists’ role in policy-making, but I’ll get back to that later. Someone made an important point that scientists should be extremely clear about when they are just trying to provide information versus when they are presenting (or advocating) policy options. I should be clearer about that myself.

I also saw interesting talks by people about public opinion surveys in the U.S. and internationally of knowledge and opinions of science and technology. According to these polls, although some Americans are worried about global warming/climate change, people are more worried about toxic waste, water and air pollution. According to Lydia Saad (of Gallup), 58% of Americans worry a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming, 57% think human activities are the main cause, 56% think it’s possible to take action to slow its effects, while only 34% think it will affect them or their way of life. In addition, she and Cary Funk (of Pew) found huge partisan gaps between self-identified Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. As one person pointed out, climate change is not just a science issue but has become a political one. Americans in polls had pretty high opinions of scientists, engineers, and medical doctors, but people had the best views of those in the military. There is a wide range of knowledge of science, especially when it comes to issues such as evolution. (Note that fewer Republicans believe in evolution by natural processes, due to a drop in those who are not evangelicals, who already had a low fraction.) Also note that the numbers depend on how poll questions are asked: for example, ~40% agree to, “The universe began with a huge explosion”, and when you add “according to astronomers”, then the proportion jumps up to 60%. (If you’re curious, this image basically describes astronomers’ current view of the Big Bang.)


There was an interesting session dedicated to climate change science, which included scientists that contributed to the IPCC’s recent 5th Assessment Report (which we talked about in an earlier blog). Note the language they’re required to use to quantify their un/certainty: “virtually certain” means 99% certain, and then there’s “very likely” (90%), “likely” (67%), and “more likely than not” (>50%). Michael Wehner discussed applications of “extreme value statistics” (which are sometimes used analyze extremely luminous galaxies or large structures in astronomy: see this and this) on extreme temperatures. Extremely cold days will be less cold, while extremely hot days will be more common and hotter. For particular extreme weather events, one can’t say whether they’re due to climate change, but one can ask “How has the risk of this event changed because of climate change?” or “How did climate change affect the magnitude of this event?” It seems very likely that the there will be heavier heavy rainy days, longer dry seasons, and more consecutive dry days between precipitation events. There will be more droughts in the west (west of the Rockies) and southeast, and more floods in the midwest and northeast.

The plenary speaker today was Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy until last year, who gave an excellent talk. He compared convincing people about climate change to earlier campaigns to convince people about the dangers of tobacco use and its connection to lung cancer; both issues have had industry-promoted disinformation as well. On rising temperatures with climate change, he channeled Yogi Berra when he said, “If we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we’re heading.” He talked a little about the role of natural gas (see also these NYT and Science blogs), and he discussed carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration (CCUS). Finally, he talked about how one might determine an appropriate price of carbon. He advocated a revenue-neutral tax, starting at $10/ton and over ~12 years raising it to $50/ton, and then giving the money raised from this directly back to the public. He also talked about wind turbines, which are now more reliable, efficient, and bigger, and he predicted a 20-30% decline in price in the next 10-15 years. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules is also dropping, but installation costs and licensing fees (“soft costs”) should be reduced. I definitely had the impression that, now that Chu is no longer Energy Secretary, he could be more frank than before about his views on contentious issues.

Jevons paradox: a problem for energy efficiency?

I’d like to discuss an issue that probably isn’t sufficiently studied or addressed. If the Jevons paradox is relevant for today’s energy consumption and efficiency problems (or to other resources), then it is certainly worth further investigation.

The “Jevons paradox” (which I briefly mentioned in a previous post) is the idea that improved energy (and other material-resource) efficiency ultimately tends to lead not to conservation but to increased consumption. It’s named after the English economist William Stanley Jevons, who in his book The Coal Question (1865) observed that the coal-powered steam engine made coal a more cost-effective power source, leading to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This in turn increased total coal consumption and depleted reserves, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. He argued that increased efficiency in the use of coal as an energy source only generated increased demand for that resource, not decreased demand, as one might expect. This was because improvement in efficiency led to further economic expansion.

Jevons was wrong about a few points: he failed to foresee the development of energy substitutes for coal, such as petroleum and hydroelectric power, or that coal supplies would take a long time to be exhausted. But the “Jevons paradox” appears to be a very important insight that has lately become a popular issue again (see for example, this New Yorker piece). In addition, some consider it an extreme version of the “rebound effect”, in which there is a rebound of more than 100% of “engineering savings,” resulting in an increase rather than decrease in the consumption of a given resource. In other words, savings from efficiency are used for additional consumption, thus cancelling the savings. In light of recent efforts to improve energy efficiency, the significance of Jevons paradox effects has understandably generated considerable debate (such as here and here).

If the Jevons paradox and rebound effect are real, then this has important policy implications. It does not mean that efforts for improving efficiency in homes, businesses, and vehicles are wasted, but it does mean that those efforts by themselves won’t reduce energy consumption and carbon emission. Major environmental problems like climate change cannot be solved by purely technological methods in a “free market”. In addition, cap-and-trade systems might not be as successful as hoped in terms of reducing emissions (for example, see this critique of California’s cap-and-trade program, which allows carbon offsets). There is no simple solution, but energy efficiency goals should be combined with other strategies and policies for reducing demand for fossil fuels, such as a carbon tax, requiring utilities to generate a higher fraction of their electricity from renewables, requiring automakers to increase fuel economy standards, etc. Some of these would be less popular with particular industries because it would be a bigger break from business-as-usual, but business-as-usual is clearly worsening climate change (and other resource-related environmental problems, such as involving water resources and pollution). Any effective strategy must cut carbon emissions deeply enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change, which means at least 80% below 2000 levels by 2050. The transition to a low-carbon economy will be a difficult one.

Citizen Science: a tool for education and outreach

I’ll write about a different kind of topic today. “Citizen science” is a relatively new term though the activity itself is not so new. One definition of citizen science is “the systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis.” It involves public participation and engagement in scientific research in a way that educates the participants, makes the research more democratic, and makes it possible to perform tasks that a small number of researchers could not accomplish alone. Volunteers simply need access to a computer (or smartphone) and an internet connection to become involved and assist scientific research.


Citizen science was popularized a few years ago by Galaxy Zoo, which involved visually classifying hundreds of thousands of galaxies into spirals, ellipticals, mergers, and finer classifications using the classification tree below. (I am a member of the Galaxy Zoo collaboration and have published a few papers with them.) As a result of “crowdsourcing” the work of more than 100,000 volunteers around the world, new scientific research can be done that was not previously possible with such large datasets, including studies of the handedness of spiral galaxies, analyses of the environmental dependence of barred galaxies, and the identification of rare objects such as a quasar light echo that was dubbed “Hanny’s Voorwerp”. Other citizen science projects include mapping the moon, mapping air pollution, counting birds with birdwatchers, classifying a variety of insects, and many other projects.


Citizen scientists have many motivations, but it appears that the primary one is the desire to make a contribution to scientific research (see this paper). In the process, by bringing together professional scientists and members of the general public and facilitating interactions between them, citizen science projects are important for outreach purposes, not just for research. In addition, by encouraging people to see a variety of images or photographs and to learn about how the research is done, citizen science is useful for education as well. Many valuable educational tools have been produced (such as by the Zooniverse projects). Citizen science projects are popular and proliferating because they give the opportunity for people at home or in the classroom to become actively involved in science. It has other advantages too, including raising awareness and stimulating interest in particular issues. Citizen science is continuing to evolve, and in the era of “big data” and social media, it has much potential and room for improvement.

Scientific Integrity

In this blog post, let’s discuss scientific integrity–specifically, efforts to keep scientific research as independent as possible from political, corporate, or other influence. Such influences are important for a variety of policies including energy policy (especially related to climate change), health and drugs, food and nutrition, education, etc., when particular companies or organizations have a financial or other stake in the outcome. For example, fossil fuel companies support the “denial industry“, claiming that the science of global warming is inconclusive, agribusinesses promote genetically modified crops, and drug companies promote antidepressant and ADHD drugs, while funding scientific research that often supports their campaigns.

Science informs political officials and agencies when they’re designing regulations for air and water pollution, when determining whether a particular drug is safe and efficacious, when assessing whether particular foods or products are safe for consumers, etc. In my opinion, science can rarely be completely “objective” and “unbiased”; scientists are humans, after all, and they have their own motivations and considerations that can affect their work. The important thing, however, is to reduce political and commercial influence as much as possible so that scientists can do their research and then present their results as clearly and accurately as possible.

In all fields of science, scientists to some extent are affected by funding constraints and grant agencies. These constraints can affect exactly what is studied, how it is researched, and how the results are presented in the media and to the public. Nonetheless, scientific research is particularly important–and susceptible to more outside influences–when it is related to public policy, including the topics above. In addition, politically-related work in the social sciences, especially economics, can be contentious as well.

In the US under the Bush administration, many felt that scientists were under attack. For example, a “revolving door” appeared to be in place when former lobbyists and spokespeople for industries later worked at agencies having the task of regulating their former industries; in particular cases, they appeared to write or advocate for policy shifts that benefited these industries. In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report, “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science”, claiming that the White House censors and suppresses reports by its own scientists, stacks advisory committees, and disbands government panels. There later appeared to be political influence on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on researchers working on embryonic stem cells, on sex education (because of arguments about the effectiveness of abstinence-based programs), and on the teaching of biological evolution.

Although the Obama administration appears to have more respect for science and scientists (see this 2013 UCS report), the politicization of some scientific work continues. The assessment of the social and environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline may be such an example. The final environmental impact statement, which was released by the State Department yesterday, appears to endorse the pipeline, but the interpretation is unclear (see this coverage in the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American blog).

In any case, these contentious situations will be easier when government agencies have explicit policies for scientific integrity and when the affiliations and employment histories of officials are transparent. It’s also important to keep in mind that the struggle for independent and transparent science never ends. Scientists should always try to be as clear as possible about their views or beliefs when they are relevant to their work (see this NYT blog for useful advice), and results and data should be made publicly available whenever possible.