Scientific Publication and the Seven Deadly Sins

May 14, 2007

Why do scientists publish? There is a myth - common among non-scientists - that scientists publish their work mainly out of an altruistic desire to make the world a better place. Sharing their work helps science move faster and that's a Good Thing. This is, of course, an important factor for most scientists. At least it's hard to imagine any scientist seriously thinking that they want their work to be used to make the world worse off.

The problem with the altruism myth is that it obscures many of the deeper reasons that scientists publish.

Recently, I attended a talk given by Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal, on the subject of product design. In it, he advised those seeking to create a successful startup to build products designed to enable users to commit one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins.

His reasoning was simplicity itself. The Seven Deadly Sins were those activities so universal, that people needed to be threatened with all kinds of bad things if they did them. Looking at it from a detached, secular perspective, most people seem hard-wired to want to commit one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins - repeatedly and without encouragement. Looking at it from a product designer perspective, cha-ching!

Levchin went on to observe that people can commit every one of the Seven Deadly Sins on the Web - except for gluttony. Thus, the popularity of the Internet as a venue for doing business.

It may seem a little odd at first, but can this reasoning be applied to scientific publication? How many of the Seven Deadly sins does publishing satisfy? Does this offer any insight into the deeper reasons scientists publish their work?

Below, I offer some ideas on the Seven Deadly Sins as they apply to scientific publication:

  • Greed The flip-side of "Publish or Perish" is "Publish and Prosper". We're not talking about directly profiting from scientific publication (only scientific publishers do that). No, we're talking about using a publication record to build a reputation. It's that reputation that in turn leads to funded grant proposals, scheduled job interviews, lucrative offers from recruiters, raises, bonuses, and promotions. If science is a business, then publications are it's currency.
  • Envy Don't get left out. Few things are more jarring than to suddenly realize that your publication record is far below average.
  • Pride Finish a job well-done. Doing science the right way is hard work. It can involve both skilled experimental technique and ingenious insights. Why not cap off that achievement by letting the world know how it was done and how you got there first?
  • Wrath Stick it to someone who deserves it. Or, just tear to pieces an idea that's plain wrong. Scientists as dispassionate observers? Not always.
  • Gluttony Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. Remember Dr. Soandso who publishes way too many (perhaps low-quality) papers? The rise in popularity of the Communication shows he's not alone. Who could blame him or anyone else, given what's at stake?
  • Sloth N/A. Actually, it takes the mighty pull of the other sins on this list to overcome the mental barrier to drafting a manuscript and getting it publication-ready.
  • Lust Depends on how you define it. See "Gluttony" and "Greed".

Depending on definitions, at least five of the Seven Deadly Sins factor into scientists' motivations for publishing. Notice that despite the term "Sin", not all of these motivations are malevolent. Scientists should take pride in their work, they need to feed themselves and their families, nobody likes to be left behind, sometimes it really is better to write three Communications than one long paper, and some things are worth getting mad about.

Why does any of this matter? For the simple reason that information technology and economics are in the process of rendering obsolete existing models of scientific publication. To build the systems of the future, it's essential to understand the motivations of those using the current one.