Imperishable publishing Part I

The familiar saying “publish or perish” is indeed a reality for scholars. In most fields this is the measure – how many papers have you published? Or in some fields, how many books? Publishing is what scholars need to do in order to advance in the ranks and to be successful in grant applications.

As an undergrad, I enjoyed “writing papers.” Doing some library research, bringing it together under some unifying theme, and staying up all night the day before it was due – that was all good. And so when it came time to write my first scientific paper, I approached it with the same naïve enthusiasm.

I had some good data that I had been collecting for several years on the interactions between different types of mites on apple leaves. The paper should write itself, I reasoned as I proceeded to churn out some words and sentences.

Before long I found myself up against a mystical force that I had never seen in all my years as a student. This force is what makes “publish or perish” so intimidating.

First it was my graduate supervisor and co-author, Dolf Harmsen, pointing out that the paper was far too long as written along with containing numerous other flaws. Then we sent a refined version to our colleague Howard Thistlewood, with Agriculture Canada, even before sending it to the journal.

As Thistlewood discussed the manuscript with me over the phone, he revealed more of the mystique of publishing. He warned me that I better be certain that the way I presented the information was extremely sound because my first paper could set the tone for my entire career. Yikes! It wasn’t enough to just get it published – it had to be really, really good!

The next stage was submitting it to the journal - the Canadian Entomologist. As is the practice, I submitted a short but formal cover letter basically saying “here it is”, “please consider publishing it.” In reply, I received a similar brief bit of correspondence thanking me for my submission, even though it might well be rejected.

Fortunately, the paper was not rejected, with the next correspondence leaving the door open for publication but asking for innumerable revisions. I think it went back and forth at least two times like that – I can’t remember after having so many “back and forths” over my career so far.

Whether “Clements and Harmsen 1990” was really, really good, I am not sure. It was clearly “good enough” for the two or three experts who reviewed it for the journal and the editor who handled the paper. This is the kind of peer review such a paper must pass through to get accepted.

Peer review does not stop when the paper is published.  A paper has a legacy, as Howard Thistlewood was trying to explain to me when I was a naïve young Ph.D. student. Some papers seldom get read, and scholars can never really know how much their papers are read.

One measureable impact is the number of times a paper is cited by other peers in their papers. Another more personal measure is meeting up with peers and discussing one’s work.

When was doing my Ph.D. at Queen’s University my lab was visited by eminent Dutch scientist, Maurice Sabelis, who was organizing a world symposium on mites in Holland. I was invited to go and present my work and this in turn resulted in another publication – “Clements and Harmsen 1992.” Clements and Harmsen (1992) has now been cited 18 times – not exactly a barn-burner, but at least someone’s read it!

Not only that, but at that meeting in Holland I met an expert on the somewhat obscure group of mites (stigmaieds) that I was focusing on.  Talking to Brian Croft (Oregon State University) about my work and his interest in receiving copies of my papers – which he later cited – was a good measure that my publications were not perishing. 

The somewhat impersonal world of submitting papers, receiving anonymous reviews (things must be kept anonymous to reduce bias), and all the (sometimes) heart-wrenching re-writing almost becomes like a game. And after all that one wonders if anyone really reads these works of heart. Personal encounters like I experienced as a budding young scientist with the more seasoned scientist Brian Croft 20 years ago make for defining and affirming moments!



My Ph.D. supervisor, Dolf Harmsen, who guided me through the mystical process of publishing


Papers referred to in this blog:

Clements, D.R. and R. Harmsen.  1990.  Predatory behavior and prey-stage preferences of stigmaeid and phytoseiid mites and their potential compatibility in biological control.  Canadian Entomologist 122: 321-328.

Clements, D.R. and R. Harmsen.  1992.  Stigmaeid-phytoseiid interactions and the impact of the natural enemy complex on plant inhabiting mites.  Experimental and Applied Acarology 14:327-341.

Last updated Jan. 3rd, 2012 at 11:20am by David Clements