The purpose of papers

I have just heard from a friend that there is a yearly quota for the number of papers that needs to be published by a university professor. I have also heard a catch-phrase “Publish or Perish” which is quite popular in academia, and after learning about the quota thing, now I know better what it means.

It is a sad thing to observe that many people write papers just for the sake of fulfilling a quota to maintain or secure a position in the academic hierarchy. Worse still, some even put their names as co-authors for the sake of adding the number of their publications, without actually contributing any thoughts or efforts in a significant way to the resulting research findings.

It is true that not all journals have the same standard or quality. Nature, for example, is now the most highly acclaimed scientific journal in the world. Getting a paper published in it is far from easy. Only very few out of numerous submissions finally find their way into the publication. This, in a way, is good, for even if fulfilling a quota is relatively easier, getting papers published in a highly acclaimed journals are harder. There is standard in academia. Quality is also demanded, not merely quantity.

But even then, that which is meant to act as a standard also has its side effects. I found the following in Wikipedia, on its page about the scientific journal Nature:

Having an article published in Nature is very prestigious, and the articles are often highly cited, leading to promotions, grant funding, and attention from the mainstream media. Because of these positive feedback effects, competition among scientists to publish in high-level journals like Nature and its closest competitor, Science, can be very fierce.

Now what is the common motivation underlying all these phenomena? It is this: the love of self. The purpose of writing papers has been lost to various underlying motivations driven mainly by the hunger for credits, promotions, attention, security, or in summary: the love of self.

Having seen all these, we need to get back to the basic. We need to know what a paper was meant for in the beginning. We need to know what the purpose of writing papers really is. Why do scientists write papers? To answer that we need to ask what is a paper for. Basically, a paper is a media of information transfer. A scientist write papers in order to share his/her research findings to other scientists from the same field, or even those from other related fields. By writing papers, he/she wishes to pass on important ideas to the scientific community, to maintain a continuation of the flow of ideas within the scientific community. In doing that, he/she does not seek recognition in the first place. On the contrary, he/she wishes that other scientists might pick up where he/she leaves and continue on from there. He/she wishes to instil interests in other scientists, with a full realisation that they might have greater resources or capabilities than he/she does, to pick up and continue on from where he/she leaves, and thus accelerating the advancement of knowledge and making greater benefit to the society. Contrary to the love of self, then, the motivation to write papers is the love of others.

Very sadly, though, it is doubtful that many people in academia today still hold that motivation. I could see that the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity does ring true in any vocations. It is a mistaken observation to say that corruption happens only in industrial circles, while academic circles are corruption-free. On the contrary, in academic circles the same corruption happens, too. I still remember during my industrial attachment a colleague told me if I think that in academia dirty politics doesn’t exist, the reality is just the contrary. Dirty plays and politics do exist even in academia, in the very place where you might expect that everything should be objective and fair. For aren’t scientists honest men and women? If not, how can they profess as scientists? If they fake data, imagine how much damaging it is to the community. But we have seen that scientists do fake data. But even if they don’t, even if they are objective in their research and in the communication of it, can you guarantee that they are also honest in their motivations?

To be true in research while not being true in motivation is an evidence of the fact/value split that is rampant nowadays. Objectivity is defined in terms of faithful representation to the natural law only, but not the moral law. Many naturalists today indeed deny the existence of moral law altogether. It is no wonder then to find all the practices that I have mentioned in this article. But to be honest, could you possibly deny the existence of moral law altogether and still profess as a scientist, or in fact, live consistently? However, if God exists, and He is the source of natural laws as well as moral laws, and not only is He the source, but He has also revealed these laws through nature, our conscience, and his Word, then we can live consistently as God’s stewards, tending His creation, i.e. nature, and ambassadors, living and proclaiming His righteousness on earth.

It is my hope that more and more people in academia write papers not for the love of self, but for the love of others.


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