Long players

Albert_Chevallier_Tayler_-_Kent_Vs_Lancashire_1906 copy.jpg
Albert Chevallier Tayler “Kent vs Lancashire 1906”

No matter what the changes to the dissemination of research findings, there will always be a need for scientific papers.

Cricket is a sport adored by millions, and baffling to many. Like most complicated sports, the essence is simple: two teams take turns to try and score as many points as possible. In the youngest versions of the game (Twenty20, or T-Ten), the time each team is given to score points can mean that a contest is completed in around three hours or less, while an older format requires a full day. But the most prestigious form of the game, Test cricket, is played over 4-5 days – and can easily end in a draw.

Whether or not Test cricket is an imperilled form of the game is a perennial debate among fans. The shorter variants are more audience friendly, far more lucrative, and appear better tailored to today’s fast-paced, tweeting, clicking, short attention span world. 

But players and commentators alike are unanimous in their support for the long form of the game. No matter how bombastic the newer brasher versions are, how much more convenient from a scheduling and viewing perspective, Test cricket remains the apex test of both players and teams (and, some might say, spectators too).

It’s the same in the arts. Comic strips of one to four panels are wonderful for online circulation and accumulating likes, retweets, and LOLs, but no-one’s expecting a comic strip to be contending for the Nobel Prize in literature any time soon.

In music, where song introductions have been squeezed and trimmed ever shorter to accommodate incontinent attention spans, it’s still expected for bands to release albums. Even genres where singles remain the primary form of output (such as electronic music), regardless of their sales, often struggle to get taken seriously if that’s all there is to the format, and the artists that do aspire to be anointed as something more than just a DJ and producer will put out an LP.

In science, the dissemination of research data seems currently caught between two impulses. On the one hand, research papers have swelled and lengthened over the years to the point that they often no longer resemble either a novella or a book, but rather some kind of fantasy epic in the style of George R. R. Martin, but without the gratuitous sex.

On the other hand, scientists, being a generally technologically-savvy crowd and ever more possessed of an egalitarian impulse to make their frequently incomprehensible results available to Joe Public, are exploring ways of accelerating data publication. Preprints have transcended mainstream status and are fast becoming mandatory, while social media has provided a low-energy means of rapidly communicating results…in a nutshell. 

It’s interesting to ask where this might lead. We may end up in a future where lab books are online and all data is streamed live to whoever cares to consume it. We could tweet results, and make Facebook postings. Maybe we will. Many of us do already. But it’s hard to shift the sense that no matter how far the pendulum may swing in the other direction – and it certainly needs to move away from its current extreme – there will remain a need for papers. 

Papers represent the synthesis part of scientific activity. In theory, every experiment tests a hypothesis of some kind, but most bench scientists know in actuality a lot of research is simply the collection of observations. We look at something and see what happens under controlled variation of conditions. Whether the hypothesis or the experiment comes first is one of those chicken-and-egg questions that is rich meat for philosophers but thin gruel for practitioners. 

Papers ensure that those collections of observations are moulded into something. The observations are grouped according to a common theme, and arranged into a narrative with a climax but no unhappy endings or setbacks. Some observations make the cut; others don’t.

Hemingway famously argued that he judged his books by the quality of the material he omitted – arguably, the same should be true of papers. It means that there are invariably leftovers bits from projects that never get published, don’t really fit into papers, but which are still good data. What should one do with these cast-offs, financed as they were by public money? A recent and very welcome development is that of Science Matters, a kind of orphanage for observations, where the Oliver Twists of the data world can be published in single-figure form.

Matters offers an intriguing new paradigm for the dissemination of scientific data, with research stories capable of being released in piecemeal fashion like comic strips. With such an option now available, it’s worth asking afresh what the role of publishing is in a scientific context. Clearly, publishing has huge implications in career terms, and a scientist’s CV is gilded by his or her publication list. But what about in knowledge terms? Would knowledge be best advanced by the instantaneous dissemination of research results, or the punctuated output of the research paper form?

Maybe in the future it will be AIs who do the synthesis. And if a paper’s primary impact is reputational then it’s reasonable to assume that with fewer people and more machines involved in science, the need for papers will decline. In a sense, the converse is what has already happened – the current publish-or-perish mindset is the result of the scientific community itself growing, creating added competition for its members, who must now strive to publish longer and better papers to establish reputations. 

Like Test cricket and LPs, it’s in the long form where reputations are really made. And like sex or cooking, most things in life benefit from the investment of extra time. Research results are no different. The ability to produce a paper is the making of a serious scientist. Not just designing and executing a single experiment, but following a trail, bloodhound-like, to get to the fundamental truth of the matter. Cricket prizes the Test form, music prizes the album, and scientists should prize the paper. AIs have not yet taken over, and while it’s a human game, we should all aim to be long players.

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