Why I don't publish in peer reviewed journals

February 2, 2012

I don’t publish in peer reviewed journals. Oh, my name is on a few papers where I’ve contributed, and I’ve written a few columns that appeared in otherwise peer reviewed journals, but I have never and have no intention of ever specifically submitting work that is primarily mine to a peer reviewed journal. This astonishes most scientists, who feel that they must submit their work to these places. There is even a feeling that you would only choose not to if you couldn’t manage to be accepted, though given the uneven level of rigor in papers published today, this attitude can only be described as deluded.

But why don’t I publish in these journals?

I do science because I really enjoy the cycle of reexamining what we know for holes, trying to interpolate into them, and then testing the interpolations, and because I value the scientific legacy left to me and I wish to pass it on enriched. Only the second has anything to do with publishing, and it puts the onus on me to communicate my work in the clearest, most generally accessible form possible.

Peer reviewed journals are not a generally accessible form. The papers in them are read only by a few specialists. The writing of such papers is an act of verbal contortion: editors demand extensive results before they will allot one of their competitive slots to a paper, but the slot is sufficiently short that there is no space to describe that work comprehensively, much less clearly. Most papers today don’t include a description of their methods adequate to reproduce the results. Once published, the paper becomes the property of a company with no interest in its general distribution, or even in its preservation, and is thereafter inaccessible to all but a few privileged individuals. This ignores the amount of work, frustration, and political wrangling that goes into forcing a paper through the peer review process.

Given this, why does anyone publish in these journals? It’s part of the game: if you want to advance in academia, you have to publish peer reviewed papers that your peers think highly of. That’s irrelevant to me. I decided before I finished my bachelors degree that I didn’t want to be an academic. Graduate school for me was an offer by a university to pay me while I amused myself with the fun parts of science for a few more years. Unfortunately, the professors where I went didn’t understand this and insisted on treating my presence there as somehow a privilege bestowed on me, but this is beside the point. We’re talking about publishing.

The academics can spend their time fighting to change the peer review system, to curb its excesses and make it function better. They have to. It’s a game they’re forced to play. I don’t have to, and I have no reason to want to. Yes, we need a system of evaluating research to prevent utter crackpottery, to “preserve standards”, but I’m not bringing them down. I required higher standards of myself than most of my colleagues were willing to meet.

I’ll make a promise that’s better than limiting my work to peer reviewed journals: I will train and work as rigorously as possible, and ask scientists I respect to tell me honestly where I have failed and need to improve. I will write my results up as clearly as I can, and make them publicly available as widely as possible.

If you’re required to play the peer review game by your career ambitions, go ahead. I understand. I ask you to understand that my career ambitions require me not to.


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