The bigger picture

It is tempting to think of scientific progress in discrete units: papers. Indeed, graduate students often devote many years on a single paper, and it looms large. Its significance then may be codified by neat numeric metrics. Yet, this view is rather myopic. Revising it not only changes the way we feel about our work (principles) but also the way we chose to communicate research (practice).

Some papers stand out as exceptionally important, but even such exceptional papers depend critically on a body of related research. Take for example Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. As brilliant as they might be, they will mean very little without the follow up experimental papers that confirmed the theoretical predictions. More generally, a single paper can never establish a big discovery. A paper can report a big discovery, but the discovery will not be established until independently reproduced and cross validated in sequel studies.

What about the more typical paper? It’s a part of a continuous body of research that is reported in discrete units mostly because of old customs. The discrete units are intertwined to shape a bigger picture, and thus the significance of a single unit intimately depends on its role in the bigger picture. This thinking shifts the focus from the success of a particular paper to the success of the overall research agenda: If the overall body of work is visible and important, so are its components, even if some of them are published in relatively obscure journals. Thus, if your research is important and at least some parts of it are visible, publishing a particular part of it in a top journal in unlikely to be essential for it to be recognized and become influential.

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